Wild Fennel: A Common Wild Herb in the UK
Updated: Aug 10
Wild fennel is a very common plant in the UK and delicious paired with with eggs, fish or in salads. In this article we'll discuss how to identify this wonderful herb, learn its uses and give you some ideas on how to cook with it.
Wild fennel or Foeniculum vulgare to give it its latin name, is a very common plant in the UK and in some cases is even considered a pest as it can grow profusely and indeed invasively. It is primarliy used as a culinary herb, but there are many other ways that you may not have thought to use it and some surprising benefits as well. Firstly, let's discuss the difference between cultivated Fennel and Wild Fennel.
What is the difference between Fennel and Wild Fennel?
Wild Fennel is not the same as the cultivated varieties of Fennel such as the Florence Fennel. The domesticated fennel has a large edible white bulb which is delightful finely sliced in salads. Raw or cooked cultivated Fennel can be prepared in many different ways, its fronds have a modest aniseed flavour but the most widely consumed part is the bulb.
Wild fennel, however, does not produce a large bulb. The bulb is inedible and its edible parts are the springtime fronds, and the summertime seeds and pollen.
How do you identify Wild Fennel?
Identification of wild fennel is relatively simple, particulalry once you are familiar with its aniseed smell. Wild fennel is an upright, green leafy and hardy perennial herb. It reaches as high as 150cm, and frothy long sprouts of fronds protrude from a long cane like main stem.
During the spring the feathery green fronds sprout and grow throughout the warm months. In July the plant blooms with umbels of yellow flowers, flowers that I use to mark and identify new locations to forage for this wonderful culinary herb.
The easiest and ultimately the best way to identify wild fennel is to pick a few its leaves or flowers and smell it. If it has a sweet aroma, that is bursting with aniseed notes, it is the right plant. If the plant looks similar to wild fennel but it doesn’t have that obvious aniseed smell then it is not the plant you are looking for.
If you are new to foraging, once you have had one or two positive identifications you won’t stop seeing it growing everywhere.
Wild Fennel Identification Checklist:
Aroma and Taste: Wild fennel has a distinct anise-like aroma and taste. Crush a few leaves between your fingers and smell them. If they have a sweet, liquorice-like scent, you might be looking at wild fennel.
Growth Habit: Wild fennel can grow quite tall, often reaching heights of 3 to 10 feet (1-3 metres). It has feather-like, finely divided leaves that are feathery and light green in colour.
Stems: The stems of wild fennel are hollow and ridged. They are often slightly purplish or green, with a segmented appearance.
Flowers: Wild fennel produces umbrella-shaped clusters of small, yellow flowers during its blooming season. These flower clusters are known as "umbels" and are characteristic of the carrot family (Apiaceae), to which fennel belongs.
Seeds: After flowering, wild fennel produces seeds that are oval and ridged. These seeds are often used as a spice or flavouring in cooking.
Habitat: Wild fennel can be found in a variety of habitats, including roadsides, fields, meadows, and along coastal areas. It often prefers sunny locations with well-drained soil.
Location: The distribution of wild fennel can vary depending on your geographical location. It is considered invasive in some regions, so it's important to confirm its status in your area.
Growth Season: Wild fennel tends to grow during the warmer months, typically from spring through early autumn.
Leaf Arrangement: The leaves of wild fennel are alternate, meaning they are attached to the stem one at a time, rather than in pairs or whorls.
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Does Wild Fennel grow in the UK?
Fennel is an indigenous plant originally found in Asia and the Mediterranean regions. It is believed to have been brought to the UK by the Romans, who alongisde the Greeks used it as a slimming aid. Indeed it was then widely adopted by the Anglo Saxons who in turn used it to reduce hunger pains during periods of fasting. Now the this plant is widely distrbuted across the UK, but its roots being from warmer climbs, lead it to mainly be found in Central and Southern England, and along the Atlantic warmed - Welsh coast.
Where do you find Wild Fennel?
As already discussed Wild fennel prefers the warmer parts of the UK where drier, warmer conditions persist. It is also said that it can be found within a reasonable distance of the coast – although I have seen it a long way inland.
This herb favours grassy, disturbed ground and can be seen along roadside verges, cliff-tops, on waste grounds and sand dunes. I commonly see it growing in the central reservation of motorways where its towering fronds effervesce between the steels of the barriers.
It will be found in the form clumps that can overlook surrounding vegetation, particularly in disturbed or areas where there are poor soils. Sometimes in huge volume where it starts to dominate the land.
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Can you eat Wild Fennel?
All parts of wild fennel are edible and delicious. The Stalks and stems, fronds, flowers, pollen, unripe and ripe seeds, even the root (less so, the root). The leaves or fronds should be used as a herb, the seeds as a spice. There are lots of other uses for this wild herb too.
Wild Fennel Uses
Wild Fennel Fronds
Wild fennel fronds should be used as a herb and finely chopped and added to fish dishes, potatoes and salads. One of my favourite recipes is to cook carrots in lots of butter, a little salt and sugar and a splash of water. Add some fronds to this rich stock and cook the carrots whole for at least 30 or 40 minutes, until tender. Just before serving, removing the cooking liquid and add a little chopped Wild Fennel to the pan, the flavour of these carrots is exceptional, aniseed flavours and carrots works so well.
