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Eat Your Weeds: Wild Fennel

fennel
Photos by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman

Wild fennel Foeniculum vulgare also called fenkel, sweet fennel, finule, is a hardy, frost tolerant biennial or short-lived perennial in the carrot family. It originated in the Mediterranean basin and has naturalised in many parts of the world. It was first recorded in Australia in 1803, and is widely distributed here. Its preferred habitat is rough terrain: empty lots, beside roads and railway lines, in fields, on hillsides and ocean cliffs. It’s particularly well-adapted to disturbed soils, which has enabled its rampant spread.

Fennel is one of the nine sacred healing plants of pre-Christian Europe; one of the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ of Anglo-Saxon cosmology. Wild fennel is different from the cultivated variety, which has flavourless leaves but an edible, fibrous, iron-rich bulb. Wild fennel doesn’t produce a bulb, but it does produce a thick perennial rootstock. It has highly aromatic leaves and seeds that offer both medicinal and culinary uses and, alongside similar-tasting anise, is one of the primary ingredients in the liqueur absinthe. Wild fennel releases allelopaths (chemical inhibitors) so doesn’t make good a companion for tomatoes and beans.

Description

Fennel’s green feathery leaves sprout in the spring from last year’s roots, resembling dill. Tall stems grow up to 2.5 metres by autumn. Tiny blossoms are clustered in an explosion of yellow umbrellas on top of the stems, which produce hundreds of seeds. The plant reproduces by seed and by taproot, which is branched and stout.

Living and dead hollow stems grow beside each other during the growing season. Foragers need to be vigilant when harvesting wild fennel seed in the winter months: the canelike stems and leaves die back, and at this stage it can appear very similar to deadly hemlock, which belongs to the same family. However, hemlock seeds have no smell, so use your nose and smell for the licorice-like aroma.

fennel
Photos by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman

Uses

The ancient Greeks called wild fennel Marathron – from maraino which means to grow thin – and it is still used today to aid slimming. The soft green stems can be peeled like celery and added to salads or cooked. Seeds can be used to flavour stews, breads, soups, teas and ferments. The feathery green leaves, chopped fine, make an aromatic garnish for any summer meal, and can also be cooked to flavour soups.

Fennel is also regarded as a honey plant, bees love it. Fennel honey has been used to treat gastritis and intestinal parasite worms, colds, coughs, bloating and water retention. As well as a medicine plant, fennel is used in beauty treatments. It is high in manganese, potassium, vitamins A and C, and iron. Its aromatic aniseed flavour comes from the compound anethole, which has powerful antimicrobial properties.

If you have a question about gardening with weeds, you can email us at theartistasfamily@gmail.com.

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