EXPLORE ALL OUR BARGAINS CHOOSE THE RIGHT TOOL RETURN TO OUR HOME PAGE WELCOME TO THE WINTER EDITION OF MOUNTAIN VALLEY VIEWS

 
  A PLANT TO KNOW: FENNEL  

Spanish explorers of the 1600s knew they would need to bring herb seeds with them to plant in the New World if they wanted to feel truly at home. This is how Sweet Fennel became distributed along El Camino Real, or The King's Highway, which connects the 21 missions between San Diego and San Francisco, California. Today, tall, wispy spires of green Sweet Fennel can still be seen along Interstate 101, which traces that legendary route. In fact, the plant has became so abundant that today many consider it a California native plant; some consider it a weed. 

With the same sweet licorice flavor as Sweet Fennel, Bronze Fennel (pictured at right) can be used in place of Green Fennel in any recipe. The soft, fern-like leaves with their unique bronze color add a lot of visual interest in a flower or herb garden. With a height of four feet and a breadth almost as great, its spreading grace also makes it the perfect back of the border plant for cottage gardens.

MATURE BRONZE FENNEL

Bronze Fennel is hardy from Zone 5 and is easily grown as an annual in lower zones. Plant as soon as the danger of frost has passed. Full sun and well-drained soil are better for producing rich oils and seeds. Fennel has a long tap root which should not be disturbed after planting. By the end of the summer, Fennel will put up tall spikes endowed with little yellow button flowers. If left on the plant, these will turn brown and make fennel seeds. If these spikes are cut back to the ground, the plant will look better longer. 

If you want to collect the seeds (a prize ingredient in Italian sausage), just leave that flowering stalk.  You can still harvest the outer leaves. Just don't cut the center stalk, which will bear the flowers. Watch as the seeds start to turn from green to brown, and then cut the whole head and allow it to finish the ripening process in a brown paper bag. When the seeds are ripe, they will easily shake loose from the main head. Store in a dry airtight jar out of light.

The leaves are great with fish. Stuff the cavity of a whole fish or wrap fillets with them. Jim Long, herbal chef and cookbook author, makes this tasty fennel stuffing for trout. Start by cutting up 1 cup of fennel leaves. Sautee some celery and onion in butter or olive oil until tender. Mix in 2 cups of bread crumbs, 1 cup of chicken broth and the fennel.  Stuff it into the trout. Lay slices of lemons over the trout and broil for about 20 minutes.

Jim also makes a tasty, quick salad dressing by putting a couple fennel leaves into a blender with some oil, vinegar, parsley, and garlic chives. Please visit this page for more information on Jim's herbal cookbooks.

Or try combining the leaves of Bronze Fennel with French Tarragon for an extra kick. French Tarragon has a spicy bite that Fennel does not, yet both have an anise or licorice flavor. Very tasty Fennel tea can be made from the leaves of both fennels and from the seeds of Bronze Fennel. Bronze Fennel is one of the six plants chosen to be in our Zone 5 Tea Herb Garden. Milk steeped with Bronze Fennel can be used to make ice cream or can be added into baked goods.

A very important host plant for the Anise Swallowtail and the Eastern Black Swallowtail (pictured at right), Bronze Fennel makes a great addition to our Butterfly Herb Garden Six Pack and is sometimes included in our economical Butterfly Attractor 36 Pack Assortment.

A host plant is one on which the butterfly lays eggs. The baby caterpillars (the larvae) munch on the host plant until they get ready to pupate (or spin a cocoon in which to become a butterfly). Butterflies also need nectar plants (like Butterfly Bushes) for food and water.

Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Sometimes the herb Fennel is confused with the vegetable Fennel (pictured below). The vegetable Fennel is sometimes called Finocchio or Florence Fennel. Unfortunately, it has the same genus and specie name as the herb Fennel with only a varietal name to separate it botanically (Foeniculm vulgare azoricum). There are two main differences. The herb Fennel is a perennial while the veggie Fennel is an annual. The herb makes no root to eat and the veggie fennel is most famous for its bulb-like structure formed by expanded leaf bases. Or, put another way, the herb Fennel doesn't make an edible root and the vegetable Fennel doesn't make seeds --  at least, not the kind of seeds the herb Fennel does, which are the ones we want to use! Whew...

Florence Fennel starts should be planted as soon as the last frost date has passed. Their roots are fragile, so be gentle when transplanting. Make sure to plant at or slightly below the soil line and firm plants in well so that they make good contact with the earth. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil and fertilize with an organic fertilizer throughout the summer. Like Leeks, it is not necessary to mound dirt around the bulb. In fact, this seems to be counterproductive because it introduces so much dirt into the expanded leaf bases.

