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Fennel offers beauty and taste

By David Bare
Maybe it is the confusion over fennel that has kept it from becoming more popular. Is it an herb or vegetable? Do you eat the stalks or the leaves? Is it annual or perennial? Large or small growing? It is actually all of these things and beautiful to boot.
All these forms of fennel come from one species  Foeniculum vulgare. We sometimes encounter fennel in herb gardens as a towering eight foot giant. This plant is bright green and topped by yellow umbrella shaped flowers. It resembles a larger version of dill, to which it is related. Another variety has leaves of an almost chocolate brown color. This is bronze fennel Foeniculm vulgare ‘ Purparescens’ and is used as a decorative backdrop in herb gardens and sometimes perennial borders.
Fennel is best described as having a faint anise or licorice taste though neither approaches the delicate flavors of fennel. There is little of fennel that is not edible. The roots, stems, leaves and seeds can all be eaten and lately fennel pollen has become trendy. It is being sprinkled on everything from pork to pasta. Another added benefit to having fennel in the garden is the plants ability to draw in beneficial insects while in bloom. A flowering fennel plant is a virtual landing strip for wasps and bees of all sorts and you are likely to see ladybugs and ambush bugs in the mix. All are great to have around the garden as pollinators and protectors of your vegetable crops.
The wild fennel and its bronze counterpart are treated as perennials in the garden. They want a bright sunny spot and plenty of room to grow. They will sink a deep taproot into just about any soil and once established their water needs are minimal/. The plant dies to ground each year and forms again in spring from a feathery crown of basal leaves. The leaves can be harvested at anytime though as with all herbs they are at their best just as the dew dries on them. Fennel seed can be used green or dried and the pollen can be harvested by shaking the flowers into a paper bag.
Bulbing fennel or finocchio, Foeniculum vulgare var Azoricum, is a singularly beautiful plant with its wisps of feathery foliage erupting from a clean white bulb like form. Actually it is not a bulb but a swollen mass of stems. Finocchio is eaten like a vegetable and grown like a carrot or a beet. The ‘bulb’ forms above ground at soil level. It should be treated as a cool season crop, planted in early spring and again in September from seed. Because you are harvesting the bulb, finocchio is treated like an annual.
This plant is so pretty that it begs to be planted along large leaved plants such as lettuce, mustard or cabbage where its thread thin foliage can contrast against these bold leaved plants. Finocchio takes about two and half months to reach harvest size from seed, though it can be brought in smaller. If you leave fennel in the ground too long it will begin to flower or ‘bolt’ and the stems will become hard and woody.
Like the other members of its family; dill, parsley, and cilantro, fennel has a hard seed coat that benefits from an overnight soak in a cup of water. Empty the water and seed into a sieve and then knock the seed out onto a paper towel. Rolling the seed around on the paper towel makes them easier to sow without clumping up in a wet mass. If you sow these herbs inside in pots remember that they all have long tap roots and you must take care not to break them when planting.
Finocchio is a wonderful companion to fish. Sauté pieces of the bulb with onion for a few minutes until slightly softened and then use them as bed for baked fish. Serve the fish with the fennel and onions. Save a few of those beautiful leaves for garnish.

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