Cookies from Southern Italy
May 232010

This is the time of the year for wild fennel fronds. Thank goodness that my parents moved to Northern California. I don’t know what we would have done without our wild fennel!

The wild fennel that grows here in Northern California is the same variety, finocchietto selvatico, as the one that grows on the coastal areas of Southern Italy. I foraged for some yesterday while hiking on a trail with my husband.

Wild fennel grows in empty lots, meadows, roadsides–just about everywhere. During the spring the green fronds sprout from the old roots of the previous year. They then grow throughout the spring and summer into tall cane-like stems. By July the plant blooms with yellow “flowers”, that are, in fact, immature seeds that some people use to make “fennel pollen”.

Wild fennel is not the same as the fennel that you buy at the farmers’ market or at the produce store. In fact, wild fennel doesn’t resemble it in any way at all. The domesticated fennel has a large edible white bulb, which is wonderful raw in salads and cooked in many different ways. Its fronds have very little flavor. Wild fennel, however, does not produce a bulb. Its edible parts are the springtime fronds and the summertime seeds. It has a very distinctive flavor of sweet anise.

When foraging for wild fennel don’t collect from the roadside or other locations where the plants are exposed to car exhaust or dogs. Go in the back of a lot or in areas where people don’t walk their dogs. Also take only a few fronds from each plant. Don’t remove an entire plant. I’ll let you know how to forage for the seeds later in the summer when I have some photos.


Many of you have eaten pasta con sarde, a dish from my husband’s hometown of Palermo that requires wild fennel fronds. But Calabrians also eat the fronds. My grandmother would throw them in a delicious minestra made with various wild greens. And we use the seeds to flavor our cracked green olives, our cured black olives, and of course our homemade Calabrian sausage, both fresh and cured.

I had included a pasta recipe in my cookbook that required wild fennel but it was removed because I was told that nobody outside California has access to it. Is this true? Those of you who live elsewhere, please let me know if you have seen wild fennel. I would think that it would grow on any coastal areas with mild weather. If indeed it doesn’t grow where you live you can buy the seeds from  Seeds from Italy and grow your own wild fennel. But whether you have foraged for wild fennel or grown it from seed, give this quick pasta dish a try. Don’t replace it with domesticated fennel fronds as they don’t taste the same.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Boil the cleaned fronds for 10 minutes. Drain the fronds well, reserving the cooking liquid, and finely mince them as shown on the right side of the picture below.

Remove the sausage from its casing. Break the sausage into small clumps with a knife. I used my homemade fresh Calabrian sausage, but you can use any sweet or hot Italian sausage.

Brown the sausage with some olive oil.

Add the minced cooked wild fennel. Season with salt.

Cook the pasta in the reserved water that the fennel was cooked in. Drain and toss with the sauce.

Here is the finished dish. So simple–only three ingredients–and yet so good!


Pasta con Finocchietto Selvatico (Penne with wild fennel and sausage)


  • 1/4 pound (115 grams) wild fennel fronds, leaves and slim, tender stems only
  • 3/4 pound (350 grams) fresh sweet or hot Italian sausage or Fresh Homemade Fennel Sausage Calabrian Style
  • 1/4 cup (60 milliliters) extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 pound (450 grams) penne rigate or rigatoni

Wash the fronds well in hot water as they can harbor small insects. Bring 5 quarts (5 liters) of water to a boil in an 8-quart (8-liter) pot over high heat. Add the fronds and boil 10 minutes, then lift them out of the water and into a colander, reserving the water to cook the pasta. Drain the fronds well and finely mince. You should have 1/2 to 2/3 cup minced greens.

Remove the sausage from its casing. Break the sausage into small clumps with a table knife.

Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch (25-centimeter) skillet over moderately high heat. Add the sausage and cook until it is no longer pink and begins to brown lightly. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon, breaking up the clumps into smaller bits. Add the fennel greens and stir well to distribute them and coat them with the oil. Season with salt. Reduce the heat and keep warm.

Add 1/4 cup (35 grams) salt to the water in which you cooked the fennel. Return to a boil and add the pasta. Cook until al dente. Set aside 1 cup (250 milliliters) of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and return it to the skillet with the sausage and fennel greens. Cook, stirring, over moderate heat for a minute or two to flavor the pasta, moistening it with some of the reserved pasta water. Serve immediately.

Serves 6

Copyright 2006, Rosetta Costantino. All rights reserved.


  100 Responses to “Foraging for and cooking wild fennel”


    I have seen the wild fennel here in Carlsbad, CA and was wondering what the difference is in the store bought and wild. I tried to dig out the bulb on the wild fennel but realized that I would be digging to China! It is an extensive, wandering root system with many, many patches. I use the fennel bulb to flavor vodka for bloody marys, but I will try this recipe with the wild fennel fronds. Glad to know it is not lethal, and it is free!


