Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Ovipositing swallowtail, another reason to have fennel in the garden

Fennel, dill, aneth, fenouil... it's a little confusing. I've never tried growing vegetable/bulb fennel, I don't care for it all that much, even veggie lover as I am. The herb one we have is the bronze one, and I think, like the bulb, it's called fenouil in French. I've always tended to think it very similar to all intents and purposes to dill herb, which is called aneth here. But then I asked Polish Chick, I think it was, or maybe Joe, who was also devotee of dill if not a fan of fennel, whether I couldn't substitute fennel for dill in a recipe - it might have been gravlax or pickles - as I didn't have any of the latter, and I received an uncompromising no, dill was distinctly different in flavour from fennel! (None of this alliteration took place at the time, whomever the conversation was with.)

So I tried growing some dill, and the germination was rubbish but then some of the seeds did come up eventually, and I've carefully nurtured the plants, but now they've grown big I can't honestly smell, taste or even see, once the dill plants grew beyond the early feathery-leafed stage, much difference between the two, and I haven't got around to making either gravlax or pickles with them.

However, they are both attractive to a somewhat unusual range of insects. Greenbottle type flies, which aren't very pleasant really but I suppose they have their place in the scheme, and also these curious leggy wasps:

They are the most unassuming and gentle creatures, showing no inclination to sting or bother one at all; in fact looking at the photo perhaps they don't even have a sting or aren't even true wasps. I'll try to find out.

[Edit: they appear to be paper wasps, polistes dominula. Some dizzyingly detailed facts about them in this Wiki link; how do people know all this stuff?]

The other insects which are drawn to it, not to feed but to breed, are the swallowtails. Not always, some years we see them often, others not at all, when they simply flutter through they are so rapidly moving and elusive I can seldom photograph them, but on this occasion one set about laying its eggs, or attempting to, on the plants, and being thus preoccupied, I was able to capture it on camera, with a lot of zoom.

I've since looked for the eggs or caterpillars, but no sign. Other years we've had them on various other plants, mostly other umbelliferous ones like carrots or parsley, but also on some Mexican orange bushes where this butterfly was also prospecting, and I have even been known to take them off and overwinter them as chrysalids in a terrarium, with a small amount of success. Both as caterpillars and as butterflies, they are impressive creatures, I think, at least by the standards of this corner of northern Europe.


Catalyst said...

Love your photos of the flutter-bys.

polish chick said...

egad, i don't remember having that conversation, which does not, in any way, shape, or form mean that we didn't have it. but if we did, then i stand by my initial comment - the two are not interchangeable.

have you tried sautéed fennel bulbs? sliced thinly, served with pork, they are sublime: sweet and subtle and fall-aparty. raw, i like them sliced very thinly and served with radicchio and endive and an oil/vinegar dressing.

Lucy said...

Thanks both!

PC - egad but I think it was you! But a long time ago, apropos of pickles. Between you and Joe anyway, you convinced me I really should have dill herb in the garden. However, I think perhaps it's best when the leaves are at that very soft, dense, young stage, which is how they are when you buy it as a fresh herb; later they get coarser and more like fennel perhaps, which is where they're now at. I'll try to save the seeds perhaps. I've still got a few nice potatoes to be dug up so I'll try to find a few decent leaves for a 'tater salad at some point soon, maybe with some pickled herring or some such. I don't know why I'm a bit off bulb fennel; I think I have cooked it satisfactorily, but I think I must have had it either raw and not finely sliced enough or cooked and not well cooked enough, I always imagine it lumpy and woody and too aniseedy, which isn't one of my favourite flavours when it's too dominant.

Lucas said...

A fascinating post not least because of the beautiful photos - you have caught the paper wasps beautifully, the one closest to the camera is quite a character, also the butterflies. I recall a dill plant that grew outside our kitchen window way back in the '50s. Joe was quite fond of it. I remember nibbling bits and its flavour remains too in my memory, more delicate than fennel, a hint of liquorice perhaps,,,,

Stella said...

When our big trees came down I was sorry for the wasps and their big paper nest but relieved there were no bird's nests up there. Tonight a neighbour showed us a wasp nest hanging up high in his tree and I wondered if the colony had set up shop anew. He is the kind of guy who likes to annihilate insects and has his morning planned around destroying the nest. I am annoyed. The wasps pose no threat and I am told they will die off anyway over the winter. You are fortunate in the Swallowtail......I have noticed only two Monarchs this summer in spite of everyone leaving the milkweed to grow in its support. we are always excited in our garden to see any kind of bug or winged creature (except for the hawk!)

Roderick Robinson said...

I would give a lot to attract swallowtails into my garden. Note I say "give" (ie, spend) as opposed to "do" (ie, dig and other self-crucifying activities). I doubt your swallowtails come solely for the fennel, or even for the fenouil; I suspect you radiate amiable transmissions and these are picked up by creatures looking for a good home. I wondered if you might be a benign, modern-day equivalent of a witch and have hauled out Collins-Robert to see if the translation into French - which I dimly remember - might provide a clue; a French witch is, of course, and rather dully, une sorcière but happily witch itself has another meaning (a charmer) and thus from now on you will forever be une ensorceleuse which I am sure you will agree is greatly superior. And closer to the truth.

Lucy said...

Thanks people.

Ken, lovely to hear from you. I'm sure Joe recommended dill, and spoke of a kind of gravlax he used to make using it. Though of course he grew a lot of different herbs and rather prided himself on so many in quite a small space. I've just picked a frond to put in some posh fish paste and cucumber sandwiches!

Stella - the swallowtails are rather on the edge of their range here, I think, and aren't always to be seen. I think the wasps can be a nuisance, or aggressive if you're very near their nests, but these are probably the males I think, which are quite peaceable. We have had regular wasps' and hornets' nests destroyed, when they have really been too close for comfort and made life miserable. I remember monarchs when I visited family in Pennsylvania as a child, I didn't know much about them or their astonishing migrations then.

Robbie - I understand British swallowtails are for some reason considerably fussier about their foodstuffs and habitats than continental ones, and only live in remote and particular locations. I am very pleased with the word 'ensorceleuse', though I may not have many opportunities to use it!