Foeniculum Funeral

My Fabulous Foeniculum is no more.

In June 2014, I wrote this post about a single Fennel plant, Foeniculum vulgare,  which was a couple of years old at that time. In addition to  its cloud-like, airy beauty in the garden,

…it was the nursery and all-you-can-eat cafe for scores of Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

This particular fennel plant was apparently very happy situated in this mostly morning sun spot.

It not only withstood at least two full Central Texas summers and most of a third, but grew quite tall at  points during its life.

I named it Mega-Fennel. This past summer Mega-Fennel started off just fine: lush  and full of life and ready for the summer onslaught of butterfly larvae. But during July and August I began noticing fennel foliage die-off.

I hoped, rather than believed, that if I pruned the dead and dying foliage, that somehow, miraculously,  Mega-fennel would rally and survive.

Alas, it did not rally.   In September, Mega-Fennel was good and dead.  I dug it up and unceremoniously tossed the long-lived and butterfly life-giving fennel into my compost bin.

I held no funeral for the fab Foeniculum.

Once the temperatures cooled, local nurseries began carrying fennel again–they suspend selling the cool-season herb during our long summers–I purchased several.   I’ve replaced Mega-Fennel,

… from bronze to green, and have added others to my garden.   I prefer bronze fennel;

I think it’s hardier than the more weak-stemmed green fennel.  Butterflies like both and lay their eggs equally on fennel, regardless of slight differences in foliage hue.

Only a few of the other fennel that I’ve grown have lasted more than one season and none as long as Mega-Fennel.   I’ve planted some fennel in full sun and they thrive in the cool months of October-May, but once the calendar flips over to June and summer heat settles in, full-sun fennel suffers under the death rays of the Texas sun.  I think Mega-Fennel’s grand success was due to its morning sun position. Going forward,  fennel planted in my garden will be placed in dappled light or morning sun.

I plant fennel to attract and feed butterflies, specifically the larval form of the  Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes.  If you look at information about this gorgeous butterfly of the Americas, there’s no specific mention of fennel as a host plant.  Most insects prefer “host” plants that their larval forms feed on and usually, host plants and their insects evolved together. Native plants are intrinsic to the insects of a given region–they are partners in the wider food chain.  Historically, the  Black Swallowtail larvae wouldn’t have dined on fennel because it’s not a native plant to North America, but instead, an introduced Mediterranean herb. The Black Swallowtail larvae feed on plants from the Apiaceae, or Carrot Family. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s plant database, there are about 100 native North American plants in the Apiaceae family and just over half of those grow  here in Texas.  Some of these are perennials, some are annuals; most sport umbel inflorescence.  A few are water plants and many look like they’d be quite delicious added to a salad.  I have to assume (though I didn’t find specific information confirming this) that in unadulterated habitats, Black Swallowtails would use at least some of these plant hosts for their larvae.  Considering that wild space is now at a minimum and disappearing rapidly, what’s a Black Swallowtail to do?

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen native Texas Apiaceae plants for sale, though I’ll  bet seeds are available at Wildseed Farms or Native American Seeds. Because the native Apiaceae plants are not the commercially appealing landscape plants common in the retail nursery trade, the next best thing for the wildlife gardener is to plant an introduced  species which is a member of  the Apiaceae Family, that is regularly available for purchase, and that butterflies can adapt to.  And that’s exactly what has happened–in my garden and many others.

I’d rather grow native plants, but will make-do with appropriate non-natives if  necessary.  As long as the butterflies are happy, eating well and laying eggs, this gardener is happy.

Other introduced host plants of the Black Swallowtail are dill, carrot, and celery.  But for my garden and in hopes of hosting another Mega-Fennel, I’ll stick with fennel for my visiting swallowtails and their progeny.


Fabulous Foeniculum

By Austin standards, temperatures for spring and summer of 2014 have been mild to downright cool.  While still drier than normal, there has been some rain.  I think those factors explain the exuberance of this Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare.

This guy is four and a half feet tall! Where does he think he is? Oregon??  I planted this particular specimen a year or two ago–it’s bumbled along for some time and since last fall, it grew.

