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Fennel is an exceptionally good looking and glamorous hardy perennial, which deserves its place in both the kitchen garden or herb garden as well as the flower border. At this time of year, it really comes into its own adding a feathery soft and scented texture to the garden. Native to Southern Europe, Fennel has been cultivated as a beneficial medicinal herb for centuries. In some countries it is thought of as a weed as it is a very successful self-seeder. Fennel seed has long been used as a remedy to relieve wind and gastric problems and was chewed during long sermons or religious fasts to stave off hunger pangs! In Medieval times, King Edward 1 managed to consume over 4 kilos a month of the stuff!
The Romans loved fennel and cultivated it for the leaves and seeds. Pliny the Elder used it in many remedies. He believed that it sharpened the sight of snakes and many later English herbalists thought it could sharpen human’s eyesight. It was also historically used in slimming products and 17th century herbalist, William Coles wrote that ‘seeds, leaves and root of our garden fennel are much used in drinks and broths for those that are grown fat, to abate their unwieldiness and make them more gaunt and lank’ A more fascinating and bizarre use for it was to block up keyholes to prevent the entry of ghosts!
But to more serious matters, it is a member of the celery family, Apiaceae. It is a hardy tall plant with umbelliferous flowers and feathery leaves. In the spring it sends up frothy fronds of leaves, either bright green or bronzy hues, which then shoot up to, a clump of tall stems each surrounded by the delicate leaves and tiny bright yellow flowers. Elongated aromatically scented seeds later follow these. The entire plant gives off a strong aniseed perfume especially when crushed between fingers.
I am particularly fond of the bronze form Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ which sports brownish purple leaves as it works beautifully with other dark leaved planting, especially lovely with Verbena bonariensis growing up through and next to it, or dark leaved Dahlia, ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ being a firm favourite. Fennel is not happy in heavy clay or wet soils, preferring meagre conditions, even poor and dry soil where the plants can reach as high as 1- 1.2 metres. It is a happy self-seeder so this is the best source of new plants as the roots can grow very deeply and are very difficult to move or divide. However, it seems to grown pretty well in many of the gardens in Bath where I have planted it.
If you want to grow it from seed then I think the best method is to sow into pots in early spring and keep at 16-21 degrees before planting out. Keep an eye on the Fennel to make sure it does not bolt when transplanted out. Plant straight out into well-drained soil and water well in dry weather.
Otherwise if you want to buy it ready-grown, I love the Hairy Pot company herbs, which are stocked at Prior Park Garden Centre in Bath. They grow bronze fennel as well as the common variety, but it’s better to buy these plants in the spring and plant them at the beginning of the season. The herbs are grown in coir pots which are ethically produced and are environmentally friendly.
This grandly architectural plant will keep coming back year after year and is a definite bonus to any garden.