“Above the lower plants it towers,
The Fennel with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore.”
Fennel Seed, or Foeniculum vulgare, is an infamous culinary herb, however its original relationship with humans was actually medicinal, and magical, first! This perennial plant grows wildly in temperate regions of Europe but is generally considered native to the Mediterranean, where it spread quickly eastward toward India, and now grows and is cultivated in Australia, North America, and other parts of the world. Fennel is an aromatic plant and a member of the carrot and parsley family Apiacea. It is related to caraway, anise, dill, and cumin, all of which have aromatic and delicious seeds that are staple culinary spices throughout the world. All of the aerial parts of fennel are edible, even including the flowers! However, it is the seeds that are most commonly used for culinary and medicinal purposes. Fennel seed adds a sweet flavor to breads, sausages, sauerkraut, pickles, fish, meats, and vegetables.
Our earliest written documentation of fennel use dates back to the ancient Egyptians, where fennel was added to food as medicine, and in ancient China where fennel was considered a remedy for snake bites, and during the middle ages, many believed fennel to be protective and hung stalks of the plant over their doorways to ward off evil spirits. The use of fennel is also documented within Unani (Greco-Arab) medicine, and Roman history. Roman academic and naturalist Pliny, is noted for his obsession with fennel, after witnessing snakes eat fennel when shedding their skin, and rubbing their eyes against the juice of the plant in what appeared as an attempt to sharpen eyesight. Pliny studied fennel after this observation and began to use fennel for 22 different medical purposes, one of which was improving vision.
Fennel seed is used as a carminative, aphrodisiac, and to encourage or ease menstruation or painful cramps. Fennel seed is moisturizing and is good herb for coating the GI tract when inflamed, or for treating symptoms of diarrhea, GERD or acid reflux. It helps to soothe nausea, sore throats, and bronchitis or lung infections in cases where there is a dry cough. Fennel can also help reduce eye inflammation. Fennel seeds may also help to soothe headaches. The essential oil of fennel seed is powerful and highly medicinal. It is antimicrobial, antispasmodic, antioxidant, and is excellent for stimulating motility within the GI tract. In modern times, fennel essential oil is often added to flavor liqueurs, natural toothpastes, and is added to perfumes, soaps, and other cosmetics due to its lovely aroma!
So, whether you are adding fennel to your batch of holiday stuffing this year, or are reaching for fennel tea to help get those big holiday meals moving, let’s take a moment to thank this famous friend fennel, for easing our tummy troubles and adding that delicious flavor we all recognize, to cultural food staples around the world!
Fennel. A Modern Herbal | Fennel. (n.d.). https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/f/fennel01.html
Fennel Seed. Fennel - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. (n.d.). https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/fennel
Quick facts fennel - herb society. (n.d.-a). https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/520b142e-66f4-45dc-b151-59283956b21e