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Master Gardener Column

Herb of the Month: Fennel

Arlene Hamilton (Master Gardener)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a beautiful tender perennial growing to a height of 4 feet or more in the southern garden. 

It’s a relative of dill, coriander, caraway, cumin, carrot and Queen Anne’s lace. 

You might find it in the produce isle of your grocery store referred to as anise. The most common culinary fennels are green, bronze and Florence or bulb fennel. 

Florence fennel forms a bulb base that can be sliced and served raw as a salad or sautéed and presented as a vegetable. 

The ripe seeds of the plant add a soft taste of anise to puddings, spiced beets, breads, teas, sauces, liqueurs and Italian sausage. 

Many Asian Indian restaurants have a bowl of seeds at the checkout counter, offered as a breath freshener and digestion aid as you depart. 

The delicately flavored leaves and stems are suited for relishes, salads and garnishes. 

Fennel leaf adds a wonderful flavor to fish and helps reduce the fish odor. 

Fennel stalks make a delicious bed for salmon or other whole grilled fish.

Fennel is easy to grow from seed in early spring or fall. Both bronze and green leaf varieties are readily available as seedlings from local herb growers in the spring. 

Once established the plants can grow from 3 to 5 feet high when in bloom. Fennel is very hardy and drought tolerant but extra water improves its appearance. 

Harvest mature seeds and store in a dry dark place. Collect and use the leaves fresh. They lose their flavor when dried. Bronze fennel adds a striking background appearance to a vegetable, herb or flower garden and is a favorite plant in my garden. 

Although many herb growers consider swallowtail butterflies a pest to fennel, dill and parsley I suggest you plant extra for these beautiful creatures. 

The striped caterpillars which feed on these herbs will pupate then emerge as gorgeous swallowtail butterflies. 

Since my backyard is organic and a Certified Wildlife Habitat my butterfly population has exploded. 

Unfortunately, so has the population of predators such as birds and lizards whose favorite food is fat caterpillars. 

One recent day we counted more than twenty caterpillars on the fennel. 

The next morning all were gone while the cardinals, blue jays, and mockingbirds perched nearby looking like innocent observers.

During the past few weeks my screened porch has become a caterpillar nursery and I’ve become a doting mother making countless trips to the garden to replenish the food supply for 15 hungry babies. 

I spent most of last evening corralling four of the little darlings as they searched for a more secluded place to pupate. 

As of today there has been one successful hatching, five pupae, and ten fennel munching caterpillars growing fatter by the day.

The nursery has added a whole new dimension to gardening and reinforces my love of organic gardening. 

My grandsons will arrive in a few days and I will send some pupae home with them. 

I also plan to take some over to the master gardener’s butterfly garden on the hike and bike trail. My fennel supply is not sufficient to feed the number of eggs this brood of butterflies will produce.

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