Feast of Green Fennel
July 1, 2009
Fennel is a plant with a sordid reputation. Known for being high end real estate for several of the Lepidoptera species butterflies, ladybird beetles, white and golden crown sparrows, garter snakes and rodents.. It is also viewed as the godzilla, of invasive species, displacing native wildflowers, and homogenizing ecosystems. All of this appears to be true of the plant, and to add to its many functions- I recently discovered that with the use of an iron mordant, this plant makes the most excellent green dye!
In viewing many roadside stands today, I observed fennel growing in every nook of available turf, even pushing out some of the more hardy natives- commonly known as bee plant, and mugwort. The native flower- Perideridia kelloggii, that once hosted the Lepidoptera butterflies, was no where to be seen. There are so many factors contributing to the success of fennel, that I have no distaste for the plant itself, it is only responding to the conditions it has come to grow in.
California soils have dried, due to the loss of perennial grasses, that once blanketed the landscape, keeping in water, and holding back the effects of erosion. These perennials have been replaced by annual grasses that dry out only weeks after the last rainfall- hence, the golden hills of California. Our waterways have been re-routed, and drained to make way for roads, homes, and agriculture. The changes we have made, and the level of disruption caused to the ecosystem, it seems only natural that a plant as virulent as fennel would take root, a plant so hardy it can grow in almost any soil. While it can act as a band-aid, it can also function to take over diverse ecosystems, whose soils and water are still in tact.
I am still wondering a bit about the impact of harvesting fennel. While I would very much like to see less of it, and have it replaced with native wildflowers and bunchgrasses, I know that it’s existence plays a role in the life of many insects, and for this reason, I am unable to commit to wholesale destruction with my harvesting. Yet, I will never propagate this plant in my garden, like I do the native dye plants. I will remain a roadside harvester of fennel. My follow-up harvest will include clay balls filled with perennial native grass and wildflower seed- so where ever I remove fennel, I will leave a gift behind.. I’ll keep you posted on