As soon as the bulbs are the size you want, you can harvest them by cutting the base of the plant at ground level. Occasionally, roots will produce another set of smaller side heads after the main bulb is cut away. Fennel can take a light frost but should be harvested before it gets too cold. If you happen to leave the plants in too long and they start flowering, that means they are past their prime for your use, but leave them and the beneficial insects will thank you.

Florence Fennel is used a lot in Italian food. To use the Fennel bulb, remove any really tough outer leaves and then slice the white part down the middle. Fennel has a core similar to cabbage. Once you remove this, wash the bulb carefully because sometimes dirt sifts down between the layers. You can use the Fennel bulb fresh, baked or even grilled.  

The Fennel leaves, though not quite as strongly flavored as the herb Fennel, make a welcome addition to vegetable or chicken stock. They can also be chopped and added to salads.

The delicate flavor of the Fennel bulb works well with all kinds of veggies. Try it in a potato gratin or in the soup recipe below.

Florence Fennel freshly harvested.

Rich Summer Fennel Soup
From Farmer John's Cookbook

Ingredients:
Bouquet Garni
1 sprig parsley, stem only
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme

Soup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 to 2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium or large fennel bulb, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and cubed
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (optional)
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 tablespoons Pernod (licorice-flavored liqueur) (optional)
1/4 heavy cream or silken tofu
salt
white pepper
chopped parsley

Directions:

Soup

1. To prepare the bouquet garni, tie together the parsley stem, bay leaf and thyme spring in a piece of cheesecloth.

2. Heat the butter and oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 1 minute. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute.

3. Stir in the fennel, carrot and potatoes and cook for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stock, and bouquet garni. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook  over low heat until the fennel is very soft, about 30 minutes.

4. Discard the bouquet garni. Let the mixture cool slightly, and then purée it in batches in a food processor or blender. (If you are using tofu instead of cream, add it now and purée with the rest of the ingredients.)

4. Return the soup to the pot and stir in the Pernod and cream. Heat over medium-low heat to allow the soup to heat through, but do not boil. Season with salt and white pepper to taste. Garnish with parsley.

To order veggie Fennel, please visit our Vegetable Plant Order Form page. On this page you will find over 40 of our certified organic vegetable plants. Order now and have them delivered at the appropriate time in spring.
To order Bronze Sweet Fennel, please use this link.
  CURRENT BARGAINS: BARGAIN PLANTS AND SEED STARTING SUPPLIES  
Bargain Plants
  The right tool: Seed Mats  

Seeds need to be a certain temperature to germinate. If you plant seeds indoors and they don't come up within 3 to 7 days, there is a good chance that the soil is too cold for the plant to sprout properly. Usually what happens in this situation is that you wait and wait and finally a few seeds sprout, only to lie over on the ground and die. This is called damping off disease and basically occurs when the seedling is too wet and cold to continue growing. This adverse condition allows fungus and root rot to invade the tiny newborn and it really never has a chance. But when seeds sprout at temperatures more like what they would sprout at if left in nature, they are stronger and can fend off disease better. To test this theory, sprout basil seeds in the house over winter and then sprout them outside during spring when temperatures are in the 70s. Those seeds planted outside at the proper time will sprout within 3 to 5 days and take off growing. Those in the house may not even sprout. This is where the SEEDLING MAT really can make a difference. It can increase the warmth of the root zone area by 10-20 degrees more than ambient room temperature. That increase can be just enough to get things really growing well. We offer a single-wide seedling mat in our Germination Station and a double-wide seedling mat separately.

Seedling Heat Mat
Germination Station
For more information or to order a seedling heat mat or germination station (both on sale right now!) use this link.

The terms "licorice" and "anise" are used interchangeably to describe the flavor of, well, licorice. Many plants have this flavor. Licorice Mint (or Anise Hyssop), Fennel and Tarragon are all imbued with this flavor. But, there really is only one licorice plant and only one anise plant.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a towering, rangy perennial member of the legume family and comes from southern Europe and parts of Asia.  It is a highly prized plant in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Perhaps it is most famous for lending its essence to licorice candy. Many plants are sold as the true Licorice but usually are not. These imposter members of the Glycyrrhiza genus often smell like burnt rubber, which is definitely not the way Licorice should smell.

Anise (Pimpinella anisum), on the other hand, is a petit, ferny annual related to dill and fennel and is native to the eastern Mediterranean region and southwest Asia. And, while Anise is used to aid some medicinal complaints, it is most often used as a flavoring for spirits, like Absinthe and Ouzo, and other drinks, like root beer. It is also used worldwide in confections like German pfeffernusse.

Mountain Valley Views is the online gardening newsletter for Mountain Valley Growers. All rights are reserved.