Any plant that can multitask is a plant I want in my garden. Sweet Fennel lives up to this expectation very well as most of the plant is edible, as well as attractive. Oh yeah, pollinators like bees and butterflies love it, too!
*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
Feathery leaves are held up on firm, thick stalks that can grow up to 6 feet high, or even higher, though more frequently top out at 5 feet. During the summer, umbrella shaped flower clusters will appear at the tops of the stalks in a bright yellow color. Eventually the flowers will produce seeds that cling to the tips of the old flower stalks.
Fennel is often grown as an annual, but the reality is that it will live for several years. The foliage dies back in the fall but new growth will regenerate from the roots in the spring in zones 5 and up. Though Sweet Fennel is often seen growing wild along the California coastline (thanks to early Spanish settlers), it is native to the Mediterranean. Like other plants from there, Sweet Fennel is drought tolerant. It also prefers full sun, but ours actually gets several hours of light shade in the morning and hasn’t complained.
The flowers attract bees and butterflies, but also aphids and whiteflies. No worries, though, I frequently see lady bugs and small birds feasting on them! If needed, a blast of water from a hose is often enough to dislodge those pests from your plant. Later, as the seeds form where the flowers were, other birds may come in to nibble, but there are usually enough seeds left over for harvesting.
Sweet Fennel’s flavor is comparable to licorice, but not to the extent as what is found in artificially flavored candy. It is not quite the same as anise, but very similar. All edible parts of the plant will have the same flavor, but to different intensities. The parts used from Sweet Fennel are the leaves, pollen from the flowers, and the seeds. This is not Florence Fennel that produces the bulbs, so the roots of Sweet Fennel are not used.
To gather the pollen, shake the flowers gently after they are open over a tray. You’ll want to leave some behind if you are hoping for seeds, so don’t be too quick to shake out all the flowers. This spice is used in a variety of Italian dishes. Harvesting the leaves simply involves trimming off what you would like to use, though you can also harvest extra for drying. To dry the leaves, rinse them well and shake them gently to remove excess water, snip off the leaves from any tough stems, and lay them between clean towels on a tray until they are completely dry. Store them in glass jars or thick plastic containers, not plastic bags as those allow flavor to escape (they are not as air tight as they would seem).
To gather the seeds, wait until they have turned brown on the plant. If birds are eating your seeds before you can, put up bird netting around the plant to keep them away. Cut the seed heads over a bowl or paper bag to prevent the seeds from scattering. If you want to plant the seeds, just keep them in a paper bag somewhere cool and dry. If you want to cook with them, you will want to clean your seeds because they are not protected by an outer covering.
Start by pulling the seeds away from the stems over a colander. You will have other debris still, so shake the seeds in the colander of a tray to allow larger stems to stay behind. Pick out as much non-seed material as you can, then rinse the seeds in a strainer. Rub them around under the water to dislodge dirt and debris. You will need to quickly dry the seeds to prevent them from sprouting or going moldy. After you shake off as much water as you can, dump the wet seeds on some towels laid on a tray to absorb the extra water and spread them around as thinly as you can. I then put the tray into the oven set at the lowest temperature with the door cracked open. This allows for enough heat to dry out the seeds, but without damaging the compounds that give the seeds their flavor. Once they are dry, store them in a glass or thick plastic container.
- Perennial: Plants will live for several years
- Deciduous: stems and leaves will die back in fall
- Height: can get up to 6+ feet
- Width: about 3-5
- Sun: full sun, but will tolerate some morning or afternoon shade
- Water: drought tolerant, but will grow fuller with regular water
- Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
- Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
- Key nutrients: fertilize as you would for other flowering plants, but likely not needed
- Planting time: easy to start from seed in spring
- Zones: 5-11