Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
BOTANICAL NAME: Foeniculum vulgare. Translates to common (vulgare) little hay (foeniculum), the latter of which refers to the shape of fennel leaves.
ORIGIN: Thought to have originated in Italy, fennel was a favourite food and medicine of the Romans.
DESCRIPTION: There are at least two main types of fennel. There is a huge difference between the pungent, roadside weedy fennel and the much-loved, sweet garden Florence fennel, which is also called Finocchio, and has large, swollen stem bases.
Check with your Italo-Australian connections for fennel seeds such as Cantino and Carosella.
An exceptionally fine flavoured strain of fennel was brought to Australia early this century by the Afghans and is now growing well as a companion plant in apple orchards at Pialligo in Canberra. Fennel has an important role in organic orchards, acting as a host for wasps which prey on plant-eating insects.
CULTIVATION: Grow fast for leaf production and fertilise well for large stem bases.
SAVING THE SEED: Fennel is a biennial and is insect pollinated. The fennel you have in the garden will cross with the wild fennel if the two are growing within 400 metres of one another.
After the seed head develops (needing no support), yellow flowers appear on umbels. The green seeds dry progressively on the bush, turning brown. They can be harvested as each umbel ripens. Dry on a sheet of paper, thresh and store in jars when bone dry.
STORAGE: The seeds are oblong, ribbed and light brown. They will last for four years in good storage. There are 500 seeds to the gram.
USE: The swollen stem base of Florence fennel is served cooked with your choice of sauce (cheesy, milky, wine or piquant). It is also good raw, pared cross-wise and added to salads. It is an appropriate accompaniment to pasta meals.
When fennel goes to seed, it has multiple uses. The shoots that grow along branches to become seed heads are absolutely tender and crunchy, the flowers are profuse and delicious, and the anise-tasting seeds are eaten as a mouth-freshener.
Tea made with fennel seeds is said to cure hiccups and expel accumulations of mucus.
Adapted from The Seed Savers’ Handbook by Michel and Jude Fanton (Seed Savers’ Network 1993)