Fennel pollen is where my interest in wild plants began. I was fooling around with the expensive, imported Italian stuff awhile back, and thinking to myself, “hey, this looks like the shit that’s growing in that drainage ditch by my house.” Well, come to find out, it is the shit that grows in that drainage ditch by my house.
Before we go any further here, I want to mention that eating wild plants can be dangerous and I strongly suggest that you ALWAYS CAREFULLY CONSULT AT LEAST THREE RELIABLE REFERENCES BEFORE CONSUMING ANY WILD PLANT. There are plenty of common plants which are toxic to humans, and many of them closely resemble plants which are safe to eat. It can be easy to get confused.
After consulting several reliable references, I felt confident that what was in that drainage ditch was indeed a West Coast cousin of the Mediterranean import. And so I went out to gather myself a grocery bag full of the stuff. Actually, first I found a patch that wasn’t in a drainage ditch or alongside a highway, and then I started collecting.
Fennel flowers grow in umbels, or small stalks radiating from a larger stalk to form a shape resembling an umbrella turned inside out by the wind. At the tips of the smaller stalks you will find tiny, bright-yellow flowers. In full bloom, the plant looks like an all-yellow grand finale to a fireworks spectacular. Fennel then, is most easily identified by its flowers. The leaves of fennel closely resemble those of dill, and its stalk is fibrous and hollow. The plant also carries a distinct aroma of anise or licorice.
Be aware that poisonous hemlock can closely resemble fennel, especially when it is dry or has lost its flowers. Hemlock has distinctly white flowers, while fennel has yellow flowers. This makes it easy to identify flowering plants. However, you should be familiar with identifying hemlock before attempting to gather fennel for human consumption.
Wild fennel is mostly useless as a vegetable, though its shoots and stems are edible according to some sources. I have only eaten the flowers. The bulbs- the cultivated variety of which are commonly found in grocery produce sections- tend to rest far deeper below the soil in the wild species than I care to dig, and I’m not sure that they would be palatable anyway. I stick to gathering just the flowers, which are excellent. They can be eaten raw or dried and refined to yield a richly flavored pollen.
Once you have identified a wild fennel stand that is far removed from any major roads and sources of contamination, get yourself a paper bag and a decent pair of scissors.
This may not be the best technique, but it works fine for me. First, smell the stuff; it should smell distinctly of anise. If it doesn’t smell right, go back to your reference books; there is no sense rushing this type of thing. Now, make sure it compares clearly and accurately to the descriptions and color photographs you have on hand. Once you are confident that you have correctly identified a fennel plant, eat some of it. Just snap off a sprig and taste it. If it doesn’t taste good, it’s not worth collecting.
When gathering wild fennel, select the brightest umbels, those whose flowers are most visibly caked with pollen. Blow gently on each flower grouping in order to disperse any insects. When you have yourself a good, clean umbel, all caked in pollen, grab your scissors and snip the flowers into your paper bag. Exercise some common sense here and be respectful of the plant and its surroundings. Don’t trample nearby vegetation or strip a plant of more than half of its flowers.
When you have all of the flowers you need, separate a few choice bunches to eat fresh, then roll your paper bag closed and stash it somewhere dry and warm. I’ll throw mine by a window, or sometimes on the dashboard of my car, or even out on the deck if it’s not likely to rain for a few days.
After several days of drying, it’s not a bad idea to transfer your harvest to a fresh bag. I take each flower grouping, look over it and blow it lightly to remove any bugs that I may have missed, then I transfer it to a clean bag. Collecting fennel pollen can be rather tedious work, but it adds such a unique and distinct note to all kinds of dishes: crudos, pastas, salads, etc., that I find it to be well worth the effort.
After the bag transfer, it should take a few more days (depending on weather), to fully dry out your fennel pollen. When it has dried thoroughly, find yourself a good clean spot, sheltered from wind, and begin the laborious task of separating the dried flowers from their stalks. I prefer to take my time with this job, being sure to remove all of the large stems and any insects that may have slipped by my earlier scans. In a pinch, you can also just toss everything in a spice grinder. The end result is still a pretty awesome ingredient to play with, but you lose some of the texture. The finished product, properly refined, will bug free, bright yellow, extremely flavorful, and with a light puffy texture, like tiny pieces of popcorn. I am certainly biased, but I have found the quality of gathered fennel pollen to be unmatched by any product available on the market.