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Friday, July 6, 2012

Giant Fennel, Ferula communis, Umbelliferae

I've waited seven years for this.

Back in 2007 I bought a small plant of giant fennel Ferula communis, when I was mainly attracted by its delightful, ferny, four-pinnate foliage but also tempted by the promise of a giant inflorescence.

Every year since then it has produced a few magnificent leaves, almost a metre across, but has never showed any sign of flowering. Finally it has summoned up the energy to perform, which is remarkable on two counts. 

Firstly, this is a plant from dry, rocky places in the Mediterranean - in countries like Greece - and this is cold, rainy Durham in northern England, in the grip of the wettest summer on record. 

This is its natural habitat (image source

Secondly, according to Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson's Mediterranean Wild Flowers:

'The stems becomes hard and woody on drying ..... the pith, when dry, burns slowly inside the stem and can be carried alight - it may well have been the original Olympic torch'.

And, of course, this is the year when the Olympics come to Britain. Nice timing!

Other sources claim that the stems were used by Prometheus when he stole fire from the gods on Mount Olympus and gave it to humans.

The stem is robust - and has been used for making furniture, apparently - and the leaf bases sheath the stem in this very distinctive manner.

The inflorescence finally finished elongating when it was close to three metres tall ....

...... then its yellow umbels bloomed. The only way to photograph these is from the upstairs bedroom window......

........... although they do look attractive from below, against the sky.

It's also a very good 'bee-plant' attracting a constant procession of bumblebee visitors to these umbels, each of which is as big as my fist.

Worth waiting for!

Giant fennel is monocarpic and the plant will die after flowering, but I'm tempted to try that stem as a home-made Olympic torch....