And grew.  I plant Fennel (and Dill, as well) to attract butterflies to my garden.  Fennel is the host plant for several species of swallowtail butterflies.  The adult butterfly lays her eggs on the Fennel, the eggs hatch and the caterpillars eat until they’re ready for their trip through the chrysalis and to eventual butterfly-hood.  Sometimes a chrysalis will form on the Fennel itself,

but usually the large caterpillar transforms into its adult self elsewhere.  Either way, planting Fennel is helpful in assuring a regular population of swallowtail butterflies.

I haven’t hosted hoards of caterpillars and resulting butterflies this year,

just a few, here and there.

And the caterpillars haven’t eaten the Fennel to the ground. Yet.  Though they are efficient at stripping the foliage from the stems.

I have a dedicated butterfly garden in a different part of my gardens, as well.

I planted these Bronze and Green Fennel for the swallowtails last fall, along with some transplanted Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, for the Monarchs.  The Fennel has thrived, though the Milkweed froze in the winter and has been very slow to return.

Which is just as well as I didn’t spot one Monarch in my gardens during spring migration.  Not. One. Monarch. That is scary and sad.

The Fennel provides food for swallowtails and some delicious salad sprigs–for me, that is.  Several of my Fennel are beginning to bolt, which entails producing  flower umbels,

and going to seed.

I’m snipping the flower panicles off to keep the Fennel in a growing mode, but summer heat will continue to encourage the bolting process.  Fennel has survived summer before in my gardens and if it doesn’t get too hot this year, it could happen again.  Time will tell.

The Fennel has been beautiful for these past eight months. Foliage is the main attraction with Fennel, for people and butterfly larvae. Delicate and lacy–it is also winter hardy, so it’s great to plant in the fall. It can overwinter, grow and be ready for butterfly happenings in the spring and summer.  I’m particularly fond of Bronze Fennel and usually choose that variety though I plant both the Green and the Bronze Fennel in my gardens.

Butterflies don’t discriminate–their larvae munch on both. Fennel is a lovely, but unreliable, landscape plant.  Gardeners must understand that the caterpillars will eat Fennel, possibly to the ground.  And here in Austin, if the caterpillars don’t trash the Fennel, the heat will.  I recommend that if you plant Fennel, be sure to situate it amongst other summer blooming perennials, so that when the Fennel disappears (either because of caterpillars or summer temperatures), there isn’t a gaping hole left in your garden.

Don’t even think about planting Fennel right now–that would amount to a major garden fail!  Plant Fennel in your gardens next fall, when it’s cooler and there is some regular rain. In time, you’ll have a beautiful garden addition, some yummy herbs for your salad and cooking pleasure, and an excellent host plant for beautiful butterflies.


Foliage Follow-up, April 2014

Spring has definitely sprung here in Austin and though blooms may be foremost for most garden lovers, foliage loveliness deserves a shout-out.   Here are my foliage favorites for April.

The summer and fall blooming Gregg’s Mistflower (Conoclinium greggiisports deeply lobed foliage, giving rise to one of the common names for this hardy ground cover, Palmleaf Mistflower.


Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has beautiful foliage year-round.  It’s delicate, fern-like and spreads well (sometimes too well).  Yarrow is evergreen, hardy and drought tolerant.

It brightens this shady spot.

A perennial favorite of mine and one I’ve profiled before, Mexican Feathergrass (Nassella tenuisima) is at the zenith of beauty in the spring.

The lone green Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)  in my back gardens apparently wasn’t decimated by butterfly larva last year.

With soft, graceful foliage, it’s a wonderful addition to the mixed perennial garden.

Globe Mallow (Spaeralcea ambigua)  is such a show-stopper with its combination of orange blooms and arresting, pale gray-green, fuzzy leaves.

I like this combination of  Pale-leaf Yucca (Yucca pallida), Heartleaf Skullcap (Scutellaria ovata) and the bright green Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii).

The Pale-leaf Yucca appears blue against the backdrop of the greener Skullcap ground cover  and the Autumn Sage’s is a bright green punctuation situated further in that same ground cover.

The Wild Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) not only has beautiful blooms in spring, but interesting foliage year-round.

New growth from a young American Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus), promises more beauty as it matures.

Lastly, I can’t resist the photo of the Scarlet Tanager, Piranga olivacea, who has visited my garden this past week as he rests on the green branch of Retama (Parkinsonia aculeata).  Plumage and foliage–you can’t beat that!

Thanks to Pam at Digging for hosting Foliage Follow-up for April.