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Fennel — sweet or bronze — is a favorite swallowtail caterpillar delicacy, along with carrots and parsley. It’s worth growing a few plants just to attract these beautiful little creatures, with their vivid custom paint jobs and voracious appetites.

So graceful and leggy, fennel has always had a place in our family herb garden. A half-teaspoon of the aromatic seeds, steeped in a cup of hot spearmint tea, is a soothing and safe remedy for nausea. I bruise the spearmint leaves and fennel seeds alike (crushing under a wooden spoon will do the trick) before pouring boiling water over them. Steep for five to seven minutes, strain the liquid, and sweeten with honey if desired.

The stalks are a good substitute for celery in soups.

Children like fennel’s delicately licorice taste. When my girls were small, I’d find them in the garden on summer afternoons, nibbling the feathery leaves like a herd of two-legged deer. Even at three or four years old, they could instantly distinguish between fennel and dill. I had to shoo them out of the herb garden when their grazing got out of hand, or risk not having any fennel for the kitchen.


After watching the caterpillars dine for a while, I banished faithful garden dog Atticus to the house (he loves to chase flying insects) and brought the camera out. An adult black swallowtail posed for me — a female, judging from the iridescent blue patches on her hind wings. I hope her presence, lingering among the low-growing greenery, will result in a fresh crop of fat caterpillars in seven or eight days.

Atticus, meanwhile, thinks he should be allowed to participate in some up-close butterfly observation.