Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is one of those plants that just beg to be petted. It is soft and bushy like a fox’s tail. It pleads to be stroked as you pass by. Even a gentle hug is OK, as long as the neighbors aren’t looking.
Common fennel ( F. vulgare) is a short-lived perennial herb. It will survive the cold of USDA zone 4 and the heat of USDA Zone 9 summers to grow again another year. Its yellow-green ferny leaves look tantalizingly like dill. Use these leaves, either fresh or dried, as a garnish or herb flavoring. The tiny yellow flowers arrive in summer and ripen into light brown seeds in the fall. All parts of this lovely plant are edible and all of it has a distinctly licorice-like flavor. It will grow four to five feet tall but you can squeeze it into narrow spaces since it can co-exist with larger leaved plants.
Florence fennel (F. vulgare var. azoricum) is short, only two feet tall, and should be sown in the summer and used as a fall crop. It needs cool fall temperatures to develop a bulbous base. This is the fennel whose bulb-like base (actually thickened stems) is used in recipes. Try Linda Weiss fantastic Fennel and Potato Recipe on this website. All parts of the plant are edible, from the tips of its ferny foliage, its seeds, stems, and down to its base.
Bronze fennel (variety ‘Purpureum’) has bronzy purple foliage to about four feet tall. This is a plant lovely enough to use in a container or in the flower border.
Fennel plants are often available as small transplants in garden centers in the spring and early summer. Be careful when moving them to the garden. Fennel resents transplanting. This is one plant that will not take to having its roots tickled before going in the planting hole. Just carefully slip it into its space with as little disturbance to roots as possible.
You can also grow it yourself from seed. In fact, it might self-seed in the garden patch. Sow the seed four times its width deep in full sun. If you are growing the azoricum for its bulbous base, thin the plants to eight to twelve inches apart. Fennel also prefers a somewhat alkaline soil so add lime if your soil is on the acid side.
There are only a couple of problems associated with fennel and one is really no problem at all. Its leaves will turn brown if the plant roots get too dry. Give it consistent water so that it doesn’t wilt. If wilting and the resulting brown fronds appear, just trim them off. The other problem, caterpillar damage, is a huge reason many people grow fennel in the first place. It is a food plant for swallowtail butterflies. It is a must have plant in the butterfly garden.
Caterpillars are not terribly attractive on our fennel and will eat away many of the leaves, but who can resist the undulations and sway of the butterflies they become? They reward us with such movement and beauty in the garden that I think we should plant plenty of fennel just for them.