You may ask when I fit the time in to write about these plants, and in honesty I spend brief moments almost snatching the words onto my macbook.
Recently I heard someone say, ‘A gardens not complete without a geranium’ and I thought, ‘what plants would I not want to be without?’. I don’t think I believe any gardens to be incomplete without the addition of a certain plant but I think as a designer I tend to have a backbone of plants I use and rely on to help construct a planting
scheme or use to achieve drama and scale.
Fennel, be it giant, bronze or green to name the most obvious, is one of those such genus that adds so much. Freely growing in most temperate parts of Europe and self-seeding along riverbanks it seems to have left its more native mediterranean and migrated almost with the Roman conquests to now stretch from North Wales across mainland Europe to Russia, India and parts of what was Persia.
Foeniculum was the named used to describe this plant by the Romans, derived from the Latin word for Hay, which for those who studied latin will come as no surprise. Foenum was then corrupted in the middle ages to Fanculum, which in turns gives rise to the alternative name and now largely disused common name of Fenkel.
The Romans used to eat the sweet edible young shoots and aromatic seeds. So popular was it, that Pliny attributed 22 medical remedies to it. He observed that, “Serpents eat it after casting their old skins and that they sharpened their sight by rubbing against the plant”. Now luckily in England we don’t see many serpents, and most ‘snakes in the grass’ are ones people talk about, (at least we know where the phrase originates) but the idea that fennel improves sight certainly has stuck.
Throughout medieval England, and Europe I imagine, on midsummers eve you would have seen fennel hung together with St Johns Wort to ward off evil spirits and witchcraft. On its own and a use it it still employed for it was served with fish, in this instance salt fish, during Lent.
Although references are made in early anglo-saxon cookery and medical recipes prior to the Norman conquest fennel was not widely cultivated until Charlemagne ordered it be grown on imperial farms, stimulating popular growth.
In 1650 one of the most amusing descriptions of its uses was written, I laugh when I read it and imagine what a reaction such a statement might cause in todays world, “Both the seeds, leaves and root of our Garden Fennel are much used in drinks and broths for those who are grown fat, to abate their unwieldiness and cause them to grow more gaunt and lank”, its from William Coles Nature’s Paradise but it was also mentioned by the great herbalist Gerard in 1597. However, much earlier the ancient Greeks knew fennel as Marathron from the greek maraino meaning to grow thin. In Edward I’s reign the poor used to eat fennel seeds to satisfy hunger cravings on fasting days and to make unpalatable foods taste better, along with I presume suppressing hunger so ensure a small portion.
Along with its now well known hunger suppressing capabilities it is also thought to convey longevity and to give strength and courage.
One of the most well known uses of fennel is as an accompaniment to fish, in 1640 Parkinson writes, ‘being sweete and somewhat hot helpeth to digest the crude qualitie of fish and other viscous meats. We use it to lay upon fish or to boyle it therewith’. Its this culinary use with Salmon or mackerel, in much the same way as parsley which saw patches of fennel in country house kitchen gardens.
Fennel also has calmative qualities, fennel tea can be made from a teaspoon of bruised seeds and used chiefly for those suffering from over excitement. I generally use small young shoots in salads or in soups. In Italy the stalks are eaten stripped with olive oil and pepper.
In the garden, it grows to make a billowing cloud of feathery foliage, a great foil in the middle of the border. When the flowers are open deep sulphery yellow, you can smell its presence on the air and I always associate the smell of fennel with high summer. It works really well to reduce the ‘weightiness’ of some plants. The light almost dancing foliage seems to lift other plants in its company and one really good example of this effect was dark leaved Dahlia ‘David Howard’ planted en mass with purple fennel. If your a minimalist fan I have seen a rather forward thinking piece of urban planting recently where purple fennel was planted by the 1000’s against a backdrop of bleached timber walling. The foliage seemed to resemble a bubbling moving piece of art as it stretched its way along the lengthy facade.