Actually, it’s not truly wild. It’s escaped and naturalized, and it has been for a long time. Wild fennel is like fennel found in nurseries and stores, and you can find it anywhere.
I ran into a bunch of it the other day. From a distance, I thought it was dill, but when I ventured closer, I could see it was fennel. Fennel has delicate foliage that develops a strong licorice-like aroma and flavor.
That’s one thing that makes it a safe foraging plant. Fennel resembles wild carrot and even poison and water hemlock, but the anise-like aroma is absent in the others and very prevalent in fennel.
Young leaves are edible and useful in salads and cooking. Once leaves become mature, they get tough. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them. They make a great simmering potpourri. They also can be used medicinally.
When plants grow older, they can get quite tall. I’ve seen them achieve heights of over six feet. Mature plants have copious inflorescences of bright yellow flowers. These flowers produce huge quantities of seed.
Horticulturists recommend growing fennel in sunny places on moist well-drained soil. I often find it growing in pavement cracks or on the edges of ditches. It’s an adaptable plant.
There are two types of fennel. The bulb type rarely makes its way into the wild. The type called sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
is the one I encounter. It can be used to replace its domesticated cousin in thousands of recipes, and food consumers will rarely catch on.
As popular as fennel is as a culinary herb, it might be even more popular as a medicinal one. Fennel seeds are a popular digestive aid. They are used to relieve heartburn, gas, bloating and loss of appetite. The seed oil is also used as a flavoring in some laxatives.
Fennel tea is often prescribed to detoxify the body. It is high in antioxidants. It is also high in anti-inflammatory substances. It even has been recommended to reduce blood pressure.
On the negative side, fennel can slow blood clotting, so people with bleeding issues might want to avoid it. Chemicals in fennel also interfere with estrogen found in birth control pills rendering them less effective. Fennel also interferes with the effectiveness of the antibiotic Cipro.
It’s easy to get confused and even scared by some of the things you read about the toxicity, medicinal value or edibility of plants. If any part of a plant might be a problem at any stage of growth, some book or list will report it as poisonous. It’s important to look further. Sometimes just the seeds are toxic.
Many of the plants we consume regularly are considered poisonous plants. However, there is a difference between the quantity eaten as a spice and the amount that might be needed to produce an extract for medicinal use.
It’s always best to look at many different sources and still consult your medical professional. As far as spices go, unless you’re allergic you should have no complications using fennel in seasoning quantities.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.
This is one of those weird naturalized plants that I miss form the orchards. It did not grow in the orchards so much, but in the ditches around them. It used to be so common. It still lives in the marshes around the San Francisco Bay (where the creeks flow in, but not directly on the shores of the Bay). It was less aromatic out there because the air is cooler.
The fragrance and flavor is pretty variable around here, too. Some is very pungent and some only mildly so. I don’t know if that’s due to genetics or environmental factors.
I should know, but like the mustard, it is one of those plants that I always ignored.