Growing fennel in the garden or taking advantage of the many wild plants in Sonoma County can give your culinary cabinet a boost in several different ways—through its pollen, oil, seeds, fronds, and root. Garden-grown fennel is the safest to use; it is not advisable to collect wild fennel growing close to a road and risk dangers from pollutants.
In the Garden
- Grow sweet fennel cultivars to harvest pollen, leaves, and seeds for herbal use. Grow cultivars of Florence fennel to harvest the bulbous base.
- Sow seeds of Foeniculum vulgare cultivars in warm, light, humus-rich soil and avoid heavy clay. Sow fennel in late winter indoors for transplanting 6 in. apart in April.
- Sow indoors and transplant in mid-summer for harvest in fall to avoid bolting in hot weather.
- Allow seedlings to develop sufficient root mass before transplanting. Root disturbance may cause bolting. Cover the soil with mulch for weed control and moisture retention.
- Keep soil bed moist until fronds are several inches tall then allow the ground to dry out about 1 in. below the surface. Overwatering causes rot.
- Encourage the large bulbous base of Florence fennel to form by clipping off any seed stalks that appear. Grow sweet fennel for stalks that produce pollen and seeds.
- Expect baby bulbs in about 2 months after planting; full size bulbs take longer, 2½ -3 months.
- Use a knife or sharp pruners to cut bulbs just above the large taproot. Prune off leafy stems to 1-2 in. on the bulbs before storing up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Store fronds for 1 week.
- Harvest sweet fennel flower heads to retrieve creamy yellow pollen but leave enough heads intact to develop seed for collection later.
- Cut heads when pollen is warm and dry. For fresh pollen, shake or tap heads into a deep bowl to release pollen. For dried pollen, place heads tied together in a paper bag for a few days to dry in a warm place and wait for it to drop out.
- Alternatively, shake pollen from each plant in flower by bending stems into a bag and gently shaking pollen loose. Expect to harvest less than a half teaspoon from each flower head.
- Use pollen sparingly on food at first to determine its strength. Its flavor is similar to anise.
- Collect several blossoms and let dry 3-4 days before covering with 4-6 oz. of olive oil in a jar. Keep the jar air tight for 3-7 days on a countertop before using flavored oil.
- Clip ½ cup fennel leaves, crush, and mix with 2 cups olive oil. Store for 2 weeks on a countertop in an air-tight jar to allow leaves to infuse the oil. Strain through cheesecloth and store in a closed container.
- Crush 1-2 tablespoons of fennel seed, boil for 15-20 minutes in olive or another a light oil and cool. Leave seeds in the oil for a few days or strain immediately through fine cheese cloth. Store in a closed container.
- Expect a flavor sweeter than plain oils; try brushing on foods prior to grilling or sauteing; mix with a light vinegar in homemade salad dressings. Or use oil cosmetically.
Fennel Seeds and Fronds
- Harvest seeds on dry afternoons just after they turn brown. Winds may blow them away later.
- Chop or grind seeds or use whole as a flavoring in breads, pork and fish dishes, eggs, atop vegetables or sprinkled on pizza or in spaghetti sauce.
- Add fresh fennel fronds to salads by clipping off small feathery ends, not the stem, into tiny ¼-½ in. pieces. Add to soups, meat and fish dishes, atop roasted vegetables, eggs, and pizza or spaghetti sauce; or add to water when cooking beans or rice.
- Bypass wild plants in favor of growing a variety of Florence fennel if you want to enjoy a root vegetable. Move mulch over the lower stem to blanch the bulb and increase its flavor.
- Harvest fennel bulbs as they mature by slicing through the root at the base with a sharp knife or pruners. If the bulb has grown larger than 3 inches in diameter, it will be tough.
- Store harvested bulbs up to a week in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, but for best flavor use immediately.
- Expect to find parsley worms, larvae of the beautiful swallowtail butterfly, feeding on a few stems. Larvae go through 5 stages from black/brown with orange markings and spines to smooth, pale green fat bodies with black and yellow stripes before pupating and emerging as yellow and black butterflies.