Getty: MarkSkalny

From bulb to stalk to frond, here's how to grow, select, and cook with fantastic fennel, the sweet anise-flavored veggie that deserves a spot on your plate.

August 14, 2008

Get to know fennel, and you'll find that the aromatic plant lends itself well to a wider variety of foods than you might have first suspected. Native to the Mediterranean region, this licorice-flavored member of the parsley family is one of Italy's most popular vegetables. Most fennel available in American markets is grown in California. The type you'll find—Florence, or bulb, fennel (sometimes labeled "fresh anise")—has a bulbous base, stalks like celery, and feathery leaves that resemble Queen Anne's lace. Like celery, the entire plant is edible and lends itself to a wide variety of cooking applications. Lastly, we can't ignore the health benefits. Just one cup of fennel contains almost 20 percent of your recommended daily value of vitamin C. You'll also find plenty of iron, fiber, and potassium.

See More: The Art of Crunchy Food

How to Grow Fennel: 

Peak growing season for fennel is fall and winter. However, home gardeners can also slip in a quick planting in spring for an early summer harvest. When planting, look for compact bulbs that are relatively heavy and firm. Avoid those that are splitting or browning, or have other injuries.

See More: Plan Your Vegetable Garden

Fennel enjoys cool weather—not hot, but not freezing. Although it’s easy to germinate from seeds sown directly into the garden after the soil has warmed, transplants are helpful to get a head start in spring or in raising a fall crop that must be started in the heat of summer. It takes about three months for fennel to produce the bulb, so do the math to determine when you need to start and if you have enough time before the weather turns hot or starts freezing.

Plant fennel seeds or transplants in a sunny, well-drained bed that has been amended with compost. Thin seedlings to stand about 12 inches apart. Keep the bed moist, and be sure to feed your fennel every two to three weeks with a liquid fertilizer. After the bulb grows to about 2 inches in length, cover it with soil or mulch, which will make it tender. Snip off any flower stalks that may form to prevent the bulb from splitting. When it’s time to harvest, use clippers to snip under the bulb and cut the taproot.

Try planting other fennel varieties such as Zefa Fino or Trieste—they resist the urge to flower, channeling their energy into the bulb instead.

How to Buy Fennel:

If you aren't growing your own, fennel is widely available at most grocery stores year-round or at farmers market when in season. Look for small, heavy, white bulbs that are firm and free of cracks, browning, or moist areas. The stalks should be crisp, with feathery, bright-green fronds. Wrapped in plastic, fennel keeps for just a few days in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator; the flavor fades as it dries out.

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How to Cook with Fennel:

All parts of the fennel plant—bulb, stalk, and feathery fronds—are edible, and can add texture and flavor to almost any dish. Thinly sliced raw fennel bulb adds a sweet licorice flavor and crunchy texture to salads. To slice the bulb, stand it on the root end and cut vertically with a sharp knife of mandolin. To soften the flavor, try braising, sautéing, roasting, or grilling it.  Fennel stalks can take the place of celery in soups and stews, and can be used as a "bed" for roasted chicken and meats. Use the fronds as a garnish, or chop them and use as you would other herbs, like dill or parsley. One last thing—fennel and seafood go together like peas in a pod. 

These top fennel recipes will show you how to make the most of this versatile veggie from frond to bulb. For more delicious ideas, check out our Fennel Recipe Collection.