    I am an Italian immigrant of 50 years and was always able to buy wild fennel stalks here in Toronto Ontario to season rabbit. For some reason it is no longer available anywhere Does anyone know where in Toronto I can get some.


    We found wild fennel by the railway line in Hamilton, New Zealand (nowhere near Ontario!). We do not get the same kind of meat or sausage here, though. Looking forward to trying the fennel.


    Wild fennel grows in abundance here in Cyprus. It is out just now but I never knew what to do with it. I will try your recipe. Thanks


    We have grown wild fennel here in Illinois for years. The plants grow for a few years, but I think this year may not have any because of the bad winter before. Will try to get the seeds we normaly use to make sausage, and replant. We use ous for pasta for St Joseph’s day. Also like it boiled with pasta and season with olive oil and salt and pepper and with Romano cheese sprinkled on top.



    I have a reliable source for wild black anise seeds(pimpinella anisum) if anyone is interested.


    Please tell me about this source of black anise seed. I am hoping it is the small black version like in Italy. Not the star anise. Thank you.


    Frank I would love to get some wild black anise, i have been looing for a true wild black anise for sometime. Thanks


    I’m a transplant from Ohio to Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s growing all over the place, I never even thought about it until I pulled some leaves off and smelled it. The recipe sounds delicious and I will try it. Tonight, it goes in a salad.


    My mother used to cook fennel some way in the oven on top of pasta. Wish I had the recipie. She cooked the fennel frounds on St. Joseph’s day for a meal without meat, but the pasta had a topping of some fish like anchivies and bread crumbs on top of that. I have these wild plants in my back yard here in Campbell, CA, nice to know ways to cook them. Paul


    For those looking to purchase black anise seeds, please contact me at


    We have wild fennel in Mississippi and I would imagine throughout the Southeast.
    Thank you for the recipe and info!!


    I found a large stand of wild fennel growing in Anacortes, Washington. So, it’s a fair assessment it grows up and down the Pacific West Coast.


    help. how long does it take for wild fennel seeds to germinate and grow?

    desperate to grow some in order to use the dried stems to make marchegian

    porchetta. helpless in ct.


    Please contact me if you’re interested in purchasing black anise seeds.


    [...] the recipe for simple fennel and sausage pasta. I think the key is cooking the pasta in the water you used to boil the fennel. The water is [...]


    Just made this for dinner. Slight adaptations to make it easier but all the fennel was gathered near our house at Camp Pendleton.


    Sir,Where can i buy som Black Anise Seeds,i have been trying to find some for my mother for a long time now,thanks Craig


    We have it in central California. In China we grow it and use it for fillings for buns.


    Have in Monterey, CA. Chinese use it as filling for buns.


    I found some of this on a hike today… got here googling “wild fennel” and I’m pretty sure that that’s what I found… smells and looks just like fennel but with no bulb… I don’t live terribly far away, I’m Southern California (San Diego) but I can report wild fennel here. Thanks for the recipe! Now I know what to do with it!


    Dear Rosetta,

    Do you happen to know if wild fennel grows in northern Georgia (U.S.A.)? A year or so ago, I bought a nursery-stock fennel plant, and haven’t noticed anything resembling a bulb such as ordinary fennel is said to have; however, the fronds come up strong and sturdy every spring.

    Ciao, and grazi,

    Atlanta, Ga.


    P.S. I would love to buy some wild fennel seeds. Do you know a source?


    [...] For more about foraging fennel and the source of this recipe adaptation, check out Calabria from Scratch. [...]


    I am trying to locate large (2-3) acre stands of fennel in Northern CA. Finder’s Fee!


    Wild fennel grows all over Israel. The yellow flowers are so gorgeous in the early summer. I will have to try eating some this year. Thanks for the advice.


    You can find wild fennel in Melbourne, Australia!


    [...] a good piece of snapper or what have you. Or cooked in any of the following exciting ways: Yum, Yum, Yum, Yum, [...]


    [...] time by native foragers and passed down through the family. Here’s a tasty Italian recipe by Rosetta Constino, chef, author. Visit her site. Penne with Wild Fennel and [...]


    I can also report wild fennel in north carolina, so your recipie is still quite relevant. I grew up in southern california and was so excited to see it here!


    It’s fennel-time in the SF Bay Area again!
    We decided to do some yard work this afternoon involving weeding out our old wooden raised beds we have in the back yard. We found a bunch a little wild fennels growing back there, among all the clover. So many, that we decided to look up a recipe and we found this one!
    So… that’s what we made for dinner tonight, and boy, it sure was good.
    Thanks for posting it for everyone to see. We also enjoyed the accompanying photos!


    [...] Wir bedanken uns bei Rosetta Costantino und ihrem Blog Das Rezept können Sie unter dem folgenden Link finden [...]


