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Florence fennel (Finocchio)
(Foeniculum vulgare azoricum)

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Florence fennel, type Selma Fino.

Don’t confuse this vegetable variety with common fennel, which is grown mainly for its seed.

This might be called the licorice vegetable, except that it’s a fair bit milder than actual licorice (“The flavor of fennel, however, is sweeter and more delicate than anise and, when cooked, becomes even lighter and more elusive than in its raw state”); it’s one of those vegetables wildly popular in many national cuisines—most of the Mediterranean cultures, who usually call it by its Italian name, finocchio, feature it—yet almost unknown in the U.S. We here like it in moderation, especially mixed in with other hearty vegetables in some sort of olio or stew.

The paucity of our usual seedsmen’s catalogues is demonstrated yet again, when we note that this vegetable, if offered at all in the U.S., is usually set out under the generic name, with no hint of particular cultivar, despite the literature referring to numerous types—we located 20 cultivar names with little effort (most from U.K. sources).

Still, despite many new varieties (again, in Europe), most being hybrids, if there’s a variety more worth cultivating than the wonderful Zefa Fino (here’s a 1993 comparative study of cultivars), we would love to hear of it. (Well, maybe we have: see the next paragraph.) One source points out that Zefa Fino is actually better for most areas than native Italian types, which expect a warmer climate. It is about 80 days to maturity.

There is a newer variety called Selma Fino (open-pollinated, also circa 80 days—that’s it above left)). One reputable seedsman says “Heavier bulb than the old classic Zefa Fino, but with the same bolt tolerance.” Also, it is commonly described as “the sweetest tasting”. Seed is scarce but findable. It appears to be a plausible competitor to Zefa Fino.

We plan to try both Fino types, the Zefa and the Selma.

Note also that fennel famously attracts beneficial insects into gardens where it is planted. (And yes, the type of wasps it attracts are beneficial, as they prey on pernicious insects.)



In our climate, the plant is best simply direct-seeded. It’s a cool-weather annual, so it can be planted in early spring or in mid-summer; but early-spring plantings are much more subject to bolting—the chief problem with this vegetable—plus, though the plant is ”half-hardy”, late spring freezes can kill seedlings (the Fino cultivars are also reputed to be more bolt-resistant than most.) All for all, then, we’re better off to just direct seed, say around July 1st (one source says it can be planted “right up till August”). Seed catalogues typically list Zefa Fino and Selma Fino as ”80 days”, though other sources report growing times as long as 120 days (yet one—a reliable northern seed house at that—says “55 days”); but even at the worst, it’ll be done well before really cold weather sets in.

The Bed

Fennel is famous (or notorious) for materially inhibiting the growth of almost any other plant grown in its vicinity. Plant it well away from any other plants—or, much better, in a planter of its own (possibly a half barrel or an old trough). The soil wants to be luxuriantly rich and fairly well able to hold moisture. A pH of around 6.5 is good, but that’s not critical. (You can grown herb-seed fennel in the same planter if you are so minded.

(It has also long been said that one should keep fennel well away from any other Umbellifrae—carrots, dill, the rest of that ferny-topped family—lest you get unwanted cross-fertilization. That, however, is an old wives’ tale: apparently the various Umbellifrae at issue are not closely enough related to cross-pollinate.

Planting Out

Ideal plant spacing is not clear to us. The actual growth doesn’t require a lot of space, but finocchio is a notoriously greedy feeder, and some sources recommend a 12-inch spacing just to be sure each plant has enough soil to properly nourish it. But, especially if one is growing it in a container of some sort, however big, one has complete control over the soil quality and fertility, so closer spacings may be possible (assuming, then, intensely rich soil). We’ll just experiment.

After seeding, keep the soil moist until the first leaves appear—probably a couple of weeks; after that, water, but don’t over-water.


Beware! Any check in growth with finocchio will induce bolting, and there goes your hope of bulbs. Keep them regularly, evenly watered—and cultivate with a light hand, for disturbing their roots also famously induces bolting.

The plants will eventually make a swollen oval structure a few inches in diameter just above the ground. Some gardeners pull soil up around the developing bulbous base to blanch it, but that’s just not necessary. The stems grow two to three feet tall.

Timing is very important when harvesting the bulb. Once the bulb has fully formed, the plant will want to send up a flower stalk—which will shrink the bulb immediately and significantly. So be sure to harvest the bulbs when they are no more than 3 inches across.

The whole plant is pulled up at harvest. Trim off the stems ½ to 1 inch from the bulb. (Larger stems can be chopped and cooked with the bulb, and the foliage can be used for garnishing.) It seems generally agreed that if you let just one plant to go to seed, you’ll have fennel next year for sure. (Another reason to isolate it!)

Note that some sources suggest instead leaving the root stump in the ground to re-grow another plant next season. One such source says “Cut just above soil level, leaving the stump in the ground. This will usually throw up further small feathery shoots, which can be used in salads.”

Also: if you would like to grow the herb fennel, you can interplant some around your Florence fennel.


Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:

Odds and Ends


The plant is an annual that is planted for the thickened bulb-like base of the leaf stems. The scented flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by insects, making the plant self-fertile. It's another member of the edible-root Umbellifrae family, along with carrots, dill, parsley (including rooted parsley), celery, parsnip, coriander, and some other less-common herbs. Umbellifrae are easily recognized by their characteristic lacy top growth.

As noted farther above, “If a few plants are left to flower, they become extremely attractive to a large number of beneficial insects which prey on garden pests.” Nice to know.


Fennel the herb-seed plant has a history that runs far back into antiquity. But finocchio apparently goes back no farther than Italy of the 17th century. (Presumably it was an evolution from the herb plant, much as some of the other edible roots of the Umbellifrae, like Hamburg parsley, evolved—will we some day have an edible dill root?)

An American consul in Florence, Italy, sent fennel seeds to Thomas Jefferson in 1824, but the mildly anise-flavored stalk vegetable did not become popular (and widely available) in the U.S. till the last few decades.


“Finocchio” is the proper Italian—and more or less universal European—name for this vegetable. But be aware that, in Italian, the word is also slang—a rather vulgar pejorative epithet—so have a care with its use.

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