Originating in the Mediterranean coastal area, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) was used by both the ancient Greeks and the Romans; the Greeks called it foeniculum, meaning “fragrant hay,” possibly for a scent similar to that of hay, and the Romans called it “Marathon” after the Battle of Marathon.
The plant spread through Central Europe during the reign of Emperor Charlemagne and later to North America.
Broadly speaking, two types of fennel exist—common fennel and Florence fennel. Common fennel is grown as an herb, while Florence fennel is grown as a vegetable.
Common fennel, also known as sweet fennel or bronze fennel, can grow up to almost 7 feet tall and is distinguished by its yellow flowers, extensive taproot system, and licorice scent.
While the foliage and seeds are harvested for cooking and other benefits, common fennel is also considered an invasive weed species in several states.
With a texture similar to celery and fronds with a dill flavor, Florence fennel, also known by its Italian name finocchio, ranges in height from 1 to 5 feet. The base is a bulb, which is used along with the fronds and seeds in many culinary incarnations from breads in northern Europe and sausages in Italy to dishes in China and India.
Fennel is often confused with anise (Pimpinella anisum); while both fennel and anise belong to the parsley family and share a similar licorice flavor, anise is typically star-shaped and its seeds are used for flavoring.
Types & Varieties
Popular varieties of common fennel include Sweet Fennel (the industry standard), Purpereum (usually grown as an ornamental plant with purplish-bronze leaves), and Rubrum.
Two popular Florence fennel varieties are Zefa Fino and Orion Hybird. Both have similar sized bulbs and grow quickly, usually in 65 days. Another cultivar, Trieste, has bronze-colored flowers and typically grows in 90 days. Zefa Fino is resistant to bolting due to high temperatures.