Fennel - a tasty weed?
There are many ‘scents’ or ‘flavours’ that are dominant in a wide variety of unrelated plants. The most common is lemon and next is ‘aniseed’ or ‘liquorice’. This is a very strong flavor that occurs in many different species. In some cases, like Mexican tarragon it is quite mild and in others like Anice it is quite strong. Most of us know the flavor through the widely available liquorice sweets. Mostly we are all familiar with the soft chewy treat known as liquorice.
Liquorice comes from the root of the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra but the taste pops up all over the place. This plant is the subject of a later article. This month we are looking at one of the world’s most widely spread aniseed flavoured plant, Fennel. This plant is Foeniculum vulgare which is the only species in the genus but it has three distinct cultivars or subspecies. These are the Sweet or Commmon Fennel, Bronze Fennel and Florence or Bulb Fennel.
Fennel is thought to be one of the oldest cultivated herbs going back to ancient Egypt in 2000 BC. It is a tough perennial that will grow in a wide range of different conditions. So much so that in m any parts of the world it has become a naturalised weed. It is originally from the countries around the Mediterranean and as such is most weedy in those areas with dry summers and moist winters. Sweet Fennel is a declared weed in Victoria but Bronze and Azoricum are permitted.
As can be expected with a plant that has been around for so long it has many mythical, religious and general cultural references. The Greek word for Fennel is 'maratho' and gave its name to the field in Greece where the 'Marathon' was first run. The story of fire tells us that Prometheus, who clashed with Zeus due to his empathy with mortals, stole fire and hid it in a stalk of Fennel to give to the humans on earth. In ancient England it was one of nine herbs with secret powers. It was believed that if it was hung above the door it would repel witches.
The plants are tough and have large hollow stems that can get to 2.5m in height. The leaves are quite large getting to 45cm long and are very finely divided giving a definite feathery appearance. The end parts of the leaves are as narrow as 0.5mm and on young plants look much like its culinary relative, Dill. The leaves are an attractive light green (except for Bronze Fennel which has smoky brown leaves). The flowers occur in large umbels at the end of long green stems. They are tiny flowers but the umbels can get to 10cm wide and make a very attractive site when in full flower.
Again with such an old and widely spread herb it has become a key ingredient in many different cuisines. Although the leaves are often used in teas and salads it is the seed that is most widely used. They are 5-8mm wide and light brown in colour. They have a rich aniseed aroma when crushed or ground. Florence Fennel produces a large white bulb like organ at the base of the leaves. This is an old cultivar that has become a popular vegetable in many parts of the world. The flowers have the strongest flavour and are a great addition to salads. All parts can be eaten raw or cooked.
It has a wide range of uses and is popular as a natural alternative to many common medicines. It is usually milder than processed products but as a natural herb has other benefits. The strong, pleasant flavour means that is also used widely to disguise more unpleasant tasting medicines - commercial and natural. Over time it has been widely thought to aid in digestion, to act as an appetite suppressant and has also been used to aid in curing coughs and colds. It has strong calming properties and is good tension.
With its strong aroma it is a popular addition to pot-pourri and topical lotions for both humans and animals. It is also a key ingredient in the manufacture of absinthe and as part of the tasty little snacks offered after eating an Indian meal.
Plant Fennel anywhere in the garden. It is a large and attractive plant that is best suited to the rear of the garden. As an individual plant it is not invasive but it produces large numbers of quick germinating seed. The seed should be harvested and used in cooking to avoid any weed potential. Place the dried seed in a pepper grinder and use as table condiment or even grate fresh seed into herbal tea.
A couple of quick recipes:
Fennel and Cucumber yoghurt dip.
500 ml Greek style yoghurt
½ cup finely chopped cucumber
1 teaspoon of fennel seed
1 tblspn of finely chopped fennel leaves.
Finely chop dill and mint – keep some for garnish
Toss with cucumber.
Let sit for ten minutes then mix with cucumber.
Add garnish and serve.
Refreshing Fennel Salad.
2 medium fennel bulbs,
1 medium carrot.
10 leaves of fresh mint.
Coarse grate the fennel into a bowl. Do the same for the carrot. Finely chop the mint then add to the bowl. Mix thoroughly and serve with a sprig of fennel. Place in a fresh crusty roll for an interesting lunch