FENNEL – male and female shapes

Although fennel bulbs may look similar in shape there are two differently shaped bulbs and each is identified by its sex (or so the Sicilians and southern Italians say) – the round are known as the maschi (the male fennel) and the slightly flattened shapes are the femmine (females).

My father always said that the round shaped fennels are the best tasting ones and this is the shape of fennel I always buy, except maybe at the end of the season when the flat, elongated bulbs of fennel become much more common. The shape differences may be subtle, but the taste of the round ones is superior. This may be because the flatter bulbs are getting ready to sprout (hence, allocated the female gender) and therefore their flavour may be dissipated.

Recently, I began to doubt my conviction. I had read that the females are the round fennel bulbs and so last Saturday morning I made a point of buying my fennel from my Italian stall holder at the Queen Victoria Market (I only purchase my fennel from one of the four stalls that sell the best fennel – two of these stalls are Asian). Just to make sure, I then asked several other Italian stallholders about male and female shapes.

Exactly right. I was very happy to have my viewpoint confirmed; for many years I have been advising many others about fennel (not only friends, but also stall holders and people who are selecting bulbs for purchasing). Besides, how could my father be so wrong? (I never appreciated his folklore as a teenager, but as an adult I began to make sense of his world – he grew up in Sicily and moved to Trieste as a seventeen-year old during the war. There he met my mother).

Bottom photos show the characteristic shapes of male and female fennel bulbs.

A friend of mine who grows fennel in her wonderful Adelaide Hills garden tells me how the plant at the very end of the growing season produces some very flat bulbs, which never mature. After speaking to her about this (last year) I saw some bunches of these small flat bulbs for sale in one of the stalls at the Queen Victoria Melbourne Market. I spoke to the vendor who said that rather than wasting them he thought that he would bunch them and try to sell them. When I saw him the following week, he said that they were not a huge success. These may one day become marketable and could be used as a substitute for making Pasta con le sarde or the Minestra di finocchio e patate.


What happens to the flat shaped bulbs of fennel in Italy?

If you have a look at all my photos of fennel in this blog taken in Italy, you will see that they are all round in shape. I do not know what happens to the flat ones, but I have never seen them for sale. Maybe these are removed when young? My father always removed some of his fruit crop when the fruit had just formed. This allowed the remaining fruit to grow big.

There are many recipes for how to use fennel on my blog ( too many to list here). Key in fennel in the search button.



15 thoughts on “FENNEL – male and female shapes”

  1. I was told otherwise. That the female fennels are the rounder ones (also the ones with smaller “children” fennels within). The elongated ones being the males….

  2. Finocchi “maschi”(male), rotondi (round)

    I do not know what country that you are writing from, but
    yes, there are differing points of view about this (but I have only found this confusion in Australia and only by some).

    I have asked growers and Italian relatives and market vendors in Italy and in Australia. I think what happens is a little like Chinese whispers……or history or that matter. Who is telling the story? One tells the story, someone else hears it and it is passed on. But whose version is the true one?

    This is what I know and have questioned others about to test the theory.
    The females are flat because they go to seed, are more fibrous, and sprout and more common at the end of the season (warn out like child bearing women).
    The round ones are strong and sturdy (unfortunately the male species).

  3. I have planted Florence fennel 2 years in a row, the first time using seed from Burpee and the second time using seed ordered from France via the Internet (Finicchio Mantovano). ALL of the fennel from BOTH sources was female (flat). In both instances the seed was planted in late spring. What am I doing wrong?

    1. Planting them in spring is your problem. They are a winter crop you plant in late summer, early autumn. Also make sure the bulb is totally covered by soil when you plant.

  4. I really do not know. Male and female shapes grow on each plant, the flat shape is usually towards the end of the growing season when the plant is going to seed.
    It needs full sun, well drained soil, water. Your planting time might be wrong. Without knowing where you live, in the northern hemisphere, it could be July- Oct, late summer, autumn.
    It may be worthwhile asking someone( plant nursery) about the correct time to plant.

  5. April 26, 2010 4:46 PM
    Anonymous said…
    I have planted Florence fennel for 2 years, in a row … What am I doing wrong?
    Fennel should never be planted in rows

  6. A little botany will resolve this issue. The round bulbs are those growing under ideal conditions, without interuption in warmth and water. When the flowering stems appear (the swollen looking stems) pull the plants, otherwise the bulbs will be flattened and stretched into the leggy, flat fennel described here. Flowers are born down inside the bulb, just like tulips, so watch for those fat stems coming up and get the bulbs harvested before they expand and open. Nothing is to be gained by leaving fennel in the ground too long.

    1. I’m not an expert, but I can just tell you what happened to me. Last summer/fall, I did not pull my bulbs, but cut them, leaving the roots. I had baby fennel bulbs that sprouted out the sides of where I had cut. I was able to go out into my garden to harvest all winter. Slow growing, but so nice to put into salads and a nice winter garden item. I live on the central Oregon coast where winters are mild (and wet and stormy), so that may be why it worked for me.

  7. None of the above comments I have read has resolved my dilemma. it is “is there a male and female fennel (finocchio) bulb? Is there an agronomist that can enlighten me, scientifically? Thanks in anticipation.

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