Fennel – Friend or Foe
As production nurseries we have a lot of ethical issues that are important for the industry. In the last couple of issues I discussed the importance of correctly named plants. I believe that this is one of the most critical of all the things we have to get right. Many people have lost a lot of money due to incorrectly named plants. Another issue that has been around for many years is weeds. If propagators and wholesale nurseries stop growing weedy plants many will quickly disappear from the trade.
The problem is that some weedy plants are also important food or fibre crops. The community want or need them and are willing to accept the weediness due to a greater benefit. Usually these plants have been bred or selected from to find less weedy cultivars which we should all be stocking. A classic one is the popular herb, fennel.
Anise/liquorice is a classic flavour that occurs in many different plants. One of the strongest sources is that found in the leaves and seeds of Fennel. It is a traidtional herb that has been grown for thousands of years and has the Latin name Foeniculum vulgare. It is a single species genus and there are two sub-species as well as the type. It is native to the Mediterranean region and has become naturalised in many countries. In Australia the type species (commonly called Sweet Fennel) is classed as an environmental weed in most states and a declared weed in Victoria.
There are two sub species that are not banned: Foeniculum vulgare rubrun (know as Bronze Fennel) and Foeniculum vulgare azoricum. The latter is also known as Foeniculum vulgare dulce and is commonly called Florence Fennel or Bulb Fennel. These are still easy to grow but are less likely to spread their seed. Even so when selling them the customer should be advised to either harvest before seed set or if they want the seed then prior to it becoming ripe.
Both forms are excellent in the landscape due to their ease of growth and reliable performance. The foliage makes an attractive back ground to a herb, veggie or perennial garden bed. They also look good in a water or wet garden where they will grow very well.
The plants are very attractive in the garden with their delightful feathery foliage and attractive yellow flowers. Bronze Fennel has soft bronze green foliage that adds year round color to the veggie patch. It is quite easy to grow requiring part to full sun, some summer moisture and a neutral soil. Growing to around 1.7 m it is best grown in a large pot or at the back of the herb and vegetable garden. With its large size and rapid growth habit it may slow down the growth of other annual herbs. However it is also thought of as a good plant for the garden as it attracts the beneficial insects that feed on the pests.
All parts have a strong aniseed flavour that have a wide range of culinary and medicinal uses. They can all be used in the kitchen, the fine leaves are good in salads, sandwiches and as late addition to stir fries. The thicker stems can be used instead of celery in salads and soups. The seeds have the strongest flavour of all and are a key ingredient in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. They are a refreshing addition to herbal teas, in sandwiches and dips. They are also widely used in baking and the preparation of sweet deserts and cakes. There are a couple of extra strong alcoholic drinks made using the seed.
The bronze form has similar uses and adds color to a garden salad. One of the nicest parts is the ‘bulb’ at the base of the stems of Florence Fennel. It can be eaten raw, steamed, fried or baked and is tasty and very healthy. Unfortunately the bulb needs to be harvested prior to seed set so at least two plants are needed. Use the bronze variety for the seed and foliage and the Florence for the bulbs and stems. To harvest good bulbs it is important that the plant is not allowed to dry so it should be watered frequently during the warmer months. Dry conditions will bring on the flowers and then the seed.
Like so many vegetables the bulb is best harvested before it gets too large – ideal size is about that of a cricket ball. This is usually from mid summer to late autumn. With a sharp nice cut off the top of the foliage – leave on some stem to use in the kitchen – and cut across the bulb at soil level. The bulbs will store for several days in the fridge, a bit longer if they are going to be cooked prior to eating.
The plant will flower in late summer and the seed will set soon after. Allow to dry on the plant and harvest when they brown off. They will drop easily so care should be taken. A muslin bag can be tied over the seeds once they have set but before they ripen. Once harvested they can be stored in a cool dark place for 6 to 9 months.
The bulb is high in fibre, low in calories and a good source of Vitamin C and mineral like iron, potassium and calcium. The seeds are excellent sources of all these as well as Vitamins A, E and some of the B complexes. The seeds contain several anti-oxidants that help with overall health. They also help with digestion, improve the eyesight and are said to help milk production for nursing mothers. Fennel is seen a s healthy spice that will add in strength courage and durability. They were used by many of the ancient Greek Olympians for extra strength prior to competing.
Fennel is a popular plant for cooks and gardeners. It is good for taste, for health, as a companion plant and for small and large landscapes. It is not ‘new’ and is easy to produce so usually sells for a reasonable price. It is a multi tasking plant that will reward not so skilled gardeners and encourage them to come back for more.