Photo by Rick Gush
I never ate Florence Fennel, also known as Sweet Fennel or finocchio in the Mediterranean, before I moved to Italy, but now, it’s one of my favorite vegetables. I know the herb fennel from the wild stuff that grows all over the place in California, but Florence Fennel is the garden variety that develops a big, swollen bulb at the base of the stems.
When I was a kid, I used to eat all sorts of wild fennel during my walks in the hills; the new shoots were very nice (tastes like licorice), and the seeds were pretty good, too. Florence Fennel has the same taste, but the green growth is shorter and more abundant, and the swollen bulbs are tremendous, having celery-like consistency with a light licorice taste that becomes more sophisticated when cooked. I like to eat this vegetable raw, steamed or roasted in the oven. I use the green growth as I would use the herb fennel, mostly adding it to coleslaw.
Native to Italy, these plants are often tricky to grow because they don’t always develop desirable bulbs. Finocchio plants will always grow well, whether the weather’s hot or cold, but the stem seems to only thicken during slightly warm, but not hot, periods. I can plant finocchio in early spring and sometimes get a bulb harvest before summer; I can plant during late summer to sometimes get a bulb harvest in November; or I can plant during early fall, and if the winter isn’t a cold one, I can perhaps get bulbs in early spring.
This is one of the vegetables that don’t always produce a good harvest for me, and the key seems to be momentum because, when the bulbs do start to develop, they will do so quickly. The plants look normal during their several months of youth, and at a certain point, triggered by both day length and temperature, the bulbs can start to form. If everything goes well, the plants will form big, thick, basal bulbs just above the soil surface in less than a month. If something goes wrong — the temperature changes or I neglect to water abundantly — the plants will produce only small, flattened bulbs or none at all. I’ll estimate that I harvest big bulbs only about half the time when I plant finocchio.
The plants grow very well from seeds, but a lot of the growers here prefer not to direct-seed, but rather transplant the seedlings into the growing bed when they are about 6 inches or taller, because the snails and slugs around here that like to eat the youngest seedlings.
Aside from the fact that I really like to eat it, I plant finocchio in the garden because it’s in the umbelliferae, now apiaceae, family, which includes parsley and carrots, and I think the flowers of that family attract beneficial predatory insects to the garden.
So, in a way, if and when my finocchio plants fail to develop thick basal bulbs but instead bolt into flower, I’m still happy because I feel the attractive, yellow flower heads are recruiting helpful bugs.