Fennel look-alikes

Fennel (scientific name: Foeniculum vulgare) has leaves thinner than pine needles which are soft and floppy. And, it smells like liquorice! So it’s one of the easiest edible plants to identify. BUT – and this is a big ‘but’ – you should never eat the dried seeds from a dead plant. Because then (and really only then) it could be mistaken for the deadly hemlock.

first off – let’s look at the real fennel


This is fennel.

a fennel plant with feathery leaves and a few flowers
Fennel, looking like a green cloud with yellow fireworks going off
fennel foliage
A close up of fennel's fairly soft, fine leaves

The flowers are yellow and come in clusters. The seeds are deliciously sweet when eaten green. They will still have a little bit of yellow on the top.

Dried fennel seeds are often eaten after dinner in India because they:

  1. taste nice
  2. help you do less farts

If you like to do lots of farts then you shouldn’t eat them.

(Photo by Connie Ma.)

deadly hemlock

skull and crossbones

Hemlock (scientific name: Conium maculatum) is one of the most poisonous plants in the world! We’re going to put this skull next to all the photos of it.

It likes to grow in wet areas. Fennel grows all over the place. But it’s possible to find them in the same kind of areas.

Hemlock is related to fennel. Both fennel and hemlock are related to carrots, parsley, coriander and parsnip.

Hemlock leaves look a bit like fern leaves. You could mistake hemlock for a carrot top. In fact, we had a hemlock plant pop up in the veggie garden and we thought someone had planted a carrot. And we are experts. And it took us a while to realise it wasn’t a carrot. So be careful eating carrot tops in the garden!

Luckily, it doesn’t look like fennel much at all. EXCEPT – and this is a big ‘except’ – when both plants are dead, and all that is left is some dry seeds. That’s why we say never eat dried seeds from a dead fennel. It might not be fennel.


Here’s the fern-like leaves of a young hemlock plant. Not only do they not look like fennel, they don’t smell like liquorice either.

skull and crossbones

The flowers look a bit similar to fennel, but instead of yellow, they are white. The stem usually has purple blotches on it.


skull and crossbones

These are the dried seeds on a bent-over dried stem. It’s when they are dry like this that you could confuse it with fennel. The seeds won’t have the same liquorice flavour as fennel seeds. But here’s a tip, if you don’t want to go to hospital: don’t taste them to find out!

skull and crossbones

(Photo by H. Zell.)

Ok, be careful out there!