Bronze fennel lures butterflies, spices up meals

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Bronze fennel has always been one of my garden treasures but probably not for the reasons you might think. For me it has always fulfilled its promise as a great butterfly plant. It is like a sensory extravaganza with all that is going on, or should I say all that is growing on.

But right now if you visited the bronze fennel at the Columbus (Ga.) Botanical Garden you could not help but notice several large Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars feasting with a voracious appetite. In some ways they are just as pretty as the butterflies themselves. But that's not all; lately it is appearing that the bronze fennel plants are also favorite hunting places for my favorite lizard, the green anole.

The anole is known scientifically as Anolis carolinensis and is native to the Caribbean as well as the southeastern United States. Experts have told me that these colorful green lizards are being fruitful, multiplying and moving northward out of their range. You may know the anole as having the ability to change colors as one of its defense mechanisms.

The thing we ought to all love about the anole is that it eats small insects, crickets, cockroaches, spiders, moths and grubs. Remember that service the next time you see one at home on the curtains in the dining room during a winter cold snap.

Although it sounds as if I have been touting fennel for the backyard wildlife habitat, to the rest of the world, bronze fennel is indeed a culinary-delight. Known botanically as Foeniculum vulgare, it is perennial in zones 5-11. It has both aromatic leaves and seeds that are used in Italian dishes and grilled fish throughout the Mediterranean, making sure fennel will always be a mainstay in the herb garden.

In the landscape, however, fennel offers something else, and that is an unmatched fine-leaf texture. Even if the plant failed to deliver small exquisite yellow blossoms, the wispy extra fine foliage is magical in the garden. While other plants catch the eye with blooms or gigantic coarse or bold textured leaves, the garden connoisseur can't help but be drawn to the appearance of bronze fennel.

To grow bronze fennel, select a location with plenty of sun. The soil should be rich, fertile and very well drained. Transplants are usually easy to find at your local garden center. Dig your holes twice as large as the rootball, which will create a great environment for quick root establishment. To keep plants bushy, cut foliage back as needed until it's time for it to produce flowers and seed.

You can also grow bronze fennel easily from seeds. Seeds are planted in the very early spring, sown lightly and covered with about one-fourth inch of soil. Thin the seedlings to 12 to 18 inches apart. You can let your seedlings get about 6 to 8 inches tall before thinning or transplanting elsewhere in the garden. In the kitchen make sure you try using both the fennel leaves and seeds when they are produced. Once seeds are harvested, cut the bloom stalks down to the ground.

Whether it is the herb garden, backyard wildlife habitat or perennial garden, you'll find bronze fennel will always offer excitement, I hope you give it a try.


Norman Winter is executive director of the Columbus Botanical Garden, Columbus Ga. Contact him at


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