Florence Fennel

Family: Umbelliferae, sometimes called Apiaceae (Carrot family)
Genus: Foeniculum
Species: vulgare var. azoricum

FennelGot “fennel” on the list of treats for your Thanksgiving table? Probably not, unless your own roots extend all the way to Italy. This wonderful vegetable—Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum—wasn’t featured on the Pilgrims’ menu, but it has been a mainstay in the Mediterranean diet since the 17th century. That’s when this special variety of fennel—azoricum, also known as Florence fennel, for the city, as finocchio in Italian, or commonly here as “bulb fennel”—was developed from the much more ancient species, Foeniculum vulgare. The species—leaves used as fresh herbs, leaf stalks as vegetables, and treasured for its fragrant seeds—was cultivated by the Greeks and Romans and remains widely grown today across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Fennel seed gives Italian sausage its characteristic flavor. It is an essential ingredient in many curries and is used is South Asia as a breath freshener and a digestive aid. Indeed, outside of North America, fennel seed is as much a staple as cinnamon or nutmeg. You’ve encountered it if you’ve treated yourself to an herbal chai lately—or if you’ve used a cough drop, taken a laxative, or sipped any one of a number of well-known soft drinks. It’s even used as an aromatic in room sprays and a masking agent in insecticides.

If you grow Foeniculum vulgare as an ornamental, you’re familiar with its feathery look and sprawling growth habit, topping five feet and looking a bit ratty by season’s end. Bronze fennel—Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’, ‘Rubrum’, or ‘Smokey’—has achieved a measure of popularity in the past decade, particularly as a striking specimen to grow amongst roses. If you’ve tried it, you’ll know it’s a perennial that disappears completely by early December, only to reappear in the spring, often alongside its many progeny if you neglected to remove the seedheads—grouped in “umbels”—before they launched their seeds throughout your garden. Because Foeniculum vulgare likes the growing conditions here, it tends to the thuggish unless you’re vigilant about removing the seeds and uprooting the seedlings.

Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum doesn’t grow as tall as the species and isn’t as annoyingly prolific. It has the added advantage of forming an oval, bulb-like structure just above the ground that is a most excellent vegetable for your fall and winter table. Recipes using it abound—but just to get you started, you can slice it up raw in your salad, roast it until it’s caramelized, steam it, or stir-fry it. The bulb has a texture similar to celery root and tastes slightly of licorice. You’ll find it in local supermarkets, often labeled “anise,” which it is not. Because it appreciates cool summers, it grows happily here—this past year being a climatic aberration—whether planted in early spring for mid-summer harvest, or sown from seed in July for use straight from the garden well into November. Simply sow it into moisture-retentive soil, in full sun, and be prepared to offer fertilizer during its growth, as Florence fennel is a heavy feeder. Two excellent varieties are ‘Trieste’, maturing in 90 days, and ‘Zefa Fino’, ready to harvest in a short 65 days. Remember these maturity dates are optimistic, given our location, our climate, and cooling fall temperatures. Consider adding at least two weeks as you schedule your plantings, to avoid dashed hopes.

Just when to plant vegetables—Florence fennel and others—for late fall harvest is a question that comes up for all of us who are interested in year-round gardening and food-tending. There is no single, easy answer. Seed packets and other guides suggest “Six to eight weeks before first frost,” but that seems a little vague. For a useful formula to calculate planting times as well as other helpful hints, consult the booklet, Fall and Winter Gardening in the Pacific Northwest. Written by Pat Patterson, Program Assistant at Lane County/Oregon State Extension, this very informative guide can be ordered in hard copy or downloaded from the Internet by visiting http://eesc.orst.edu/agcomwebfile/edmat/html/pnw/pnw548/pnw548.html. Ms. Patterson points out, “The crops need time to mature before cold weather and short days curtail growth; but, if you plant too early, the young plants might wilt in the heat or mature too soon. To determine the time to plant a particular vegetable for the latest harvest, you need to know the average date of the first killing frost in your area and the number of days to maturity for the variety grown. Choose the fastest maturing varieties for late plantings.” Her formula will help you know when to plant for your fall and winter garden. Your own garden records will provide the best historical data about frosts in your particular location, given the varying microclimates in our county; but you can also review historical figures about first and last frosts at different Whatcom County locations by visiting http://www.whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/comhort/freeze.htm.

Another excellent reference book is Binda Colebrook’s Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest, if you can locate a copy of this now out-of-print classic. Armed with the information you’ll find in both of these sources, you’ll be equipped to decide whether to take the plunge and extend your active gardening year well beyond what we’ve come to think of as the “traditional” growing season, from April to September.