Fennel is found in the wild all over California, and much to my amazement, many people consider it a weed… an aromatic, anise-flavored weed.
I grew a small patch of bulb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) in my garden when I lived in Los Angeles, but my old neighbor across the street had fennel growing en masse on his property.
Every summer, as the flowers started blooming in abundance (and releasing the seeds that make it such a notorious weed), I watched him cut down stands of tall, leggy stalks, sending the sweet scent of fennel through the air and into our yard.
The plants came back anew in winter, and by summer, we had flowers again.
Where does fennel grow?
Fennel originated on the shores of the Mediterranean, making the California coast an ideal environment for this perennial herb to thrive. It’s become naturalized along seashores and riverbanks, roadsides, pastures, and other open areas, growing year round in the dry, mild climate.
While fennel is classified as an invasive in this part of the world, it’s actually an important food source for pollinators. Bees, butterflies, and other insects are highly attracted to its umbels (umbrella-shaped flowers) because they’re easy to land on and collect nectar.
In the home garden, fennel is a beneficial plant that can easily be controlled if it isn’t allowed to go to seed.
Can you eat wild fennel?
We usually treat fennel as a spice (for its dried seeds), an herb (for its fragrant leaves), or a vegetable (for its tender bulb), and most of its uses revolve around cultivated varieties like Florence fennel and bronze fennel.
Then there’s the fennel you see in the wild, splashing hillsides with their cheery color, and you might wonder: Can you harvest and eat wild fennel?
Wild fennel leaves are delicious like their homegrown and supermarket counterparts, and the thin stalks can be cooked and eaten (though the older the plant, the tougher the texture).
And while wild fennel doesn’t grow a bulb at its base (at least, not one that we’d enjoy eating), it does offer something special that’s even more coveted in the culinary world: fresh, warm, golden pollen.
Fennel pollen is a rare and expensive spice much like saffron is, and in California, it grows with wild abandon.
It’s cherished not because of how hard it is to gather, but for how little pollen you retrieve from a single flower head.
A large bloom may only yield an eighth of a teaspoon at most, so collecting enough for your kitchen requires lots of flower heads and lots of patience.
This is why wild fennel is such a source of joy for foragers in the summer. With endless fields of them, you can gather as many flowers as you need to fill a small spice jar.
Fresh fennel pollen vs. dried fennel pollen
Fresh fennel pollen shares the same sweet-scented notes as fennel fronds, but its flavor is more nuanced, more dynamic. Every pinch of fresh fennel pollen hints of licorice, lemon, and marshmallows.
You’ll find these intriguing notes in dried pollen as well, but the flavors (while still wonderful) are somewhat subdued.
If you pick your own wild fennel pollen, you’ll get to experience flavor you can’t buy.
How to pick your own wild fennel pollen
Dried fennel pollen
Dried fennel pollen is the easiest to collect, as all you need are a few bundles of fennel flower heads.
Place them upside down in a paper bag, tie the end, and allow them to dry. Give a shake and the pollen will fall to the bottom of the bag.
Fresh fennel pollen
Fresh fennel pollen is what I prefer and though it takes a little more time and effort to collect, it’s worth trying at least once. (As a reminder, steer clear of roadside fennel that may have been exposed to things you don’t really want in your food.)
To harvest fennel pollen, gather as many flowers as you can and shake each one onto a sheet of parchment. The pollen will drop from the flowers, and you may get a few of the tiny flower buds as well.
(Some people take the extra step of separating the pollen from the buds, but I don’t bother — I find them equally delicious.)
To maximize your harvest, you can rub two flower heads together gently to encourage more pollen to fall.
Its brilliant golden color just swells with summer sunshine. After all, that’s when it thrives.
Store the fennel pollen in a small jar and try to use it while it’s fresh. If your kitchen stays very warm in the summer, it’s best to keep fresh pollen refrigerated if you don’t cook with it right away.
How to use fennel pollen
Unlike dried pollen, which is crusty and hard, fresh pollen is delicate and soft.
It can go wherever fennel or anise may go to accent a dish: on fish or shellfish, pork or chicken, barbecued ribs or sweet sausages.
You can use it as a dry rub for a steak (a little goes a long way) or a garnish for soups of all kinds, especially savory and creamy ones of tomato, potato, or leek. It’s perfect on bouillabaisse and cioppino.
Sprinkle it on ratatouille and roasted vegetables, or even roasted ratatouille. Try a generous pinch on rustic home fries with parsley or delicate pastas with mint.
Fennel pollen also plays nice with sweets: dust a batch of buttery cookies with it, or add it to muffins and tea cakes.
Start with less than you think you need, as it’s quite a potent spice.
How to collect and use green fennel seeds
In your foraging, you may also come across flower heads that have started to set seed, but aren’t quite ready to drop yet.
Rather than waiting for the seeds to dry out, gather them while they’re still green to use as an herb in your cooking.
Green fennel seeds pull easily off the stems with your fingers and should be kept in an airtight container in the fridge, where they’ll stay fresh for up to five days.
So what do green fennel seeds taste like?
Think juicy anise candy.
I like them stirred into homemade tomato sauce while it’s simmering on the stove. A spoonful of green fennel seeds also makes a pretty garnish for a shaved fennel salad.
Try it and see how you like it compared to dried fennel seed!
Read more: Make Your Own Magnetic Spice Rack
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on July 28, 2014.