Fennel Pollen—Really?

fennel head 2Examining a Florence fennel plant I’d let go to seed, my daughter came to the same conclusion I had—that the fad food fennel “pollen” was actually fennel flowers.

You’re supposed to rub fennel pollen over chicken or pork before roasting the meat, dust the pollen over salad or cooked pasta, or use it as a flavoring in bread, cake, or cookies. The chef my daughter works with has brewed fennel-pollen tea. To me the flowers seem best sprinkled over simply cooked seafood—white fish, shrimp, or squid—or even over eggs or buttered toast. You can most appreciate the bright yellow color and honey-sweet, anise-like flavor when the stuff is atop rather than mixed into other food.

I harvest fennel flowers by placing a plastic vegetable bag over a blooming fennel head, closing the bag around the stalk, turning the head downward, and shaking. After bagging and shaking each flowering head on a plant, I might have a teaspoonful of yellow bits. I spill them into a dish and let any spiders or other critters crawl away. Looking closely at what remains, I see little stamens and curled petals. The bees and other flying insects around my fennel plant are surely gathering pollen, but any pollen on my dish is invisible to my eye.

fennel flowersAnother way to gather fennel flowers is to cut blooming flower heads and hang them upside-down in a paper bag. The stamens and petals—and, I suppose, pollen—will fall off in time. The color and flavor of the dry mix will be just a bit less bright than the color and flavor of the fresh flowers.

Some of the fennel pollen pictured on the Internet looks more green than yellow. I suspect these products are actually crushed fennel buds. The buds are easier to harvest in quantity than open flowers; you just pull the buds off their little stems, and crush them between your fingers. The bits will look yellow-green, not bright yellow, but they will still have a delightful flavor. Judging from the pictures on the Internet, dried buds are less pretty than fresh ones.

Florence fennel is a somewhat difficult plant to grow as a vegetable; getting good bulbous stems depends on mild weather and plentiful water. But harvesting the flowers reminds me of all the good things fennel brings us. Bronze fennel is a lovely, if often invasive, garden ornamental. The caracois served on heaping platters in Lisbon bars are Theba pisana snails, harvested from the fennel stalks where the snails congregate and estivate (I once walked through Roman ruins in a field filled with snail-laden fennel, each plant barren of leaves but decorated with a dozen or more colorful shells). Mukhwas, the Indian after-dinner digestive aid and breath freshener, is usually made up mostly of fennel seeds, some of them candied. And how many Californians have childhood memories of scraping the “Indian bubblegum” out of dried fennel stalks and inhaling the heavenly scent of roasted fennel after a field fire?

Enjoy your fennel flowers, like the seeds, from your garden or the wild; you probably don’t need to buy them through the Internet. If you do, don’t fool yourself into believing that you’ve invested in a tinful of pollen.


14 thoughts on “Fennel Pollen—Really?”

  1. Hi Linda, maybe there’s an ideal time to harvest just the pollen?? Like gathering elderberry flowers – there’s that perfect day when the flowers all release effortlessly from the toxic stems; before that they don’t come off, and after that they are not as fragrant. Or ideal time of the day? I know that when you want to self-pollinate sweetcorn, you have to gather the pollen from the tassels early in the day, or it will have all blown away later – perhaps this is also true of fennel? Perhaps worth some investigating and experimenting. Thanks for the impetus!

    1. Marsha, I’ve wondered about ideal harvest time, too. I’ll try collecting the flowers on different days and at different times of the day–though early-morning harvesting is the general rule for herbs, for the best fragrance.

      How do you know when the perfect day has arrived to gather elderberry flowers?

      1. Hi Linda, that’s a tough one to describe, but years of experience tell me that first, when all the flowers are wide open and no little buds remain, 2nd, when the flowers have a really white appearance instead of slightly greenish, when they are then creamy it is probably past prime, and 3rd, when you can actually see the yellow anthers. The 4th test is to gently handle one of the big inflorescences, and if the little white blossoms fall easily off in your hand they are ready. I’m lucky in that I pass by my sources every day in the woods when I go walking with my dog so I see them change. I now know which ones will be ready early and which ones later. Then there are some in really good sun that I leave so I can harvest the most flavorful berries! ;o)

  2. Whether flower or pollen, it’s what I put in your fig jam with bay and fennel, and also wonderful infused in vodka.

  3. The stuff I purchased as fennel pollen just disappears into the jam. It has a slightly different taste from the seeds that is indescribable. The combo of bay, fig, and fennel is genius. For infusing into alcohol, it is much better to use actual flowers as they do impart a lovely yellow color. I feel bad taking it from the butterflies and wasps though. I enjoy making (and drinking) finocchietto even more than limoncello!

  4. Marsha, thanks for the link to Hank’s report. I think his fennel-flower harvest looks much like mine. I don’t know exactly how big fennel pollen is, but pollen in general ranges from 10 to 100 micrometers. I would judge that curled fennel flower petals are about a millimeter in size. I believe that a micrometer is a thousandth of a millimeter, right? So even 100 micrometers is really tiny.

  5. Hi LindaI normally don’t use commercial pectin, but I was making prickly pear jelly and I read it was hard to get to set, so I used 1 1/2 boxes worth (4 1/2 T) of Ball, low sugar, powdered pectin. The Jelly turned out good, but had a slightly granular texture. Any ideas why this would happen? Is there some secret to using commercial pectin? Beth Heumier  Motto: Spero Meliora

    1. Beth, when I need to use pectin for jelly I generally prefer the high-methoxyl kind, because in my experience jelly made with low-methoxyl pectin turns out cloudy. The graininess of your jelly, however, I can’t explain. It may be caused by some particular characteristic of the prickly pear fruit, which I’ve worked with only once or twice. But consider this testimony from a woman who says her prickly pear jelly turned out grainy because she pureed the fruit in a food processor, which ground some of the seeds along with the flesh: http://www.darkermarkerproductions.com/blog/soup-from-a-stone-jelly-from-a-cactus/. I doubt her jelly would have turned out grainy if she had drained off the juice through cloth instead of through a coarse metal strainer.

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