Montana State University

Western Ag Research Center

580 Quast Lane
Corvallis, MT 59828

Tel: (406) 961-3025
Fax:(406) 961-3026

Superintendent

Zach Miller
zachariah.miller@montana.edu

Admin Assoc./Accountant

Deb Harrison
dharrison@montana.edu

2014 Field Day (PDF)

Sweet Fennel

Nancy W. Callan, Mal P. Westcott, Susan Wall-MacLane, and James B. Miller

Western Agricultural Research Center
Montana State University

    Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Mill.) is a perennial herb that is native to the Mediterranean and southern Europe. While it is cultivated as a perennial in warmer climates, it must be grown as an annual in Montana. Two kinds of fennel are available: the finocchio or Florence fennel forms thickened leaf bases and is used as a vegetable. The leaf and seed type does not form thickened leaf bases, and may be classified as bitter (var. vulgare) or sweet (var. dulce) (3). Fennel seed is used as a flavoring for foods and beverages, and the essential oil from the seed and plant has flavoring, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical uses.

    Fennel oil may be used directly as a flavoring or given further treatment to produce anethole for the beverage industry. China and Vietnam are major producers of anethole from another plant, the star anise, and are supplying a large proportion of the demand.

    Fennel may be grown by direct seeding or from transplants, but a long growing season is required to mature the seeds. Flowering is initiated when day length reaches 13.5 hours. Our 1998 harvest date of October 5 was after the Bitterroot Valley’s normal mid-September first frost date. Seed maturity was achieved in 1998, but in the normal growing season of 1999, fennel was harvested when seeds were immature and the entire plant distilled. 

    Oil may be steam-distilled from the seeds or from the flowering top. Direct heading may be done to harvest mainly the oil-rich seed heads. At the WARC, mature fennel plant tops or crushed seeds were distilled after air drying in 1998, and plant tops with immature seeds were distilled without drying in 1999.

Western Agricultural Research Center

1998: Fennel was direct-seeded in the field on May 15, 1998, at 6 lb/acre. Six-row plots were 8 ft long with rows 18" apart, with four replications. Plant stand was 15 plants per foot. The top 6-8" of the plants were harvested on October 2, 1998. Outer rows were harvested separately. Plant material was air-dried before distillation. The plant material was treated in two ways: 1) the plant tops distilled intact, or 2) the seeds were threshed and crushed before distillation.

1999: Fennel was direct-seeded on May 5, 1999, at 3 lb/acre. Eight-row plots were 15 ft long with rows 1 ft apart and four replications. Plant stand was 8 plants per foot. The top 6-8" of the plants was harvested on September 22, 1999. Border rows were not included. The plant material was distilled without drying.

Table 1.  Fennel yield at the Western Agricultural Research Center, Corvallis, MT

Plant Part Distilled

Dry weight (lb/a)

Oil (lb/a)

1998

   Entire top (distill dry)

3,258

22.1

   Crushed seeds

 

39.5

1999

   Entire top (distill fresh)

4,128

37.2

 

Table 2.  Fennel oil composition at the Western Agricultural Research Center, Corvallis, MT

Plant Part Distilled

Anethole (%)

Limonene (%)

Fenchone (%)

1998

   Entire top (distill dry)

55.8

34.4

0.9

   Crushed seeds

60.4

28.8

1.7

1999

   Entire top (distill fresh)

66.8

22.2

2.1

Discussion

    Fennel can be grown in the Bitterroot Valley’s short growing season if the plants are harvested with immature seeds and distilled without drying. The seeding rate was reduced from 6 to 3 lb/a in 1999, and the lower rate resulted in a similar biomass with a lower plant stand.

    Oil production from the plant tops was acceptable, as aboveground parts normally contain 1-1.5% oil (3). The anethole content of the herb oil exceeded the standard of 50-60% (2). Conversely, fenchone was less than 5%, above which the oil has a bitter flavor (1). Limonene levels were high in both years of the study, but sweet fennel oil can contain as much as 30% limonene. The market for fennel oil is limited because of the prevalence of alternative sources of anethole, and because wild fennel is harvested for oil in many parts of the world.

Acknowledgements

Seed was provided by Johnny's Selected Seeds, Albion, ME. 

Oil analysis was performed by Essex Labs, P. O. Box 3368, Salem, Oregon 97032-0368.

Additional Information about Fennel

Books and Publications:

1.  Bernath, J., Nemeth, E., Kataa, A., and Hethelyi, E. 1996. Morphological and chemical evaluation of fennel (Foeniculum vulagare Mill.) populations of different origin. J. Essent. Oil Res., 8:247-253.

2.  Guenther, E. 1948. Oil of Fennel. The Essential Oils. Robert E. Krieger Pub. Co., Inc.

3.  Hornok, L. 1992. Cultivation and processing of medicinal plants. John Wiley and Sons.

Web Pages:

4.  Peterson, L. 1998.  Fennel Oil. The New Rural Industries. A Handbook for Farmers and Investors. Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation. 

5.  Simon, J., A. Chadwick and L. Craker. 1984. Herbs: An Indexed Bibliography. 1971-1980. The Scientific Literature on Selected Herbs, and Aromatic and Medicinal Plants of the Temperate Zone. Archon Books, 770 pp., Hamden, CT.