Fennel is one of Italy’s great spices.
Ever sunk your teeth into a juicy Italian sausage? Thank fennel. Pasta sauces? You bet. Any fish or seafood stock worth its salt? Fennel’s there too.
Yes, Italy’s native frond has found its way into many of our favorite dishes, but unfortunately it didn’t stop there.
After being introduced to California roughly 150 years ago wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) now grows rampant on hillsides, creek beds and just about anywhere else it can lay down its rugged routes.
Not surprisingly, the spread of invasive fennel can likely be attributed to its delicious nature, with cultivation attempts by Italian immigrants being the leading theory on how this aggressive herb found its way stateside.
Keeping fennel captive, as California soon found out, is easier said then done.
In late summer, wild fennel goes to seed, producing the oblong little fruits that we’ve come to know and love in many of the dishes I mentioned above. These seeds are made to travel, hitching a ride with the wind, water and even animals and humans who may find themselves venturing through a fennel patch. Obviously, these elements don’t keep to the boundaries of human cultivation, and before long the seeds found themselves scattered far and wide.
Once it’s introduced, fennel takes over, outcompeting native chaparral, scrub and riparian plant species. To make matters worse, fennel favors disturbed patches of soil, meaning it often prevents reestablishment of native plants that have been uprooted by human activity.
Eradication efforts also do little to curb the spread, as fennel seeds can lay dormant in the soil for years before germination.
Fortunately, the variety of fennel that grows here in California is virtually identical to what you’ll find at the supermarket, providing etrepid foragers easy access to a flavor packed ingredient.
It must be noted, however, that wild fennel doesn’t produce a bulb like the specially cultivated Florence fennel you can purchase, meaning you’ll be limited to the fronds, pollen and, of course, seeds when you take it home to the kitchen.
But don’t let the lack of a bulb limit you!
Fennel fronds possess the amazingly sharp anise aroma and flavor that we most often associate with the plant - think black liquorice - and can shine in ways that the creamier and more mellow bulb can’t.
If you live in an area where wild fennel has taken hold, you’re certain to have no shortage fronds, pollen and seeds in your kitchen.
So get out there, experiment and find you new favorite way to use one of the Old World’s favorite ingredients.