Why we love fennel

Fennel is an invasive plant, and there are plenty of fennel haters out there, many of them our friends, but every year we let a stand or two of wild fennel take root in our yard anyway. We just had to pause now, while the fennel is high, to say that we love it, because it is hardy and beautiful and grows with no water and no encouragement. Feral fennel bulbs aren’t as good as cultivated bulbs for eating, but we eat the flowers, the fronds and the seeds from these wild stands.

But the real reason we let it grow is because fennel attracts more beneficial insects than any other plant, native or imported, that we’ve ever grown in our yard. It’s impossible to photograph, but our fennel stand is swarming all day, every day, with flying insects of every sort, honeybees, wasps, butterflies, ladybugs and many, many small pollinators which we cannot name. At least ten species at any given glance. It is truly a sight to behold.

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  1. Love your post. I’ve been reading your blog for some time now, and I love how you make the most of what nature has to offer. Thanks for sharing.

    Montreal (Canada)

  2. I started allowing my bulbing-type fennel to form flowers. That way I get the best of all worlds — flowers, beneficial insects, seeds, fronds, and those luscious bulbs as well.

    The bulbing fennel will perennialize here in L.A. — simply slice the stem just beneath the bulb and allow the deep roots to stay intact. (The “bulbs” are really fat stems, not bulbs like daffodils) With the next year’s rains your fennel bulb harvest will be even better.

    Once your plant is growing like this, some early stems will form bulbs and other later stems will form flowers. (i.e. don’t let a luscious-looking bulb age so long that it flowers)

    I don’t recommend allowing the wild type fennel to perennialize — you’ll never be able to remove the full rootball (it’s like a woody bird-of-paridise root, goes on forever). And once you try the bulbing type, you’ll see all the benefits are there plus the bulb vegetable.

    On either type of fennel, don’t overlook the green seedpods — just as they plump up, and prior to drying. Nibble them as a gardener’s zingy-flavored treat, or take them indoors to sprinkle on a salad.

    As far as “invasive plant” – I sometimes allow the escaped sprouts to grow to about 6-8″ high. By this time the base has formed a tiny thickness, pre-bulb. They’re very easy to weed out/harvest at this point and a fistful of baby fennels makes a nice stir-fry or braise.

    Notes in cookbook “My Calibria” say that the Southern Italians harvest the fennel seed early, and invert the heads to dry indoors. If you have trouble with spiderwebs or with black dusty-stuff like I do some years, this is the trick.

    Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Food has a wickedly good, simple, appreciate-the-fine-flavor recipe for fennel bulbs. It’s all in the technique.

    Treeswing, thanks for the pollen link – perfect time of year to try it!

    Joanne P, Los Angeles/Westchester

  3. This is the exact reason we left the wild mustard that came up in our garden to go ahead and grow. Nothing else in our yard, intentionally planted or otherwise, has such amazing bee-attracting abilities. We did try to harvest some of the seeds, which made for a really spicy condiment, but the effort involved was not really worth it. But I’ll definitely keep it around for the masses of pretty yellow flowers.

  4. thanks so much for that info! do i recall you writing a post quite a while ago about harvesting fennel pollen? i would really like to know how to do that.

  5. @Paleo: You know, any fennel is going to work well for you, in terms of flowers and beneficial insects, so you could buy cultivated fennel seeds and just let those plants go to flower and seed. They’ll naturalize. There’s a thin line between wild and cultivated fennel.

  6. We have a lot of fennel growing around here too, and love the fronds for salads and green smoothies.

    I’m just not allowed to plant it in the garden!

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