May 19, 2010

Bronze Fennel for Butterfly Gardens

The fronds of bronze fennel look like thick, dark clouds looming behind the spring-flowering perennials. Through the summer, the fennel grows tall, strong and stately—topped with lacy yellow flowers. Bronze fennel is not only ornamental, but serves a purpose in the life cycle of certain butterflies.

Suitable for zones 4-9, bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum') is easily grown from seed.

So easy to grow, that I highly recommend cutting off the flowers before they set seed. I didn't deadhead my three large fennel plants last year and have THOUSANDS of seedlings around the plants!

The tap root is very, very long. I removed a mature fennel last fall and part of the taproot is still in the garden because I would have upset a mass planting of coreopsis to continue digging. I now grow the fennel at the outside edges of my main gardens so that I don't have the seeds or the roots around my best perennials.

Now that I've given you the bad news, there is a very good reason to grow bronze fennel.

The fluffy and fragrant herb is a host plant for the caterpillars that become Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterflies. The caterpillars feed on the fennel until time for the metamorphosis. Currently, my fennel is literally covered with the caterpillars—a very good sign that there will be many butterflies to come. The caterpillars show up all summer long and into fall.

But, wait—there's more!

This year, I noticed little needle-shaped green sticks all over the fennel, too. On closer inspection, I found dozens of praying mantis nymphs. With a little research, I have learned that the eggs are laid in the fall and hatch in the spring. These little creatures will prey on other insects and even hummingbirds. Still, they are beneficial insects to have in the garden.

Bronze fennel will always have a place in my butterfly garden. But, I will be more diligent about deadheading this year!

Words and photos by Freda Cameron, Defining Your Home, Garden and Travel.
Freelance travel writer. My current fiction writing projects include a completed manuscript and several works in progress.

By the way, my name is pronounced fred-ah, not freed-ah. Thank you.

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