Fennel is a largely uncharted vegetable, especially here in the United States. It’s a food and medicine plant with its roots in the Mediterranean, but like many plants, fennel went where the people went. And now, it’s widespread across the planet from Italy to California to Australia. It has even become considered an invasive weed in some areas around the world. Lucky for us, the health benefits of fennel seed (and the vegetable itself) are plenty.
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Meet Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
- Fennel is a flowering plant species in the carrot or parsley family. Its other close relatives include celery, dill, and cilantro.
- Fennel loves unsettled environments. In the U.S., it’s easy to find fennel growing abundantly and wild along highways, in pastures, and other disturbed areas of land, especially in places close to the oceans.
- It’s a Mediterranean plant that loves cool weather. Fennel doesn’t like it too hot or too cold. Its peak growing season is in fall and winter (if winters are mild). Summers are typically too hot for fennel, but you can usually find fennel in grocery stores year-round, and at farmer’s markets when it’s in season.
- Fennel is also widely cultivated around the world. The most popular cultivar is known as Florence fennel and is different from wild varieties in that it has a more pronounced edible bulb.
- Its infamous edible bulb grows much like celery does. A fennel bulb is white or pale green with several stalks growing from it. It’s inflated near the base with the stalks all nestled tightly into one another, just like celery.
- Fennel has fine, feathery leaves. From the stalks grow very finely feathered green leaves (like dill) and tight clusters of tiny yellow flowers from with fennel seeds eventually form.
- The leaves and seeds are strongly flavored. They have a taste reminiscent of anise or licorice and are understandably popular culinary ingredients.
How To Cook With Fennel
As a food, some dislike fennel, some love it, and others, if they’ve heard of it all it, aren’t exactly sure what it is.
Surprisingly, fennel is an incredibly versatile ingredient! Its stalks, leaves, and seeds add a delightful crunch and flavor to many foods from soups and stews to salads, slaws, pastas, roasted meats, and more. Its stalks can be used as you would use celery and its leaves can be used as a garnish like you might use dill or parsley.
Many cultures of India and the Middle East use fennel seed in cooking, as an essential ingredient in many different spice mixtures, and also as an after-dinner digestive and breath freshener. In Italy, fennel is the main spice used in Italian sausages.
The Nutritional Benefits of Fennel
Fennel is an excellent source of vitamin C, and also contains high amounts of dietary fiber, potassium, manganese, copper, molybdenum, and folate. It is a good source of calcium, magnesium, iron, and niacin. The overall nutrient and phytochemical makeup of fennel make it a good anti-inflammatory and antioxidant food.
Fennel Recipes You’ll Love
The Health Benefits of Fennel Seed
At the end of three or four hundred years, it began to be perceived that [fennel] had never cured anyone.Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, French critic, novelist, horticulturalist
I’ve always wondered how specific plants earned their place in ancient myths, how those myths carried through history, and how, at some point, things got caught up in and either denounced or legitimized by modern-day science and keepers of history.
Many of today’s food and medicine plants have some sort of long-ago use as cures for madness. Other plants were hung over doorways to ward off evil spirits. In Greek mythology, a fennel frond was used to hand information in the form of fiery coal down to humanity from Mount Olympus.
We’ve been using plants as medicine, tools, and sanctuary for thousands of years, and fennel is no exception.
Fennel Seed Medicine Through (a Colorful!) History
In the late 1880’s, Alphonse Karr tried to bury the popularity of fennel and its multitude of uses. Perhaps he was right on some accounts, as fennel was used for everything from warding off ghosts by being placed in keyholes on Midsummer’s Eve, to healing bites from rabid dogs, to serving as an anecdote to poisonous mushrooms and snake bites.
In fact, one day, Pliny the Elder (AD 24-79), the Roman author of Naturalis Historia (The Natural History), watched snakes eating and rubbing their bodies up against fennel plants. And with that simple observations, he came to the conclusion that they did so to help improve their eyesight after shedding their skins.
He was so inspired by this observation that he proceeded to claim fennel as an effective remedy for 22 different illnesses! There was nothing that fennel couldn’t fix!
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.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
On church-sanctioned fasting days, fennel seed was also used to help suppress appetite. Parishioners would carry around fennel seeds knotted up in handkerchiefs to chew on throughout the day to help keep their hunger at bay.
Fennel is also one of the 3 main herbs used to make absinthe, a notorious distilled spirit originally intended for use as a medicine.
Nonetheless, in spite of its colorful history, fennel remains to be a powerful medicine and today, is still considered by many to be one of the best herbs for settling an upset stomach.
The Medicinal Uses of Fennel Seed Today
Today, the seed of fennel is the part most often used for medicine. While the health benefits of fennel seed are many, its benefitical effects on digestion steal the show.
It’s incredibly beneficial for indigestion, bloating and/or gas, and coughs.
Nursing mother’s still use fennel as an ingredient in DIY gripe water, an herb-infused tea that may include apple cider vinegar used to relieve colic and other gastrointestinal discomforts in children.
Due to its sweet licorice-like flavor, fennel is great medicine for children. It can be used to help with their stomachaches, constipation, and coughs.
As an anti-spasmodic, fennel is effective against stomach cramping associated with poor digestion.
And as an aromatic carminative, fennel is also effective against nausea.
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|Apiaceae (carrot or parsley Family)
|leaf & bulb, flower, seeds, pollen, essential oil
|When to Harvest
|leaf & stalk: depends on when planted,
typically spring & fall
seeds: late summer/early fall
|As a Medicine
|Think digestive health!
antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic,
carminative, demulcent, expectorant,
galactagogue, nervine, tonic
|As a Food
|excellent source of vitamin C, molybdenum,
dietary fiber, potassium, manganese,
copper, & folate;
good source of calcium, magnesium,
iron, & niacin
|The essential oil of fennel seed can be
contraindicated during pregnancy due to the
emmenagogue effect & phytoestrogen activity.
Always check with your qualified health care practitioner.
|poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) –
has white flowers instead of yellow and does
not smell of anise or licorice
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DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.