What Is Wild Fennel?

Anna Harrison

Wild fennel is a perennial herb that is native to the Mediterranean, but has spread throughout Europe and North America to the point where it is now considered a weed in many locations. Some people consider it to be quite beautiful, however, and it has culinary as well as medicinal value. Extremely easy to grow, this plant is at home in both kitchen herb gardens and flower gardens. Due to its strong flavor, it is also known as wild anise and wild licorice.

Wild fennel is often used to season duck.
Wild fennel is often used to season duck.

This herb is often confused with wild dill because it looks very similar. Very tall and graceful in appearance, wild fennel may reach 5 or 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 m) in height. Small yellow flowers bloom in clusters of flat topped umbels throughout the summer months and are followed by grayish-green seeds. Wild fennel fronds are bright green to bronze and airy and look much like green feathers when blowing in the wind.

Fennel provides an anise flavor to many dishes.
Fennel provides an anise flavor to many dishes.

One of the easiest herbs to grow, wild fennel thrives just about anywhere. It loves the sun, but will tolerate partial shade, and is not fussy about soil or water requirements. Often this large plant can be found growing wild in large numbers along roadsides and in meadows where it tends to overtake other smaller wildflowers.

Wild fennel attracts many types of butterflies and bees and is grown by many beekeepers as a honey plant. Caterpillars of the anise swallowtail butterfly are frequently found feeding on this herb. With their chartreuse and black stripes, they seldom cause significant damage to plants. The large, colorful butterflies that follow are often a welcome sight in the garden and a reason to add this plant to the landscape.

The licorice-like flavor of wild fennel lends itself to many types of dishes. It is often used to season fish and duck and is a staple in many Indian curry blends. For a change of pace, it can substitute for caraway or dill in potato salad, rye bread, or soup. Wild fennel pollen is also used as a rub for meat and fish and is an inexpensive alternative for saffron. The pollen is collected from flowers that are in full bloom and then dried before using.

Seeds of the wild fennel plant are used to soothe upset stomach and are said to be unequaled in their ability to relieve intestinal gas. A pleasant tasting tea may be made from the crushed seeds for this purpose. They can also be used as an eyewash and to loosen chest congestion.

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