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Anethum graveolens 'Fernleaf' is native to the Mediterranean and southern Russia. It has naturalized in North America. The name comes from the Norse word dilla, which means "to lull, to soothe". It was used to induce sleep. It has been found among the names of herbs used by Egyptian doctors 5,000 years ago and had a permanent spot in Greek and Roman gardens. They used it to crown their war heroes and as an aromatic in their banquet halls. It is mentioned in the Bible as being used to pay taxes.
During the Middle Ages, it was used to protect against witchcraft, was used in spells, and was worn over the heart against the "evil eye". It was also steeped in wine and drunk to enhance passion. It was used as a medicinal for cough, headache, whooping cough in children, for flatulence, and to stimulate the flow of mother's milk. In colonial America, it was known as the "Meeting House Herb" because it was given to children to chew to keep them from feeling hungry. In the language of flowers, it represents a soothing and irresistible quality.
Harvest and Use: Dill is used as a medicinal, a culinary, and in crafts. The flowerheads dry very well and add a nice, airy touch to herb and flower arrangements. Leaves and seeds are still used to dispel wind, to stimulate the flow of mother's milk, and to treat congestion in the breast caused by nursing. It is still used to increase appetite, settle the stomach, and to relieve colic in babies.
In cooking, dill is delicious with fish, especially salmon, lamb, pork, poultry, cheese, cream, eggs, cabbage, onions, cauliflower, parsnips, squash, eggplant, spinach, potatoes, broccoli, turnips, cucumbers, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, avocados, and apples. It is particularly popular in salads, soups, sauces, spreads, and fish recipes of Russia and Scandinavia. When preparing fresh dillweed, snip with scissors rather than ripping it with a knife to avoid losing essential oils.
Harvest by clipping leaves close to the stem in early morning or in the evening as soon as the plant is well-established. Once harvested, it has a rather short life-span. It can be dried but it does lose some of its flavor. Spread it on a non-metallic screen in a warm, dark, dry place with good air circulation. Store in an air-tight container in a cool, dry, dark spot. You can also freeze fresh picked dillweed. Freeze it on the stems, as it is easier to handle. Just snip off what is needed and return the rest to the freezer.
Cultivation and Propagation: Fernleaf or dwarf dill grows to 18" high. It has dark green leaves. It is slow to bolt and is grown especially for its leaves rather than its seed. It is a unique dwarf that was developed for container culture. If you are growing dill for its seed, choose the variety called 'Bouquet'.
Dill is an annual that looks a lot like fennel, its relative. It has a single, spindly taproot like carrot. One long, hollow stalk comes from the root. Numerous, small, yellow flowers appear on an umbrella-like head. The leaves are like soft needles and are called dillweed. Dill likes a well-drained, moderately rich, moist soil with a pH of 6.0 in full sun. Do not crowd plants because crowding and poor, dry soil will cause it to bolt. Do not plant it next to fennel because they will cross-pollinate and their individual flavors will be lost. It is a good idea to stagger your plantings of dill for a continuous supply. In companion planting, dill enhances the growth of cabbage, onions, and lettuce. It has an adverse effect on carrots.
Dill is easy to grow from seed. It needs light to germinate. Cover seeds very lightly with soil. If you are direct-seeding outdoors, choose a permanent site in a sheltered spot for it as it will reseed if you allow it to flower. It does not like to be transplanted, so consider growing it in a 3" pot rather than in seed trays, using about 4 seeds to a pot.
Pests: Watch for aphids. The flower actually attracts many beneficial insects that prey on aphids. Slugs also like dill. Put out beer traps. It is also a favorite of the black swallowtail caterpillar. I grow a little extra for them because the butterfly is so beautiful.