    This stuff grows like weeds here in the S.F. Bay Area. Occasionally when I’m walking or biking, I’ll grab a stalk to chew on, since I love the ‘licorice’ flavor. Next spring I’ll have to grab some more in abundance and use it for some recipes.


    hi, in being a born calabrian and raised in Toronto Ontario Canada I have never tried the pasta and fennel. My mom cooks it with the wild greens as well but never made it with pasta. It is now a favourite with my family. I grow my own since I have never seen it in stores and I also harvest the seeds and use them in teas, dishes and sausage. I have altered the recipe a bit by cooking it with the sausage after the sausage is browned. I believe this will keep any vitamins it has intact.


    for anyone who is interested I sell the wild fennel seeds and can be contacted by email.


    Thanks for the info and recipe. I am going to use some tonight. ) I have loads of it growing on my property in the Algarve, Portugal. I heard you can make tea with it also and the dried stems are great for starting a fire. ^__^


    Hi, i live in Grays Essex England and there is loads of wild fennel that grows along the banks of the river Thames,iv often wondered if there are any dishes which you can use it for ? so now i will try your receipe,thanks


    Just found wild fennel growing on the banks of the river by Great Wakering Common in the UK. Will try cooking it tonight.


    My aunt always gave us the dried fennel to use in her famous and delicious recipe for porchetta.
    She was from Pennsylvania and they grew it there. I have never found it anywhere else around New Jersey and she passed so I don’t have access anymore. I did go on the Seeds from Italy website and I bought it very inexpensively and they were very kind to give me detailed directions to grow and save the seeds for next year from the plant this year. Can’t wait to cut it and make the porchetta!


    Wild fennel grows in huge quantities in southern spain. Really flourishes with bad rocky soil and v little water


    Hi Rosetta – I adore your sausage& wild fennel recipe.

    My whole business ‘the wild kitchen’ is entirely based around foraging and using natural wild plants in the kitchen. Our wild species here in the U.K is (foeniculum vulgare). It was left behind by the Romans when they landed here on the E Coast in 5 BC and has gone happily native…
    Fennel flower mayonnaise, vinegar and sugar are all favourites of the wild kitchen.
    With warm wishes and many thanks – Lucia -


    Hey There,

    I live in Australia on the western side near Perth.
    We have fennel everywhere on the side of the road.
    Infact my friend and I just foraged for some :)

    Please love to see more recipes with fennel.



    I’ve just collected wild fennel seed from country Australia. I’m looking forward in using it in recipes


    This was one of the BEST pasta dishes we have ever had. I added some precooked left-over asparagus and a little butter just cause. My entire fennel hating family ate every bite. Wild Fennel is nothing like domestic. I just got back from foraging another HUGE bag (off road). It is everywhere here just North of the Golden Gate Bridge. I have heard that the inland fennel is sweeter than the coastal fennel. That test will be done soon. The good news is that the season is very long here because the temps at the coast are so much cooler so the “crop” of fronds to pollen to seeds overlaps from March to November. When they mow it down, it grows back and voila–another crop.
    Thanks for a REALLY awesome recipe. I think I can blanch the fronds and freeze and vacuum pack them, making them available all year round! So much fun free food out there!



    Glad to hear that you tried the recipe and that the whole family enjoyed it. Yes you can freeze the fronds (I blanch them and then cool and chop them and pack them in the freezer) so you will have them all year round, but as you mentioned here in the Bay Area you can find fennel fronds all year round as it comes up every time they cut it down.


    I live in Buckinghamshire in the UK and have wild fennel growing in my garden


    I’m here in the Bay Area!! Wild Fennel grows in abundance all over Brisbane, California, 15 mins south of San Francisco. Including the canyon surrounding my condo. Wherever you see green it’s there.

    Thanks for posting the recipe and giving information regarding how to pick it and how it’s different from domesticated fennel. I like fennel root, but not a big fan of anise. However, based on the photos and rave reviews, I may be trying this recipe.


    I know this is a really old post but I live in North Carolina and have this plant ALL over my 100 acres and I see it everywhere from this state all the way down to Florida. This website just helped me to confirm what it is because we have been trying all year to identify it. The only response I ever get from anybody is, “weed”. My husband has been eating it all along so we’re glad to have confirmation that it is edible other than “well, I’m not dead yet” =). Can the fronds still be eaten late summer (before flowering)?


    Thank you for letting me know that wild fennel grows in NC and all the way down to Florida. In Southern Italy they use the green fronds to make stew, pasta sauces, fritters, I made pesto with it and it is delicious on pasta (almonds,fennel fronds blanched, grated pecorino cheese, garlic and olive oil). Yes you can use the green fronds (tender ones) even when the plant is starting to flower. Once it flowers and they become seeds you can pick the seeds and dry them, they are the best fennel seeds that you can’t buy, you will never use the fennel seeds that they sell at the store once you taste wild fennel seeds.


    I have wild fennel growing in my garden here in Lancashire and although we’ve had a wet summer it seems to have thrived. I understand the plant was brought here by the Romans. I use the stalks and cook them as I would brocoli stalks nice with salt pepper butter n grated cheese goes nice with lamb chops

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