Fennel is a licorice- or anise-flavored annual with leaves resembling dill. There are two distinct types. The first grows tall and stemmy and produces seeds. The other forms a flattened rosette of thickened petioles (often referred to as a “bulb”) and is called finocchio or florence fennel. The second type is becoming more common on vegetable markets, and once in a great while it can be found in upscale restaurants, where its mild sweet flavor is a real treat steamed. A red- or bronze-leaved form is also available.
Fennel is grown from seed, which germinates easily. Seedlings do not transplant well because they have a taproot, but they transplant acceptably if started in cell packs or peat pellets so that the roots can be moved undisturbed.
Seeds may be sown outdoors as soon as frost danger is past. Thin seedlings to stand 8" — 10" apart as soon as they are well established. Bulbs of florence fennel should be covered with soil, when they are as large as a good-sized egg, to blanch them. Harvest the bulbs, tie the tops, and hang them in a dry, cool place. They store acceptably in this manner for a limited time. When hot summer days come too soon after the last frost, seedlings started ahead of time may be the only way to get good bulbs to form on finocchio before the plants bolt to seed. Again in late summer, seedlings may be set out to mature in cool fall weather. Fennel grown for seed may be seeded directly and allowed to bolt, flower, and set seed. Plants should be staked, as they rapidly become top-heavy. Plants in flower grow 3' — 5' tall, with thick, hollow stems, and fine, feathery foliage. Golden yellow flowers appear in flat-topped clusters (umbels) atop the plants. Harvest seed when it begins to turn brown.
Stems and leaves may be harvested as needed throughout the season, whenever they are green, succulent, and the proper size. If seed is desired, do not harvest the entire plant when it is small. Like dill, if seeds are allowed to shatter from mature plants, they reseed themselves plentifully. The bulbing type may bolt to seed in the heat of summer without forming acceptable rosettes.
The anise-like flavor of fennel is used widely with fish. Fennel seeds are the ingredient that gives Italian sausage its characteristic taste. Fennel seed is also said to act as an appetite suppressant when chewed, though sources differ on this point.
Ancients believed Fennel Seed was particularly helpful in eyesight. It was also believed to increase strength. In ancient Greece, it was considered a symbol of success. In more recent history, the Puritans referred to Fennel as the "meeting seed" as it was a favorite practice to chew the seeds during meetings. Today, Fennel Seed is widely used in India as an after-dinner breath freshener and also to help in digestion.