Wild fennel: methods of cultivation, harvesting and use
A spontaneous and decorative aromatic herb
Cultivated since the 1500, the Foeniculum vulgare or wild fennel is a spontaneous plant, very similar to the variety that is cultivated, by botanical affinity - they are both Umbelliferae - and taste, but of which different parts are consumed.
Of the vegetable commonly sold and defined as “sweet” is eaten, in fact, the heart, that is, the thickened coating at the base of the leaf sheath, while almost everything is consumed of the wild type, that is, the leaves, the shoots, the umbels and the seeds (which are actually the fruits). Up to 2 meters high, the umbrellas of this typically Mediterranean herbaceous plant group in summer inflorescences of a beautiful yellow-green color, while the dark green leaves light as feathers give the same sensation of freshness that the aroma of wild fennel really possesses. Known since ancient times for its aromatic flavor and its use for health benefits, the plant is actually above all appreciated for its ability to stimulate digestion, and since the start of the IX century CharleMagne lists it amongst the essences of which he recommends the cultivation of.
Alongside anise, star anise, liquorish, wild and sweet fennel are used among the ingredients of pastis, an aromatic french liqueur that is known for its digestive qualities.
How to grow wild fennel
It is a perennial plant, rather refractory to diseases and with low needs, it loves sunny positions and high temperatures and resists drought very well. It prefers permeable soils and can also be found on the edges of roads and on the countryside in untreated areas.
It can be planted directly in the soil between june and september and the harvest can start already in august to end in november. 3 or 4 seeds must be buried together, at circa 0,5/1 cm deep, keeping a 45/60 centimeters distance between rows and 40 centimeter distance between each other. Wild fennel can also be sown in advance in the seedbed, then transplant it between july and october.
Once the seedlings have sprouted and measure a few centimeters, they must be eradicated if necessary, and eventually even cutting the weaker ones. In a vegetable garden and as for the common sweet variety, it would be best to avoid planting it near tomatoes, anethole, coriander and other aromatic umbellifers such as parsley, to make sure that they won't take the nutrients from each other.
As its sweet cousin, the wild fennel cultivated with mint and sage helps protect the cabbages from some parasites. This aromatic plant does not need fertilization but humidity that should be kept constant but not excessive, because it fears rot and fungal diseases.
Harvest and usage of fennel
Of wild fennel - called by some “finocchietto” - the kitchen and the food and canning industry use every part. Re-sown every two years, the plant keeps all of its aromatic characteristics, and the typical fragrance is given by the high quantity of anethole, a component from which an essential oil is made, that is liked for its carminative effects, meaning digestive effects.
The tufts of leaves can be picked as early as mid summer and used to garnish fish or meat dishes, mixed in lettuce salads or with other green leaf vegetables, to flavor a potato soup, or used together with seeds - which ability to stimulate digestion are much greater- in infuses and herbal teas.
In the kitchen, the preferred and more tasty part is the heart, with an intense anethole aroma, it can be eaten raw or lightly cooked ( and maybe freeze it to cook it in winter) to accompany fish dishes, in a caponata with a special aroma or in a cold chicken salad, is ideal for lightness and freshness in the summer season.
Amongst the dishes in which wild fennel is the main ingredient there are, pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines),in which sometimes it replaces the sweet fennel. The food industry also uses it, adding its leaves or dried seeds to various pork cured meats- once, for example, it was used in mortadella instead of pinenuts.