Sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), the herb, has been beloved by bees in my garden for most of the summer. I have a yard full of bee-favorite flowers, but judging by bee traffic, fennel seems to be a favorite. Yet this herb is not always on pollinator plant lists. Consider adding some fennel to your yard, it is so easy to grow. Let’s dig into the basics.
Why Fennel Is Great
A quick word of clarification. The fennel I am highlighting is the herb fennel, not the bulbing fennel, Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum).
Sweet fennel is decorative; its frothy foliage giving texture to the garden and the flowers add a sparkle of yellow. I even use it as a cut flower; its yellow flowers sparkle in a bouquet. Fennel comes in green and purple/bronze (aptly named ‘Bronze Fennel’). Both varieties look great together and provide color contrast. I love fennel for its tall dramatic growth. It works great in the back of a border as it reaches 6-7 feet tall, accenting flowers that are in front of it.
All parts of fennel are edible, with a licorice flavor. Consider using both the leaves and seeds for flavoring foods.
Fennel offers both nectar and pollen for the bees. And because fennel blooms for the summer months, you are offering a food source with longevity.
And bonus: fennel is a host plant for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.
Which Bees Are Visiting
Honey bees are the most numerous visitors to my fennel and come in droves. As I don’t have hives this year, (and no neighbors have hives), these honey bees are flying in from further away. Some of the very small native bees have also appeared. I have also seen two hornet varieties. I have also noticed that bees are on the flowers all day long. This implies that the plants are providing nectar throughout the day–which doesn’t always happen in the world of flowers. One important caveat to mention is that bumble bees are not visiting the fennel. Perhaps their bulbous mass is too heavy for the delicate umbel flowers?
How to Grow
Fennel is easy to grow–some might say too easy. Simply give it full sun. It can tolerant a wide range of soils. Fertilizers are unlikely to be necessary. But adding compost to the soil is probably a good idea. Once established, sweet fennel is a perennial and hardy in zones 4 to 9. It is also drought tolerant. You may be able to find fennel plants at your local nursery, or you can grow it easily from seed. Seeds can be sown directly as soon as the soil can be worked in the Spring.
Where to Plant
Fennel is a great plant but it does have a few caveats. Later in August the flower heads will turn into seeds. Lots of seeds. Unless you want fennel plants everywhere, I recommend cutting back the stalks, removing the seed heads. You can then harvest the seeds and use them for cooking, planting or sharing. Since the plants are also looking a bit worn by this point, I typically cut my plants back a few feet.
Since fennel creates high pollinator traffic, I wouldn’t recommend planting it in high traffic zones, such as a pathways, doorways etc. Though bees don’t sting very often and are more interested in eating than stinging, seeing large numbers of bees could make people nervous. My fennel is close to my patio, though I’ve never had a problem.
Fennel can work in an established flower garden if you are conscientious about collecting the seeds before they fall (otherwise you will have fennel everywhere the next year.) If you don’t want to concern yourself with this step, choose a spot that is more out of the way, where errant seedlings will be less of a problem. Give some thought to the best position for the fennel because their deep taproots can make them hard to move, once established.
For other bee flower favorites, see my other articles at the Flower Power section of this blog.