Fen­nel is the queen of arid herb gar­dens

The Hamilton Spectator - - STYLE - MAU­REEN GILMER Tri­bune News Ser­vice

It’s said that fen­nel was old when Troy was new.

The big bold Mediter­ranean herb has its roots in the an­cient world, and yet is now as com­mon­place as any other po­ten­tially in­va­sive plant in parts of Cal­i­for­nia. Fen­nel loves the mild West Coast cli­mate, and where other es­capees fail dur­ing ex­tended drought, it thrives as it has since long be­fore the pharaohs.

Although fen­nel is a culi­nary herb, it is one of the most use­ful or­na­men­tal peren­ni­als as well. It is tall and makes a grand state­ment in drier gar­dens be­cause this is an um­bel­lif­er­ous plant. That means it bears flow­ers in star­burst struc­tures called um­bels that are open and airy and trans­par­ent. Af­ter blooms fade, seed pods form and the um­bels be­come ex­cep­tional dried flow­ers to cut and bring in­doors.

The um­bels rise up above so many other plants, the yel­low flow­ers catch­ing the light to lit­er­ally glow in the soft il­lu­mi­na­tion of morn­ing and evening. Um­bels also have a duel na­ture, for they are equally as in­ter­est­ing front­lighted against walls for cast­ing the most de­light­ful shad­ows when in flower.

When you ob­serve the fo­liage, it’s soft and fluffy, the ex­act op­po­site of the crisp and clear flower struc­tures. Fen­nel is avail­able with two fo­liage colours: stan­dard bright green and dark pur­ple. Put the pur­ple in places where you need colour con­trast against too many bright green plants. These al­most smoky-look­ing clouds are soft and easy to use as back­ground for high con­trast plants, suc­cu­lents and art.

Fen­nel is also a sta­ple of the Mediter­ranean gar­den, thriv­ing on the same con­di­tions as sage and rose­mary. It is also ex­cep­tional in Ital­ian terra cotta pots in small court­yards and pa­tios. Mound your soil in wet­ter cli­mates to keep the crowns of these plants slightly el­e­vated to help them at the cool end of their cli­matic tol­er­ance.

But these are merely her phys­i­cal traits. To the foodie, the plant is herb-flavoured, strongly rem­i­nis­cent of anise. A bul­bing fen­nel va­ri­ety looks the same as the herb but de­vel­ops a cel­ery-like base, also anise-flavoured. It’s tra­di­tional to sauté sliced bulbs for hot meals or mar­i­nate them in olive oil for zest in cold summer sal­ads. Fo­liage, of course, is req­ui­site in many sal­ads, dips and dishes as well. Snip them with scis­sors to get just the right size.

Fen­nel is so eas­ily adapted, it even thrives in desert heat. When shop­ping for seedlings, note the la­bel, be­cause all fen­nels are not bul­bing. This is also true for seed. Avoid un­la­beled plants if you’re not sure, or you may end up with a huge plant that only gives you its leaves to eat.

Give fen­nel great sun and well drained ground. It prefers drier con­di­tions and will tol­er­ate heav­ier soils where mois­ture doesn’t linger.

Fen­nel is such an easy plant, it self-sows prodi­giously where there is suf­fi­cient mois­ture. Gar­den­ers can eas­ily har­vest save their seed for fu­ture crops.

Of all the gar­den herbs, none is as big and bold as fen­nel. It has many roles in medicine and flavours of Old World cook­ing.

Where the cli­mate lim­its what we can grow with mod­er­ate wa­ter sup­plies, fen­nel is queen of the bor­der. She stands re­gally to­day, just as she did in A.D. 812, when Charle­magne or­dered fen­nel grown in all the im­pe­rial farms as Rome spread cul­ti­va­tion through­out the West­ern world.

MAU­REEN GILMER, TNS

Fen­nel thrives next to rose­mary, both Mediter­raneans that love hot and dry cli­mates.

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