When fresh it is also a great additive to homemade herbal teas! Try fresh Wild Fennel fronds and Mint leaves for a fantastic and refreshing brew.
Wild Fennel Stems
The stems can be used to flavour vinegar's and oils or even dried and thrown on the barbecue to beautifully smoke barbecuing fish. Wild fennel seeds can be ground and used in many cuisines including Italian and Indian and can be readily used in both savoury and sweet dishes – sweetened Fennel seed biscuits are delicious!
Wild Fennel Pollen
The pollen from wild fennel is highly prized. You can collect the flowers in summer and dry them, being careful not to spill the highly perfumed treasure that lies in the in the flowers. Dry the flower heads gently and you have a spice that modern chefs pay a lot of money for. The dried flowers and pollen have far more intense perfume and flavour compared the seeds, a little really does go a long way. The nickname for this most exquisite spice is 'The Spice of Angels', a little sprinkled on fish is delightful.
Learn more about how to harvest your own Wild Fennel Pollen here.
Wild Fennel Seeds
Of course the plant also has to seed and the seeds are also edible, this time similar to its cultivated cousin.
Harvest wild fennel seeds in late summer, early autumn. Wait until the end of the blooming cycle when the heads turn brown. Cut off the flower heads and as soon as they are fully dried they'll begin to drop their seeds (they can be helped off with a fork).
Growing Wild Fennel
Once you have seed, it is relatively easy to grow your own wild fennel (it thrives on poor soils). Look for a sunny spot, the soil does not need to be particulalry rich or moist. Sprinkle a few seeds and rake in. Next year, you'll have plants popping up and if you don't clear up those seeds. You'll see that it finds its way throughout your garden, growing in places, such as between slabs or paving. Places where only the toughest weeds had previously dared to grow (I warned you though it is invasive!).
Have wild fennel on tap and grow your own Wild Herbs by visiting the link.
Wild Fennel Recipes
So, where do we get started with the myriad of recipes that you can create with this plant? What goes best with, what can you eat with Wild fennel? Firstly, let's start with a simple salad.
Wild Fennel and Celery Salad
If two ingredients were born to go with each other it would be these two flavours. You can supplement this with very finely sliced fennel bulb if you like. But I prefer to keep it simple. Simply cut 4 or 5 celery stalks into thin matchsticks. Chop the fennel fronds, and any celery leaves that may be on the top of your stalks (why do they chop these off??). Glug over a good green extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Finally season and mix. This crunchy, vibrant salad goes great with some grilled fish.
Wild Fennel and Anchovy Pesto
In a blender (we use a nutribullet) add a good handful of Wild fennel fronds. 5 or 6 anchovy fillets with a little of their oil, two cloves of garlic, the zest and juice of a lemon, salt and pepper and a healthy glug or two of extra virgin olive oil. Simply blend until smooth and hey presto, you have a delicious wild fennel and anchovy pesto. This pesto is delicious through beans, think butter beans - yum! Great with fish or spoon a healthy tablespoon full on top of a generous well cooked pork chop.
Fennel Herb and Flower Ice Cubes
Barely a recipe, but a nice refreshing trick. Take some Fennel fronds, put them in an ice cube tray and push them to the bottom so that they will be covered completely by water. At this point, I would also add some Fennel and / or Borage flowers or any other edible flower that will fit in the tray, then freeze. These aniseed flavoured ice cubes are perfect in a gin and tonic and will last long into the colder months when your fennel has long since gone to seed.
More fennel recipe ideas
To do more with the fronds, try a chicken kiev using wild fennel fronds instead of parsley, put it through buttery mash potato or pep up your salads with a last minute sprinkle.
Fennel fronds are an essential flavouring in the delicious Pasta con Sarde a Mare. Fennel, Carrot and Courgette salad is a delicious, a fresh side with an obvious affinity to fish.
Use the wild fennel seeds in breads, biscuits, as part of a stuffing in a rolled pork - think Porchetta - or make your own pork and fennel sausages or stuffing.
The Wild fennel plant, its seeds and pollen are so versatile in the kitchen.
There are so many ways to use this wonderful wild herb, but here's two more of our favourite recipes for you to enjoy.
Three more bonus wild fennel recipes:
For me this delicious versatile herb is a must, it grows so profusely in the UK and is so visible and easy to find that it should practically be included with most meals.
The Medicinal uses of Wild Fennel
Wild fennel also has many medicinal properties and as well as enhancing eye sight it is also a great digestive. The seeds are usually used medicinally for all kinds of digestive upset like bloating and wind, poor appetite or nausea. It has also been used as a galactagogue agent for breastfeeding mothers. Wild fennel oil is said to alleviate the symptoms of IBS.
Find out about the medicinal powers of Wild foods with our great selection of Wild Medicine Books.
Now that you know your Wild from your Florence, and you know how to identify Wild fennel in the field, your summer days and meals can now be scented Anise or Liquorice. You are also now aware of some of the many uses for it to.
When harvesting this plant remember to look or smell for the obvious sweet liquorice flavours, a smell that will fill your nose and awaken the taste buds as if to tease you with the thoughts of meals to come.
We hope that you enjoy this wonderful herb as much as we do, and hopefully enjoy some of the recipes and inspiration that we have put together for you... Now forager, go forth and forage, cook and eat this delicious herb!
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