By: Liz Baessler
Sea fennel (Crithmum maritimum) is one of those classic plants that used to be popular but somehow fell out of favor. And like a lot of those plants, it’s starting to make comeback – especially in high-end restaurants. So what is sea fennel? Keep reading to learn more about how to grow sea fennel and sea fennel uses.
Sea Fennel Uses
At its roots, sea fennel was a favorite food foraged on the coasts of the Black Sea, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean. Also known as Samphire or Rock Samphire, it has a rich, salty taste and has a place in a lot of traditional European cooking.
Growing sea fennel opens up a lot of culinary opportunities. Sea fennel uses in cooking range from pickling to steaming to blanching. It is necessary to cook it briefly before eating, but a light blanching is all it takes to make an excellent side dish.
Because of their natural saltiness, sea fennel plants pair especially well with shellfish. They also freeze well – just lightly blanch them and freeze them overnight laid out in a single layer on a baking sheet. The next morning, seal them in a bag and return it to the freezer.
How to Grow Sea Fennel
Growing sea fennel in the garden is very easy. Although it’s used to salty coastal soil, it will do well in any well-draining soil and has actually been cultivated in gardens in England for centuries.
Sow your sea fennel seeds indoors a few weeks before the average last frost. Transplant the seedlings outside after all chance of frost has passed.
Sea fennel plants can tolerate some shade, but they’ll perform best in full sun. It’s a good idea to dig a large hole and fill the bottom of it with gravel to make drainage easier. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings.
Harvest young leaves and stems throughout spring and summer by handpicking or cutting with scissors – similar to the harvesting of most common herb plants.
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How to Grow Edibles in a Drought
A California chef offers tips for growing hearty vegetables and herbs in dry conditions.
Executive Chef John Cox from Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn near Big Sur, California sources drought-resistant vegetables and herbs from this hillside garden as part of the inn's gardening program.
Photo by: Photo by John Cox. Courtesy of Post Ranch Inn.
Photo by John Cox. Courtesy of Post Ranch Inn.
Drought can put a damper on recreational gardening, but it also greatly affects how stores, restaurants and farmers work together to provide fresh available produce. In California, where water is always at a premium and dry conditions are the norm in many parts of the state, gardeners and chefs have created partnerships to come up with creative ways to serve delicious food in times of drought – including at restaurants which run their own gardening programs.
John Cox, Executive Chef at Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn near Big Sur on the California coast, shares some growing and cooking tips from his garden:
In your own garden, how do you handle drought conditions?
You can never predict how much rain we will get in Big Sur, and The Post Ranch Inn is always looking for ways to conserve water. The way that we have set up our gardening program is based largely on water conservation. We have trenched walkways between rows that catch water and minimize runoff. The entire garden is set up on a drip irrigation, which is a very efficient method for watering. Another key to handling drought conditions is to embrace what nature throws at you—in the case of a drought year plants will be fighting to survive and will quickly go to flower and seed. These flowers can be both a flavorful and colorful addition to many recipes. Another key to gardening in drought conditions is to embrace plants that have a long history of growing wild in the region. In Big Sur, those include wild fennel, sorrel, wild radish and mustard.
Which vegetables are best for growing and using in cooking during a drought?
Dry farm tomatoes, wild fennel, mustard, radish, sunchokes, lavender and rosemary work well.
Can you give us a few tips on how you grow some of your favorite plants in dry conditions?
Fennel: Collect wild fennel seeds and grow in your garden. The wild fennel is proven to be a drought-tolerant species and will flourish in a variety of climates.
Farm tomatoes: If you want to "dry farm" a tomato, it's helpful to use clay soil that retains water. If your soil is too loose, it will not retain as much water. Just because the vines look a little stressed, that doesn’t mean the tomato will be compromised. In fact, the stress may motivate a plant to set deeper roots and result in more concentrated flavor. A great illustration of this is in vineyards, where often the best vintages are also the driest.
Can you share a short recipe using one of the vegetables?
There are few ingredients I enjoy as much as our native variety of fennel. We grow these in our garden and use them in a variety of ways. One of the biggest appeals of this plant is its diversity. Tender young fennel fronds are perfect in salads, the bright yellow pollen can be dusted on cheese or fish to add a hint of licorice scented sweetness, the seeds can be used in sauces, sausages or even in biscotti or other sweets. The dried fennel stalks can be used to smoke meats or as a base for grilling fish. Here is a simple recipe:
Fennel Crop Care
Water well in dry spells to prevent the plants from bolting.
Keep vigilant, slugs like young fennel plants. Use an organic slug pellet or slug beer trap.
Carrot Root Fly
If carrot root fly is a major problem in your garden it can also affect fennel. An unlikely problem.
I know you're probably groaning seeing seeing a picture of a hoe but it you do it often it is pretty much effortless. In fact I bet you'll enjoy it. My favourite tool by a country mile is the oscillating hoe, it's an old fashioned tool that works beautifully.
Why Hoe? Weeds compete with your plants for water, nutrients and light.
Fungal disease can be a problem for some crops and weeds can contribute to this by cutting down the air circulation around your plants. Plants with good, clear space between them will be much healthier than congested crops.
You will also find hoeing makes your crops grow better. This is because it breaks up the top layer of the soil and lets air and moisture circulate freely. The added moisture and air speeds up microbial activity which breaks down organic matter and releases nutrients to your plants roots. Hoeing does a lot more than clear weeds, believe me!
Your fennel will be ready when the bulbs are about 7cm or so across. Cut just below the bulb at ground level. Harvest leaves as at any time. Harvest flower heads after seeds have formed and the flower head has died. Extract seeds and dry them in a cool, dry location.
Harvest bulbs when they reach tennis ball size or bigger. Pull every other one out as needed to allow those remaining to grow even bigger.
Do not pull these plants up in advance of the first frost. They are very hardy and should continue to thrive and grow, even after a number of hard frosts.
Fennel doesn't keep very well especially with the leaves still attached. Remove the leaves and use to flavour soups, stews or stock.
If the leaves are left on the plant they will they will suck out the moisture and the bulb will become soft.
The best way to grow F. vulgare varieties is from seed.
It is possible, but challenging, to start with a root cutting, or division of the crown, the part where the stems meet the roots.
However, these plants have long, fragile taproots and don’t handle disturbance well. So, while you may be able to take a cutting or make a division, it may not transplant successfully.
Unlike some fruiting plants, the seed of fennel and its fruit are one and the same, so the words are used interchangeably.
Fennel seeds can be harvested from plants after the flowers fade, or purchased from quality purveyors.