But these are merely her physical traits. To the foodie, the plant is herb-flavored, strongly reminiscent of anise. A bulbing fennel variety looks the same as the herb but develops a celerylike base, also anise-flavored. It’s traditional to saute sliced bulbs for hot meals or marinate them in olive oil for zest in cold summer salads. Foliage of course is requisite in many salads, dips and dishes as well. The best way to prepare is by snipping them with scissors to just the right size.
Fennel is so easily adapted it even thrives in desert heat. When shopping for seedlings, note the label, because all fennels are not bulbing. This is also true for seed. Avoid unlabeled plants if you’re not sure, or you may end up with a huge plant that only gives you its leaves to eat.
Give fennel great sun and well drained ground. It prefers drier conditions and will tolerate heavier soils where moisture doesn’t linger. Fennel is such an easy plant it self-sows prodigiously where there is sufficient moisture to support them. Problems with invasive fennel in wild lands are usually related to wetlands or waterways because the long summer drought in the West is not enough for naturalization. Gardeners can easily harvest save their seed for future crops. Both standard green and purple fennel are available at garden centers nationwide as seedlings in quart and gallon sizes.
To really make fennel look great, combine it with other Mediterranean ornamental plants and arid Western natives. It shares the same conditions as grey leaf Artemisia species, orchid rockrose, Cistus purpureus, Southwestern natives like autumn sage, Salvia greggii. Spanish lavender loves the same well drained conditions and full sun exposure.
Of all the garden herbs, none is as big and bold as fennel. It has many roles in medicine and flavors of old world cooking. Where the climate limits what we can grow with moderate water supplies, fennel is queen of the border. She stands regally today, just as she did in A.D. 812, when Charlemagne ordered fennel grown in all the imperial farms as Rome spread cultivation throughout the Western world.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com