Native to the shores of the Mediterranean, fennel has naturalized in many parts of the world. It’s a hardy perennial that grows happiest in a sunny spot with adequate moisture and well-drained soil. It self-sows freely, especially in West Coast states, where itis a weedy garden escapee and even listed invasive. In Tallahassee, however, fennel is not invasive and is very popular with pollinators, as well as a useful culinary herb and vegetable.
Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, has a long and varied history of use. British farmers rubbed a mixture of fennel seeds, soap, and salt on the blade of their plow to strengthen the land and encourage better harvests. Similarly for fertility, fennel was thrown at newlyweds instead of rice. For protection, fennel was hung over the doorway during the Summer Solstice to keep away evil spirits and the seeds put into keyholes to keep out ghosts. Medicinally, the Egyptians and Chinese used it to strengthen eyesight and to settle an upset stomach. Fennel seeds are still praised today for their great nutritional and medicinal value. They contain a number of unique phytonutrients, one of which is known for its powerful inflammatory and cancer fighting properties. Today fennel is most commonly used for its crisp, yet delicate flavor and aroma in cooking.
Fennel is considered both an herb and a vegetable, depending on how it is prepared. The bulb can be fried, pickled, baked and more. The seeds are often used as an herb for flavoring foods. The leaves are sometimes used in salads, and the flower is used as a lacy garnish. Fennel lends a bright anise flavor to potatoes, rice, eggs, cheese spreads, salmon, salad dressings, herb butters, and breads. The stalks are delicious in place of celery in lentil soup or vegetable stew. The fennel seeds make a tasty addition to pickled beets and the bulb is wonderfully paired raw with salads or roasted with root vegetables.
In addition to its kitchen contributions, planting fennel will attract beneficial insects to the garden. Its leaves are a favorite food source for the caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies. By mid-summer in Tallahassee, the Swallowtails butterflies begin laying their eggs on fennel, and in no time a plant can be covered in hungry caterpillars, soon to be butterflies.
In the garden, fennel can grow up to 4-5 feet tall with finely divided feathery green leaves and bright yellow umbrella-shaped flowers. The verdant green color of 'Florence' fennel adds a soft touch in the herb garden, or choose 'Bronze' fennel, for a darker and deeper point of interest. Both will attract the Black Swallowtail butterflies, but the 'Florence' fennel produces the larger, bulbous base for cooking. This herb makes a good border, or, when intermittently placed among shorter specimens, creates an unusual garden skyline and even more alluring, a wildlife habitat.
Whether grown for its culinary value or for wildlife habitat, growing fennel is an easy and attractive addition to your garden. Cold-hardy fennel can be planted now, and year round here in Tallahassee. I've included a favorite fennel recipe to inspire your kitchen creations below.
Baked Pear And Fennel Stacks
Sliced pears sandwiched with fennel, coated in warm spices and sugar and baked to perfection. Then drenched in a super easy white wine reduction and maybe a scoop of vanilla ice cream; a very flavorful, comforting dessert dish.
3 ripe pears
1 stalk fennel
1 tbsp coconut oil (or butter)
Raw honey to drizzle
1/2 cup Brown sugar
1 cup white wine
1 tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Slice pears horizontally - thickness to your preference.
3. Slice fennel bulb in a similar fashion.
4. Coat your baking skillet or dish with melted coconut oil and honey.
5. Place your slices evenly throughout the dish. Garnish with the fennel stems and cinnamon sticks.
6. Before baking, pour a quick mixture of coconut oil, honey, brown sugar, and spices over the pears and fennel, evenly.
7. While your dish is baking, whisk together your reduction: white wine and vinegar over the stove, with brown sugar until syrup thickens.
8. When your pear and fennel is done baking, create your stacks by alternating between the two.
9. Dress with your reduction.