Fennel look-alikes

Note: this website is written for Australian readers, and as an accessory to our book Let’s Eat Weeds: A Kid’s Guide to Foraging (available below). If you’re viewing it from elsewhere you may have other look-alike plants in your area, so check local guides.

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 soft, fine leaves
Some fennel greens, which will fry up nicely!

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.)

There’s actually one plant that looks so similar we won’t even show you picture of it, and that is fennel’s cousin: dill (scientific name: Anethum graveolens). Dill doesn’t grow as a weed, but you might find in someone’s veggie garden. It’s a herb used in pickling gerkins and the main way you tell it from fennel is the flavour.

deadly hemlock

(scientific name: Conium maculatum)

skull and crossbones

Hemlock is one of the most poisonous plants in the world! So 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 spots.

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 at first we thought someone had planted a carrot. And we are experts. 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. (They don’t smell very good.)

skull and crossbones
a small hemlock plant
Deadly hemlock

Deadly hemlock

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
hemlock seeds
Deadly hemlock seeds

These are the dried seeds on a bent-over dried stem. It’s when they are dry like this that you could confuse them 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.)

See more photos in our weeds gallery. And be careful out there!

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