Fennel will invade areas where the soil has been disturbed and can exclude or prevent reestablishment of native plant species. It can drastically alter the composition and structure of many plant communities, including grasslands, coastal scrub, riparian, and wetland communities. It appears to do this by outcompeting native species for light, nutrients, and water and perhaps by exuding allelopathic substances that inhibit growth of other plants (Granath 1992, Colvin 1996, Dash and Gliessman 1994). It develops dense, uniform stands. On Santa Cruz Island fennel can achieve 50 to 90 percent absolute cover and reach heights of ten feet (Brenton and Klinger 1994). Once established, fennel is tenacious and difficult to control. Because of its prolific seed production and seed viability, a long-lived seedbank can build up rapidly.In short, this is a very bad plant to let loose in California. A sufficiently bad plant that I'm averse to growing it, despite having grown up loving it, because I would feel too guilty if I thought I might have accidentally contributed to letting any of it escape into the wild.
I do, however, subscribe to a monthly, door-to-door delivery of produce from local organic farms. One of the foods that gets delivered is fennel. I'm not entirely sure whether this puts me morally in the clear or not: probably the farms grow their fennel somewhere in the middle of a big cultivated field where it has no chance to escape, right? I hope so, but I have no definitive proof that they're controlling it adequately.
Anyway, from time to time, on a highly unpredictable schedule, I get some fennel included in my monthly produce delivery box. I'm always very excited when this happens, but not primarily, anymore, because of the licorice-flavored foliage that excited me when I was a kid. Rather, what I've learned as an adult is that the underground bulb that fennel grows from is the best part of all. And the best possible thing to do with these fennel bulbs is to make cream of fennel and pear soup. I got the recipe for it from Nicole Routhier's Fruit Cookbook, which is my favorite cookbook ever. (The link I provided to an online copy of the recipe fails to properly credit the author.) I vary the recipe a bit - I don't often have onions around, because I don't generally like onions, so I sometimes substitute a smaller amount of garlic for the onions, or just omit the onions entirely. I often don't buy real whipping cream, either; you can use yogurt or the non-dairy substitute of your choice, and I often experiment with this, because adulthood has somewhat damaged my lactose tolerance. Also, I've found that it isn't necessary to peel the pears; the peel can remain on them and will get pureed into invisibility anyway. But whatever the exact details, the combination of fennel, pears, onions/garlic/etc., and something resembling whipping cream is a very, very good combination.
And apparently fennel is in season right now, because I got a delivery of it this week. Guess what I made?
I highly recommend Nicole Routhier's Fruit Cookbook. It's basically a compilation of practically every great food that every culture from all over the world has ever created using fruit. It omits some common American recipes that you can assumed to already be familiar with; for example, it will not tell you how to make lemon meringue pie. But it will tell you all sorts of things to do with fruit that you've probably never heard of before. And every recipe I've tried from it has turned out to be delicious.
I also recommend that you do all your eating in front of a cat. Shooing the cat away from your food every other second may slow you down, but the adorableness is totally worth it.