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Aug 6, 2010 05:18 PM

Time to Harvest Fennel Pollen (Sonoma County)

Last month I tipped the ends of the flowering fennel in my friends’ yard into a baggie to shake loose the bright yellow pollen. If you’ve never had fennel pollen fresh, do try it, the scent is absolutely gorgeous and much finer than the dried seed. As an added incentive, just a few hours later a friend invited me to an upcoming porchetta feast. Surely some psychic connection nudged his menu planning and guest list at the moment I had the precious and necessary pollen in hand. Maybe this will work for you too.

Today I took this photo of feral fennel in bloom growing by the roadside in northern Alexander Valley, south of Cloverdale. It’s everywhere now, although you’ll want to do your foraging farther away from auto traffic.

If that seems like too much work, Sonoma County wild gathered fennel pollen is $12 per 0.5 ounce at Cook's Spice farmers market booth or online. Cook’s Spice sells at the Sunday morning Windsor certified farmers market and the Wednesday night Santa Rosa Downtown Market.

For more ideas on collecting fennel pollen and cooking tips, here’s a link to Sonoma County Master Gardeners on “Fabulous Fennel”.

Santa Rosa Downtown Market
637 1st St, Santa Rosa, CA 95404

Cook's Spices
Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa, CA

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  1. Thanks for this, Melanie -- I've always *thought* that that was wild fennel that I've seen growing, but was never sure. Sadly, most of the time I've noticed it it's been right off the highway, but I'm sure that it's in other places in the Bay Area. I'll start traveling with little plastic baggies so that I can harvest it when I see it.

    4 Replies
    1. re: JasmineG

      There's much more than usual this year, probably because of the rain. I'll add a note of caution that the mature flowers also attract a lot of honeybees. And, the ground is often home to thistles and thorny blackberry vines too. So be careful.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        You mean that I could get fennel pollen and blackberries all at once? That's a good thing! But your note of caution is appreciated.

        1. re: JasmineG

          I agree they're both absolutely worth it. Probably most important is appropriate attire, e.g., long sleeved shirt and denim jeans so thorns and stickers don't bother so much. The thistles poked through the light cotton pants I was wearing today.

        2. re: Melanie Wong

          Note that wild fennel is also the primary food for swallow tail butterfly caterpillars, so watch out for them and be gentle with the plant.

      2. Plenty of wild fennel in McLaren Park. Near the reservoir is a good place to start.

        9 Replies
        1. re: Zeldog

          Nice tip, hope we hear about other large stands of fennel. It takes a lot of plants to get anything worthwhile. One friend suggested that I check out the local cemetery.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Melanie, have been trying, with a hand lens, to view pollen on my florence fennel. I can barely see the anthers, so the pollen grains would be almost too small to see at all.

            Is it verified that what is being gathered and sold as "pollen" really is such, and not some other, larger flower part? When I shake the flower heads, I can collect a bright yellow residue that is about the size of fine grind black pepper. That seems much too large to be actual pollen. I've been scouring the internet for a detailed drawing labeling all the parts and functionsof the flower to no avail. May have to take a trip into SLO to Poly's library for one.

            But I can't help but be skeptical on this one. Any thoughts or advice where to look for verification? (My florence fennel blooms almost continuously in my coastal garden so I can view it in all stages of bloom and seed development)

            1. re: toodie jane

              Since what are called fennel "seeds" are actually the fruits, this would not surprise me. I'm saving the yellow dust, not the visible yellow flower "petals". What do you think it is?

              1. re: toodie jane

                I was in Corti Brothers in Sacramento this weekend and took a look at the clear envelopes of imported Italian Fiore Di Fnocchio sold there. A literal translation would be flowers of fennel, and that's what it looked like. Stemmy parts, tiny rings like the fennel blooms, etc. I think I need to be less strict about the part I'm saving and keep more of the yellow flowers or I'll never accumulate much. BTW, a week ago, I was driving up Park Blvd toward Hwy 13 in Oakland and saw a lot of fennel in bloom near there, and also on the Sonoma coast.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Here in Berkeley the fennel has gone to seed. Do you harvest the seed, too?

                  1. re: Glencora

                    In Berkeley, before they made the fallow Kona Kai Farms garden space into the Berkeley Bowl West, we would collect the flowering tops of the wild fennel by carefully snipping them off at the top of the stem with scissors so as not to shake off the pollen and let the flowers fall into a paper grocery bag (look for flowering tops that are bright yellow, not the ones with mostly brown seeds). Once the bag was full of fennel tops we took it home and set it on the back porch (dry, covered, breeze free) to dry. We put a bamboo garden stake in to the open bag poking up out of the top so that the various insects could climb out which they promptly did. In a few weeks the flowers dried and we sifted the crumbled flower tops, first in a colander to get out the stems and big pieces of debris and then sifted again using a finer mesh sieve to separate the yellow flowers from the seeds. The final product was a yellow powder of mixed flowers and pollen. This is the stuff we use for flavoring all sorts of recipes. It lasts for a year before losing its power. The second grade of seeds/stems made for a nice addition to sausages, pickling brine and such.
                    These days I look for empty lots, far from smoggy traffic and contaminated soil. Just a few plants can produce more then enough fennel flowers/pollen for a single user. It is a bit late in the season now but it's out there if you look hard enough.

                    1. re: flavorenhancer

                      Thanks so much for sharing your experience and technique! I've been snipping off flower tops too, as that turned out to be easier than trying to shake off the yellow dust outdoors. They're spread out on a sheet of tissue paper in a corner to dry. I'll use your double sifting technique to separate them. Some have told me that they freeze the yield after drying to hold the potency.

                      Here's a photo of a chickpea fritter from August's Plum preview dinner in SF. It was dusted with fresh fennel flowers and one can see one of the (blurry) tiny yellow rings on the foreground of the plate.

                      1. re: flavorenhancer

                        Hi flavorenhancer! What time of year is best to harvest the fennel pollen?

                        I'm wondering if the wild fennel (plain Foeniculum vulgare) pollen is just as fragrant as the cultivated Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Azoricum)


                        1. re: peppino

                          Right now. The fennel is blooming all over.

            2. For new foragers, note that fennel and poison hemlock are closely related and look a LOT alike. One big difference is that hemlock has reddish splotchy streaks up the stems, which you can think of as Socrates' blood if it helps you remember which one NOT to pick.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Pistou

                They both grow all over out here in the Delta but are much too dissimilar to be confused- for starters fennel is yellow flowered and sweet smelling and thriving in the heat while hemlock is white flowered , stinks and coming to it's end in the heat. Hemlock (actually "water hemlock") is much more like wild carrot or Queen Anne's Lace.

                1. re: cecig

                  Right. They don't look much alike when they are blooming, it's the rest of the time you have to worry about.

              2. Funny this came up because I 've been reading Mario Batali's grill book and he uses fennel pollen a lot. Glad to know I can still collect.

                1. We have a ton of fresh fennel flowers but let a few of the (felled) plants sit for a week in a garage. Is the pollen still usable?