There are two types of fennel: herb fennel (sweet or common) and vegetable fennel (Florence fennel). Both types of fennel belong to the carrot family, along with cilantro, dill, celery and parsley. All varieties of fennel have tall feathery leaves, similar to dill, and have an anise-like fragrance.
All parts of fennel are edible, including seeds, leaves, stems and roots. This herb produces seeds on umbrella-shaped structures which are called umbels. Seeds are actually the fruit of the plant.
The Latin name for fennel “Foeniculum” means “little hay”. Both types of fennel have similar growing needs and conditions. Learn how to grow fennel in your garden by reading this article.
Types of Fennel
Sweet or Common Fennel
Common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) grows between 4 to 5 feet. This perennial herb is grown for its leaves and seeds, since it does not produce a bulb. Fennel has been used for thousands of years as medicine, food and drink. Italian and French cuisine use it in mayonnaise and sauces, as well as cakes, liquors and breads.
It produces yellow flower clusters that bloom in the summer attracting beneficial insects and pollinators. Butterflies love this plant which is host for their eggs and caterpillars, especially the black swallowtail butterfly. Common fennel plants can be planted in USDA zones 4 through 9.
Sweet fennel is the older plant of the two types of fennel. This herb is barely domesticated and it grows wild in some areas, like California, that have similar Mediterranean climates. The stalks of this type of fennel have hollowed centers, which can be used as straws.
Bronze types of fennel are similar to common fennel. They include “Purpureum”, “Bronze”, “Rubrum” and “Smokey”. Bronze varieties start with red-bronze color leaves, which can turn to green later. They are mostly used ornamentally, as they make beautiful decorations.
Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum) is commonly called by its Italian finocchio. It is an important ingredient in Italian gastronomy which uses its leaves, stems, and bulb. Add raw slices to a salad or cook it boiled or steamed. Florence fennel has a clean, sweet flavor that tastes like licorice. Leaves are edible just like the common fennel.
This vegetable fennel is also called bulb fennel. Of the two types of fennel, this one has a large and thick bulbous leaf stalk base that is similar to celery in texture. Cut the root of Florence fennel bulbs once they are about 3 inches across and look plump. This usually takes about 90-115 days after seeds are sowed.
Make sure to water your fennel plant so it does not get stressed and bolts instead of producing bulbs. Cut a bit of the base and leave the roots in the ground when you cut the bulb. This will produce a second flush of stems and leaves, thus extending the harvest season. Florence fennel is smaller than common fennel since it only grows about 2 to 3 feet high.
“Zefa Fino” and “Trieste” are two types of Florence fennel. Zeta Fino can be harvested in 65 days since it is a fast growing variety, while Trieste has coppery bronze flowers. Florence fennel can be grown in USDA zones 5 to 9.
History of Fennel
A variety of giant fennel known as silphium was essential to Cyrene, a Greek colony in Northern Africa, now Libya. This plant was so important to their economy that its image appeared on their coins. It often had an image of a woman pointing to her pubis, which may be due to its effectiveness as a contraceptive. Fennel would have been like the morning-after pill of ancient times.
Unfortunately this type of fennel went extinct in the first century AD. Seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot), could be the modern silphium since it is a contraceptive and abortifacient. The Greek name for fennel is marathon. The famous Battle of Marathon means a plain full of fennel. Dionysus, the god of agriculture, wine and theatre used a fennel stalk with a pine cone as a wand. Greek mythology also believed Prometheus brought fire to mankind in a fennel stalk.
The history of fennel dates back to the Roman era, when Pliny (AD 23-79) used it to treat 22 different ailments. He wrote The Naturalis Historie, where he mentions this herb after seeing how serpents ate and rubbed against it to improve their eyesight after shedding their skin. Hippocrates suggested one of the medicinal benefits of fennel which is breast milk production.
Fennel is one of the nine plants involved in the pagan Anglo-Saxon charm. Charlemagne made his people grow types of fennel in every garden because of its healing properties. Some cultures believe that this herb can keep bad spirits and ghosts away. It was often hung over doorways in medieval times.
This herb is still very popular especially in Europe. Both the leaves and the seeds have an important place in the kitchen. Have you tried the different types of fennel? Which one do you like best?