Fennel, also called common fennel or bronze fennel, is a plant (Foeniculum vulgare) that yields both a seed-like fruit and the leafy growth used as an herb. The variety Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum, known as Florence fennel, finocchio, or sweet anise, has a bulb with celery-like stalks, which are eaten as a vegetable. The vegetable is often confused with the vegetable part of the anise plant, and its "seed" may be confused with aniseed. This plant is in the same family, Apiaceae, as anise, dill, cilantro, caraway, and cumin, and the flavor is similar to anise.
The Roman historian Pliny recommended this plant as an aid for eyesight. It was on Charlemagne's list of herbs, and Florence fennel was Thomas Jefferson's favorite vegetable.
Like a number of the other herbs in its family, common fennel is a tall plant, often reaching a height of 5 ft. (1.5 m), and topped with the characteristic feathery leaves. Florence fennel, while sharing the feathery leaves, attains a height of about 2 ft. (60 cm). The flowers are yellow.
Common fennel is a sun-loving perennial, while Florence fennel is an annual grown from seed which prefers cooler weather. Since these plants can damage other plants grown with them, it should be planted in its own bed.
Food and Other Uses
The herb is a key flavoring in Italian sausage, baked goods including zuccherini or Italian wedding cookies, soup, and fish dishes. Sometimes found in mirepoix and herbes de Provence, fennel may also be used in curry and Chinese five spice powder. The vegetable can be prepared with pork, veal, or fish; appear raw in salads; or be used in stuffing and sauces. Fennel liqueur is called Finocchietto.
Fennel leaves and fruit can both be dried, and the leaves can also be frozen. To harvest the fruit, the dead flower heads should be gathered and stored in closed paper bags in a cool dry place until they are needed. The vegetable is best used fresh.