If there was ever a trap crop for the garden, it has to be fennel. If you are not familiar with the term “trap crop,” it is normally one that catches or entices insects, diverting them from the one crop that is making the money. Calling fennel a trap crop however is a little tongue-in-cheek.
On the other hand, I challenge you to grow it and see what I mean. You will trap or lure Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies, as do most members of the carrot or parsley family. They will lay eggs that will appear almost as tiny ornaments that will hatch and give you more feeding caterpillars than you ever imagined. There will be tiny ones as well as every stage or instar. Look closely and you will find the chrysalis, too!
You’ve no doubt heard phrases like “it is a bird-eat-bug world out there” or “the early bird get the worm,” or should I say caterpillar. Well, the fennel becomes a real National Geographic stop in the garden, and it’s not just for birds either. Pay close attention and you’ll see the green anole or lizards doing their version of a little reptilian hunting.
Though it sounds as though I have been touting fennel for the backyard wildlife habitat, it is, to the rest of the world, a culinary-delight. Known botanically as Foeniculum vulgare, it is perennial in zones 5-11. It has both aromatic leaves and seeds that are used in Italian dishes and grilled fish throughout the Mediterranean, ensuring that fennel will always be a mainstay in the herb garden.
At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens we have both the green and the bronze. No matter which you choose or where you grow it, you will relish in its extraordinary, unmatched fine-leaf texture. Even if the plant failed to deliver small exquisite yellow blossoms, the wispy extra-fine foliage is magical in the garden. We have our bronze-leafed fennels growing in partnership with burgundy-leafed coleus. Our green fennel is partnered with colorful portulaca and Flambe Yellow chrysocephalum.
Whether you grow yours in an herb garden, butterfly garden or simply love the texture in the perennial garden, select a location with plenty of sun. The soil should be rich, fertile and very well drained. Transplants are usually easy to find at your local garden center. Dig your holes twice as large as the rootball, which will create a great environment for quick root establishment. To keep plants bushy, cut foliage back as needed until time for it to produce flowers and seed.
You can also grow fennel easily from seeds. In South Florida, seeds are planted in the fall. Sow the seeds lightly and cover with about 1/4 inch of soil. Thin the seedlings to 12 to 18 inches apart. You can let your seedlings get about 6 to 8 inches tall before thinning or transplanting elsewhere in the garden. In the kitchen make sure you try using both the fennel leaves and seeds when they are produced. Once seeds are harvested cut the bloom stalks down to the ground.
Once you start growing fennel, I promise you too will get trapped. If it’s not the butterflies and caterpillars that hook you, the fine texture or culinary property will.
Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South.”