Although it's a member of the carrot family, it's not a root vegetable. The big, crunchy bulb grows above ground. At the end of the stalks are light, feathery leaves with yellow blooms resembling dill

yellow fennel bloom

Fennel Is Both Herb And Vegetable

Indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, fennel has naturalized in many parts of the world, especially on dry soil near seacoasts and riverbanks.

There are two types of sweet fennel. Foeniculum vulgare is the common herb type known for the anise flavor of its leaves and seeds. The second type is Florence fennel, also known by its Italian name, finocchio.

fennel salad with olives and grapefruit

(Shaved fennel salad: Ralph Daily from Birmingham, United States / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

The herb type grows 3-5 feet tall with finely textured foliage resembling dill. Clusters of flat-topped yellow flowers appear in late summer. Stems, leaves, and seeds of this type of fennel can be harvested.

Florence, or bulbing fennel (F. vulgare var. azoricum), is shorter with darker green foliage and is grown for its large, thick, bulbous base. Both forms have the anise, or licorice, flavor.

fennel bulbs

(Photo of green fennel mine)

Bronze Variety Fennel

Usually grown as an annual, bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare 'Rubrum') is a beautiful culinary herb that goes well with all kinds of fish dishes, especially salmon and other fatty fish. It provides a unique anise flavor and is one of the main ingredients in Italian sausage. You can use bronze fennel and green fennel interchangeably in dishes.

Add some bronze fennel to your garden as a striking backdrop for other plants. This vital host plant for Eastern Black Swallowtail and Anise Swallowtail butterflies provides food, shelter, and protection for these pollinators and their young.

bronze fennel plant

Grow Fennel

The plant prefers a warm, dry climate with soil that isn't too acidic. However, it can survive in a variety of climates.

Start bulb fennel seeds indoors in early spring, about 8 weeks before last frost. Plant after frost danger has passed. Fennel likes fertile, well-drained soil. Bulb fennel must have moisture so plant it near access to water. Mix an application of a balanced organic fertilizer into the soil before planting. Space plants 12 or more inches apart.

Start seeds for a fall planting of bulb fennel in midsummer, and set them out about 8 weeks before the first frost date for your location. Harvest bulbs before the first hard freeze.

Fennel seeds can be sown directly about three weeks before the last spring frost date.

fennel seeds

Herb fennel is grown just like bulb fennel; one or two plants is usually enough for most families. Fennel plants grown for the fronds and seeds grow to around 5 feet and are best situated in the back of the garden.

Weed bulb fennel seedlings carefully. Drench plants with a liquid organic fertilizer when they are around 12 inches tall. In early summer, mulch with grass clippings or another organic mulch to retain soil moisture and produce large, crisp bulbs. However, mulching too early can delay soil warming and entice slugs. Once bulb formation begins, don't allow the plants to dry out.

Fennel Harvesting and Storage

Harvest fennel bulbs that are more than 2 inches in diameter when you want to use them in the kitchen. Bulb fennel plants grown in spring do not get extremely large and should be harvested before the weather turns hot. If you cut the bulb high, letting the root and base of the bulb remain in the soil, the stub will regrow a few small crowns with miniature fennel fronds you can use in dishes.

With half of the tops trimmed off, fennel bulbs will keep in plastic bags in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Excess bulb fennel can be blanched and frozen.

Fennel Propagation

All types of fennel produce yellow flowers followed by seeds in mid-to-late summer. To save seed, let two adjoining plants flower and set seeds. When flower heads are brown, dry, and the seeds begin to fall off, collect them in a paper bag. Allow to dry indoors for a week. When thoroughly dry, shatter the seed heads and collect the largest seeds for replanting and using in the kitchen. Fennel seeds can be stored up to five years under proper conditions.

One caveat when growing fennel: don't plant it near dill. Dill and fennel will cross-pollinate.

Pan-fried Fennel

roasted fennel and potato dish

Pan-fried fennel develops a lovely caramelized crust and its strong anise flavor mellows and sweetens. Use ½-1 bulb per serving. Trim stems from fennel bulb and save to thin-slice for salads. Cut bulbs into 4 pieces with the root still intact to hold them together. Use smaller baby potatoes whole or slice larger potatoes. If slicing, use a waxy potato such as 'Yukon Gold' or 'Red Bliss' with the skin on. Add 1/8-1/4 purple onion per serving, sliced through the root to keep the onion intact while cooking. Fry slowly over medium-high heat in good quality olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped fennel fronds.

Fennel Tea

Steep fennel seeds in boiling water for 5-10 minutes, depending on desired strength. Strain and serve. Tea can be reheated.

making fennel tea

Candied Fennel Seeds (Snauf Mukhwas)

A traditional after dinner treat in Indian cuisine, they're a sweet treat, mouth freshener, and digestion aid all-in-one.

candied fennel snack

(Fennel seed candy photo; Nicolas1981 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)