Steve pulls back the foliage to reveal the fennel bulb which is actually composed of large swollen leaf bases and is not a true bulb at all but is truly delicious.
Florence fennel is an aromatic biennial with soft, feathery, almost hairlike foliage. The lacy, finely dissected leaves have swollen petioles (leaf stems) that clasp the main stalk to form an edible structure that is what is commonly referred to incorrectly as the bulb. The plant gets about 2 ft (0.6 m) tall in its first growing season. In the second season, Florence fennel produces flowering stems that stand a foot or so taller and support showy flat-topped umbels of little golden flowers. (An umbel is an umbrella shaped cluster of flowers in which the individual flower pedicels (flower stalks) radiate from a common point on the main stalk.) Fennel has an elongated root that resembles a carrot. All parts of Florence fennel have a sweet, licorice fragrance reminiscent of anise, tarragon and chervil.
There are several named cultivars available. 'Rubrum' has bronze colored foliage; 'Romy' is an old Italian heirloom that is still popular; 'Zefo Fino', which is slow to bolt and forms a large, particularly sweet bulb, is one of the most popular cultivars in Europe, and now readily available in the US.
A bird's eye view of the Florence fennel umbel is a starburst of tiny golden flowers. Click to download a large version (800x600).
Sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce) is similar but is a hardy perennial that gets taller, growing to 6 ft (1.8 m), and doesn't develop the swollen leaf base bulb. Sweet fennel is grown as an ornamental and for the leaves which are used as a flavoring and garnish, the stems which are eaten like celery, and for the seeds which are used to flavor liqueurs, candies, pastries, sausages, and fish dishes, and from which an essential oil used medicinally and for flavoring is produced. The ornamental cultivars 'Bronze', 'Giant Bronze', 'Smokey', and 'Purpureum' are members of this variety. Carosella, or Sicilian fennel, which is grown for its edible celery-like stems, also is a sweet fennel.
Native to coastal areas in the Mediterranean region, and widely naturalized in Europe and North America.
Florence fennel takes 80-100 days from germination until the bulb is big enough to harvest, but you can start taking leaves for salads and garnishes much sooner. You don't have to harvest the bulb when it gets big, either. It will wait patiently in the garden until you need it.
Light: Full sun. Moisture: Needs supplemental watering during dry periods. Keep heavily mulched to reduce soil evaporation and competition from weeds. Hardiness: Seedlings of Florence fennel are tender to frost, but larger plants can tolerate temperatures as low as 25º F (-4º C). Although it is a biennial (flowers in its second growing season), Florence fennel usually is grown as an annual for its leaves and "bulbs." It grows best in cool weather. In Florida, we start fennel from seed directly in the garden in September or October. Farther north, start in peat pots and set out 2-3 weeks before the last spring frost is expected. Protect seedlings from a severe late frost. Propagation: Fennel is grown from seed. Small plants are available at most garden centers.
Florence fennel is a delicious beauty who's equally at home in the ornamental or vegetable or garden.
Just because it's considered a garden vegetable or herb, don't hesitate to use Florence fennel as an ornamental. The bright green, filigreed leaves and tall clusters of golden-ochre flowers make fennel an excellent addition to the mixed border. Grow it in the herb garden or the vegetable garden for its succulent "bulbs" that are excellent raw in salads or cooked lightly and served as a side dish. The lacy leaves are used as a garnish and fresh in salads. The complex and delicate flavor of Florence fennel mixes well with cream sauces, dips and soups. Heat destroys the flavor, so add fennel to cooked dishes at the last minute.
Features Black swallowtail butterfly larvae feed only on plants in the carrot family. If you appreciate having these large and showy butterflies around, be sure to grow fennel, parsley, dill, cilantro (the seeds are called coriander), and carrots enough to share with their brightly colored caterpillars. The flowers of fennel and other members of the carrot family also are attractive to adult butterflies and other beneficial insects. Ladybird beetles, hoverflies, lacewings, assassin bugs, and several kinds of wasps, all of which feed on plant eating beasts like aphids, mealybugs and mites, also eat the pollen and nectar from carrot family flowers.