Foeniculum vulgare Mill.
Plant Family: Apiaceae
Fennel was highly valued in the ancient world by Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, and Indians for its value as a carminative, expectorant, and as a talisman used in various rituals. Fennel is a food plant that can be eaten as a vegetable, is prized as a tasty aromatic spice for a variety of Ayurvedic and Mediterranean dishes, and is used as a flavoring in various liqueurs such as gin and absinthe. Due to fennel’s gentle nature, it is used to support digestion in infants and children, and can be given to nursing mothers.
Fennel can be an annual, biennial, or perennial plant that can grow up to 6 feet tall, has bright yellow umbrella shaped flowers typical of those in the Apiaceae (Umbelliferae) family, and green feathery leaves that are similar to those of its cousin dill (Anetheum graveolens).2 Another cousin to fennel is anise (Pimpinella anisum), which has a similar scent and is often used in a similar fashion. Two varieties of fennel valued medicinally, common or bitter fennel (F. vulgare var. vulgare) and sweet fennel (F. vulgare var. dulce) 3 and yet another variety, copper or bronze fennel (F. vulgare ‘Ruburum’) is eaten as a vegetable in countries such as Italy where it is referred to as finocchio.2 Fennel is native to the Mediterranean region in Europe, Africa, and Asia1. It is naturalized in the U.S. and many other countries throughout the world. Specifically, it grows abundantly in California and is referred to as wild anise. The Romans named fennel, foeniculum, which, in Latin, means ‘little hay’.4
CULTIVATION AND HARVESTING
Fennel is cultivated in North America, Asia, and Egypt3 and is an important medicinal crop in Germany.5 Roots can be harvested in the fall of the first year and the seeds (fruits) can be harvested in the late summer.2
HISTORY AND FOLKLORE
Continually utilized since the time of Hippocrates and later cultivated by the Romans,4 fennel has a rich history based on its properties as a food and spice, digestive stimulant, and a sacred ritual object.6 The original Greek name for fennel was ‘marathon’ or marathos which meant ‘to grow thin’ due to the use of the fennel seed by athletes to control their weight. The place of the famous “Battle of Marathon” was a plain in eastern Africa where fennel grew abundantly.7 Fennel was sprouted as part of a ritual honoring Adonis, the lover of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.7 In ceremonies honoring Dionysus (Bacchus), a thyrsus (a wand or staff of giant fennel with ivy vines and leaves, wound with ribbons and topped with a pine cone) was tossed around while dancing as a symbol of prosperity, fertility, and pleasure in general.6,7
There are several historical folk accounts in a variety of cultures mentioning miraculous accounts of fennel’s healing powers.7 Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman historian believed fennel supported the ability to see clearly;4,7 this belief is also mentioned in a variety of Ayurvedic texts (system of Indian traditional healing).9 Further, in medieval times, it was believed that if grown around the home, or hung above windows and doorways on Midsummer’s Eve, fennel would protect the inhabitants and ward off evil.4,6
Various preparations and uses of fennel were recorded in Spain as far back as 961 B.C.E, and there are many references to this herb in historical poetry such as in Milton’s Paradise Lost where he refers to the “smell of sweetest fennel.”4 In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), fennel (or xiao hui xiang) was powdered and made into a poultice for snakebites.2 In TCM, fennel demonstrates aromatic and warming properties and effects the liver, kidney, spleen, and stomach meridians (energetic pathways) and is therefore administered to increase appetite, quell nausea, and to allay occasional bloating and abdominal distention. Further, it alleviates pain in general and is specifically helpful for occasional abdominal bloating and cramping associated with the menstrual cycle.8
In Ayurveda, fennel is called ‘samf’ or ‘saunf’, ‘madhurika’, or ‘shatapushpa’ (amongst other names) and believed to taste bitter, pungent, and sweet. It is considered neutral to slightly warming energetically and balancing to all 3 of the constitutional body types (vata, pitta, and kapha). It is considered to be one of the best carminatives and has been utilized to relieve gas and enhance digestion. Fennel is considered nourishing to the brain and eyes, calming to the spirit, and stimulating to the libido.9
In various countries in the Mediterranean, particularly Italy and France, the leaves are put into salads, sauces, and puddings.4 Roman bakers put fennel under their loaves while baking in order to make the bread taste better, and perhaps to make it more digestable.7 Nicholas Culpepper (a 17th century botanist, avid astrologer, physician, and herbalist) wrote in his Complete Herbal that fennel should be boiled alongside fish in order to make it easier to digest. Further he states that: Fennel is good to break wind, to provoke urine, and ease the pains of the stone, and helps to break it. The leaves or seed, boiled in barley water and drank are good for nurses, to increase their milk, and make it more wholesome for the child.11
In North America, fennel was used by the Cherokee as a carminative and thus administered to soothe digestion in infants, and was also given to woman during childbirth. The Pomo Indians used fennel as an eyewash and a digestive aid and the Hopi used fennel as a tobacco substitute for smoking.13 Called, ‘hinojo’ in Spanish speaking cultures of the American southwest, fennel was traditionally made into a tea for occasional stomach cramps or gas we all experience from time to time.12
In recent times, fennel is utilized mostly in the same way that it has been for thousands of years. It is an incredibly helpful digestive aid, an effective expectorant, a delicious food and spice, and may stimulate normal milk production in nursing mothers.14.15
FLAVOR NOTES AND ENERGETICS
bitter, pungent, warming, sweet8,9,10 aromatic, expectorant, digestive stimulant, carminative, antispasmodic, emmenagogue
USES AND PREPARATIONS
dried seed (fruit) as a spice (whole or powdered), tea, tincture, or powdered and encapsulated fresh above ground parts as a cooked vegetable or in salads fresh seed (fruit) distilled as an essential oil or can be made into a tincture
Although fennel and anise are similar, herbalist Paul Bergner denotes their differences mentioning that anise is energetically more warming, more of a nervine, and has an affinity for the lungs whereas fennel goes to the digestive organs. Further, anise has energy that “moves upward” giving it a spiritually uplifting effect.16
Specific: No known precautions.
General: We recommend that you consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before using herbal products, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or on any medications.