Foraging for Wild Food: Fennel Fronds

Foraging for wild food

Foraging for wild food - Fennel fronds growing in the shadow of last years stalks.

This article shows how to identify, process, and store wild fennel. After collecting several fennel fronds, I blanched, dried, and vacuum packed the wild fennel for use in future dishes.

I ran across a description of wild fennel in Pacific Feast several months ago and wondered what the heck they were. I had never heard of wild fennel, never seen it in a local field guide, and of course wondered what is fennel good for. However, I came across a tasty looking plant while walking my dog last week and wouldn’t you know it: wild fennel fronds!

Just like the book said, wild fennel is most easily identified in spring time by looking for the 4 to 5 foot high dead stalks from the previous years growth. The fronds have a carrot leaf look to them, but I would describe them as almost aquatic looking. Crushing the leaves and smelling them will give off a light black licorice (Anice) smell.

Poison water hemlock is the only poisonous look alike, but it’s leaves look exactly like carrot leaves. The stalk is easy to identify because it has purple spots/splotches and has absolutely no hair on the stalk. Also, if you break the stalk, it smells horrible. Definitely no scent reminiscent of black licorice. I know all this because I actually identified a stand of poison hemlock a few days later.

What are Fennel Fronds?

wild edible food

A wild fennel frond - you can see it's resemblance to carrot leaves.

Wild fennel is considered to originate from the Mediteranian like it’s domesticated cousin. However, unlike domestic fennel, wild fennel does not form a bulb. Both plants are part of the carrot family. It’s considered a tenacious invasive species and can be found growing close to the coast; up and down the Pacific Northwest. If you walk along any beach, you’ll most likely come across it.

The entire plant is edible, but the fennel fronds provide the bulk of the food. They are crunchy like celery, but have a light Anise flavor to them. Many people are turned off by the black licorice flavor of Anise, including myself. However, wild fennel frond are not overpowering like other Anise-tasting plants. In fact, I think the crunchy stalks taste more like celery mixed with mint. Very refreshing.

wild fennel recipe

Fennel fronds being foraged for this recipe.

Wild fennel fronds have traditionally been used to impart flavor to food by cooking on top of them. If you happen to run across them on a camping trip, it’s recommended to lay several cut stalks over a bed of coals and then to roast whatever meat you want over the top. This should work equally well in a barbecue.

What is Wild Fennel Pollen?

Another primary use of the wild fennel is for the pollen. Wild fennel pollen can be easily collected and added directly to food as a spice. It’s also easy to store for future use. Langdon Cook has an article about his experiences using wild fennel pollen on some pork chops, for instance. The pollen is easily collected by dipping the head into a container and shaking vigorously. Be careful not to break the head off! That way you can come back later to collect the wild fennel seeds.

wild fennel recipes

Fennel stalk - slit and chopped.

Wild Fennel Seeds

Like the pollen, wild fennel seeds are one of the most potent parts of the plant. When diced, they impart a strong Anise flavor that many find overpowering. A little goes a long way, so also like the pollen, be sure to use it sparingly. I personally don’t have any experience collecting the pollen or the seeds… yet. However, I am looking forward to collecting some this summer now that I’ve identified a good stand of wild fennel near my house.

wild fennel

Wild fennel fronds after blanching for 5 minutes.

Drying Wild Fennel Fronds

edible wild food

Fennel fronds on the food dehydrator, ready to be dehydrated for long term storage.

From what I read, the books and websites that talked about wild fennel seemed to indicate that it’s most widely used as a spice as opposed to a food directly. Like celery, I suspect that the stocks are tasty, but not necessarily nutritious. I don’t particularly like Anise flavor, but the minty, fresh flavor of the stalks did appeal to me. I realized that it would be really good to put some chopped stalks into soup or sprinkle on top of a meat dish. Also, like celery, they should dry well and be easy to reconstitute into food dishes.

After sheering off the fronds, I slit the stalks lengthwise and cut them into two inch long pieces. I then brought a pot of water up to a rapid boil and blanched them for about 5 minutes. Blanching before drying is recommend for storing celary, according to Preserving Summers Bounty. I dialed my food dehydrator to 95C and let them dry over night.

wild fennel fronds

Dried wild fennel fronds in vacuum storage for future use.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was for the stalks to shrink so much. I’d say they lost about 75% of their volume. That’s actually a good thing, since it means the resulting ‘spice’ is easy to pack. Loading these dehydrated stalks into my food saver vacuum pack bags, I sealed them and put them away for later use. Next time I make some home made clam chowder, I’ll throw a handful of these stalks into the mix and see how they taste! I also think the light, minty flavor will compliment a fish fillet really well, so I’m going to plan on cooking with these too.

Related posts:

Mating on Cypress Island
Making Blackberry Wine
Broad Reach
5 Responses to “Foraging for Wild Food: Fennel Fronds”
  1. Veronica says:

    This information is great! Thanks for the cooking tips as well. I came across some of wild fennel on the hillside behind my home (San Diego County) and I knew it had to be edible! It smells sweet like black licorice and I think it might make a nice tea-??! I would not have thought to use it for cooking under meat but that sounds yummy! Thanks again!

  2. Keri says:

    We’ve noticed this plant all over our property and when I looked it up online, most people agreed that it was called dog fennel. But everyone also agreed that it had an unpleasant odor and while non-toxic (and, in fact, medicinal), it didn’t taste all that great, either. But when my husband and I examined a couple of our plants, we found that it produced a fairly pleasant odor–we thought it smelled rather citrusy–and when we tried a little taste, it was sweet and rather carrot-like. I pulled some out of our driveway and looked at the root. It had only a small tap root and a bunch of other roots, like a normal plant. When I took a tiny taste of it, it tasted pretty much the same as the leaves.

    So I’m not sure if what we have is some other kind of wild fennel or if this years’ drought has altered its taste in some way. But ours looks exactly like yours–a fine, fern-like leaf, like dill, but denser, and it grows on a stalk that makes it look like it ought to be in someone’s aquarium. There are minuscule while hairs on the stalk. I’d like to confirm the ID before we start eating it wholesale, but its sweet carrot flavor seems like it would be really good on a salad.

    • Chris says:

      It sounds to me like you’ve correctly identified wild fennel. Like I said above, the only poisonous lookalikes that you need to watch out for is Poison Hemlock, and also Cow Parsnip. I don’t think Cow Parsnip is poisonous, though getting sap on your skin and then exposing it to sunlight will burn you. Both are in the carrot family, but the look, smell, and taste are vastly different (and unpleasant).

      In hindsight, I take back what I said about eating the stalks. They are generally too woody to go down well. However, the ephemeral leaves are great to dice up and put on a salad or rub into a light meat like chicken or fish. The seeds are also very potent spice if ground up in mortar and pestle.

  3. Kathy says:

    OMG!!! Wild fennel is widely harvested & used in Sicily where my parents were born. Since it is illegal
    to bring seeds to the USA they have to be smuggled in. It is called Finnocchio Salvaggio (sp?) & is used
    to make Pasta con Sarde, which I believe to be the national dish of Sicily. I wish I could forage for it in FLorida but I don’t know of anyone that has. Can anyone spare some seeds? This is my all time favorite dish! Thanks!

    • Chris says:

      Hey Kathy, email me your address in September when the seeds are available and I’ll send you some. There is a big patch of wild fennel near my marina. I’ve harvested and eaten the fennel there on many occasions.

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