Fennel (Fœniculum officinale, All.), a biennial or perennial herb, generally considered a native of southern Europe, though common on all Mediterranean shores. The old Latin name derived from fœnum or hay. It has spread with civilization, especially where Italians have colonized, and may be found growing wild in many parts of the world, upon dry soils near the sea coast and upon river banks.
It seems to be partial to limestone soils, such as the chalky lands of England and the shelly formation of Bermuda. In this latter community I have seen it thriving upon cliffs where there seemed to be only a pinch of soil, and where the rock was so dry and porous that it would crumble to coarse dust when crushed in the hand. The plant was cultivated by the ancient Romans for its aromatic fruits and succulent, edible shoots.
Whether cultivated in northern Europe at that time is not certain, but it is frequently mentioned in Anglo-Saxon cookery prior to the Norman conquest. Charlemagne ordered its culture upon the imperial farms. At present it is most popular in Italy, and France. In America it is in most demand among French and Italians. Like many other plants, fennel has had a highly interesting career from a medical point of view. But it no longer plays even a "small part" in the drama. Hints as to its history may be found on.
Description.—Common garden or long, sweet fennel is distinguished from its wild or better relative (F. vulgare) by having much stouter, taller (5 to 6 feet) tubular and larger stems, less divided, more glaucous leaves. But a still more striking difference is seen in the leaf stalks which form a curved sheath around the stem even as far up as the base of the leaf above. Then, too, the green flowers are borne on more sturdy pedicels in the broader umbels, lastly the seeds are double the size of the wild fennel seeds, ¼ or ½ inch long. They are convex on one side, flat on the other, and are marked by five yellowish ribs. Though a French writer says the seed degenerates "promptly," and recommends the use of fresh seed annually, it will not be wise to throw away any where it is not wanted to germinate, unless it is over four years old, as seed as old even as that is said to be satisfactory for planting.
Cultivation.—In usual garden practice fennel is propagated by seeds, and is grown as an annual instead of as a biennial or a perennial. The plants will flourish in almost any well-drained soil, but seem to prefer light loams of a limy nature. It is not particular as to exposure. The seed may be sown in nursery beds or where the plants are to remain. In the beds, the drills may be 6 inches apart, and not more than 1-3 inch deep, or the seed may be scattered broadcast. An ounce will be enough for a bed 10 feet square. When the plants are about 3 inches tall they should be transplanted 15 or 18 inches asunder in rows 2 to 2½ feet apart. Some growers sow in late summer and in autumn so as to have early crops the following season; they also make several successional sowings at intervals of one or two weeks, in order to supply the demands of their customers for fresh fennel stalks from midsummer to December or even later. The plants will grow more or less in very cold, that is, not actually freezing weather.
If sown in place, the rows should be the suggested 2 to 2½ feet apart, and the plants thinned several times until the required distance is reached. Thinnings may be used for culinary purposes. For family use half an ounce of seed, if fairly fresh, will produce an ample supply of plants, and for several years, either from the established roots or by reseeding. Unless seed is needed for household or sowing purposes, the flower stems should be cut as soon as they appear.
Uses.—Fennel is considered indispensable in French and Italian cookery. The young plants and the tender leaves are often used for garnishes and to add flavor to salads. They are also minced and added to sauces usually served with puddings. The tender stems and the leaves are employed in soups and fish sauces, though more frequently they are eaten raw as a salad with or without dressing. The famous "Carosella" of Naples consists of the stems cut when the plant is about to bloom. These stems are considered a great delicacy served raw with the leaf stalks still around them. Oil, vinegar and pepper are eaten with them. By sowing at intervals of a week or 10 days Italian gardeners manage to have a supply almost all the year.
The seeds are used in cookery, confectionery and for flavoring liquors. Oil of fennel, a pale yellow liquid, with a sweetish aromatic odor and flavor, is distilled with water. It is used in perfumery and for scenting soaps. A pound of oil is the usual yield of 500 pounds of the plant.
Finocchio, or Florence fennel (F. dulce, D. C.), deserves special mention here. It appears to be a native of Italy, a distinct dwarf annual, very thick-set herb. The stem joints are so close together and their bases so swelled as to suggest malformation. Even when full grown and producing seed, the plant rarely exceeds 2 feet. The large, finely cut, light green leaves are borne on very broad, pale green or almost whitish stalks, which overlap at their bases, somewhat like celery, but much more swelled at edible maturity, to form a sort of head or irregular ball, the "apple," as it is called, sometimes as large as a man's fist. The seeds are a peculiar oblong, much broader than long, convex on one side and flat on the other, with five conspicuous ribs.
Cultivation is much the same as for common fennel, though owing to the dwarf nature of the plant the rows and the plants may be closer together. The seedlings should be 5 or 6 inches asunder. They are very thirsty things and require water frequently. When the "apple" attains the size of an egg, earth may be drawn up slightly to the base, which may be about half covered; cutting may begin about 10 days later. Florence fennel is generally boiled and served with either a butter or a cream dressing. It suggests celery in flavor, but is sweeter and is even more pleasingly fragrant. In Italy it is one of the commonest and most popular of vegetables. In other European countries it is also well known, but in America its cultivation is almost confined to Italian gardens or to such as supply Italian demands in the large cities. In New York it is commonly sold by green grocers and pushcart men in the Italian sections.
Fennel Flower (Nigella sativa, Linn.), an Asiatic annual, belonging to the Ranunculaceæ, grown to a limited extent in southern Europe, but scarcely known in America. Among the Romans it was esteemed in cookery, hence one of its common names, Roman coriander. The plant has a rather stiff, erect, branching stem, bears deeply cut grayish-green leaves and terminal grayish-blue flowers, which precede odd, toothed, seed vessels filled with small, triangular, black, highly aromatic seeds. For garden use the seed is sown in spring after the ground gets warm. The drills may be 15 to 18 inches apart and the plants thinned to 10 or 12 inches asunder. No special attention is necessary until midsummer, when the seed ripens. These are easily threshed and cleaned. After drying they should be stored in sacks in a cool, dry place. They are used just as they are or like dill in cookery.