What is Fennel?
Fennel, scientific name foeniculum vulgare, is a plant found growing in many gardens in the United States due to its usefulness in the culinary arts as well as its medicinal properties. The plant species is indigenous to the Mediterranean shores but seems to grow wild in numerous areas of the world now. Most commonly it can be found on river banks and near the sea coast.
The Romans and Greeks were extensive users of fennel. As a result, they can also be found in many places where these groups of people historically made their homes. Fennel is an extremely useful plant for cooking and making home-grown medicines as well as being extremely aromatic and smelling quite sweet.
History of Fennel
This herb has quite a lively history within Roman and Greek mythology and has been used throughout the ages for a large variety of purposes by these groups of people. The Ancient Greek people called the fennel plant “marathon”. Most people are familiar with the story of how Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it as a gift to mankind.
According to Greek mythology, it was the stalk of a fennel plant that he used to steal the fire from the Gods! A giant fennel plant was said to have spawned the Greek god Dionysus’ Bacchanalian wands and his followers. Such a colorful history befits this small herb; it would seem that it has had as many uses throughout mythology as it still does today!
Appearance of Fennel Herb
Fennel is a herb that is remarkably resilient. It is perennial, meaning that it has a life-cycle which lasts two years or longer and will generally be hardy enough to survive throughout the spring and summer, die in winter, and then revive itself again when the growing season returns. However, those growing fennel, in their gardens, should note that, in climates outside of its normal zone, the plant will probably need more care and have a shorter life span. The plant grows freely throughout the U.S. and the warmer areas of Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia, though it is considered to be an invasive weed by some Americans and most Australians.
In general, fennel plants can be up to 2.5 meters tall and have hollow stems. The plant produces exceptionally thin leaves that are 35-40 cm in length. Fennel plants produce yellow flowers that are remarkably small in size and grow together in groups of 20-50 flowers to create flower heads. The fruits of a fennel plant are grooved in texture and decidedly small; in fact, they are usually mistaken for seeds and are commonly referred to as seeds in many recipes.
Variations of Fennel
There are three main variations of fennel plants. The first is the Florence fennel. Florence fennel plants were cultivated in such a way that they would have larger leaf bases, which would give way to a bulb. A common fennel plant is intensely aromatic and smells sweet, and this quality is enhanced in the Florence fennel. Cooking is the main purpose for which the Florence fennel was cultivated as the bulbs are used as vegetables.
Many recipes call for cooked Florence fennel bulbs. Sometimes, they are even chopped up and used raw for dishes, such as Mediterranean salads or as seasoning in soups and sauces. Often Florence fennel bulbs are mistaken for a close cousin, anise, as they have a remarkably similar flavor and appearance. Many readers will be familiar with the alcoholic beverage called Absinthe. Florence fennel was one of three main ingredients in this alcoholic beverage which started out as a Swiss medicine and quickly gained popularity as a fun alcoholic drink within France.
Today, Florence fennel is mostly used in cooking Mediterranean and Italian dishes. It is crunchy and slightly sweet. In addition to this, Florence fennel contains much fiber. When it is eaten with other foods that produce indigestion, it can help soften the effects. Florence fennel contains large amounts of phytonutrients and antioxidants including rutin, quercitin, and anethole. In addition to this, the plant contains much Vitamin C, an extraordinarily powerful vitamin that is essential to proper immune system function.
A bronze-leaved version of the fennel plant is available. It looks much the same as a normal fennel plant would but has bronze leaves that are considered to be quite attractive in gardens. Many gardeners in the UK use bronze-leaved fennel for decoration within their home gardens.
The giant fennel plant discussed above in the mythology section is the third and final variation of fennel. It is much larger than a regular fennel plant and is part of another species entirely (the Ferula species) of which there are 170 members. Plants within the ferula species are commonly used for the same purposes as the foeniculum (normal fennel) plants are. They produce a gooey resin that is used for cooking and medicinal purposes. The spice asafoetida or hing is made from a ferula species plant.
Culinary Uses & Health Effects
Fennel is a tremendously popular culinary herb. The reason for this is that nearly every part of the plant can be used for some culinary purpose. It has a truly distinct and unique herbal taste. The leaves of the fennel plant can be used to brew teas that taste delicious and are said to help suppress the appetite. There is a long-standing tradition thought to be put in place by the Romans and Greeks. The tradition to sip one cup of fennel tea prior to eating dinner, in order to be sure that overeating would not be a problem. Many users of fennel tea claim that this actually works quite well and can be a vital aid in weight loss and appetite control.
The flowers of the fennel plant carry the unique flavor of the plant and can be used for a variety of recipes. Most often, they are sprinkled into salads, soups, or sauces to give them a unique flavor. Fennel stalks are hollow and crisp and can be eaten just like celery sticks or chopped up to be used as flavoring for cooked foods. In all reality, the uses of the fennel plant are only limited to the chef’s culinary imagination.
Medicinal Uses & Health Effects
Fennel has a solid place in many medicinal gardens throughout the world because the plant has such a wide variety of uses. Fennel plants contain large amounts of anethole, which is an aromatic natural compound found in many essential oils. Spain is the top producer of fennel grown for harvesting anethole for use in essential oils, but in all reality fennel is a particularly common plant that can be bought from many places and in many forms.
Fennel herb is carminative by nature, which simply means that it works to prevent the creation of gases. For this reason, it is a well-respected digestive health remedy used in many concoctions created to help those with regular intestinal ailments. It is a common ingredient in gripe water, which is given to infants to help ease problems with flatulence. Fennel tea is known to suppress appetite. It also acts as an intestinal relaxant, to ease bloating in adults. Laxatives commonly have fennel in them to help soften the side-effects of the purging.
Fennel oil is used in the making of eye washes due to its cleansing and soothing properties. The people of India believe that fennel contains the ability to improve eyesight materially and often ingest raw or slightly sweetened fennel seeds to gain this benefit. The Ancient Romans held fennel in high regard as a “herb of sight” as well, though fennel has not been proven to work for this specific purpose when ingested in such ways as the Indians ingest it.
Studies done on animals with glaucoma (a disease where damage is done to the optic nerve of the eye) have shown that fennel can help treat this disease. It has been proven that it can help prevent clouded eyesight when used in the eye-wash form.
Pregnant Women and New Mothers
Many people believe and will attest to it as a fact that fennel is useful to pregnant women and new mothers. Fennel does contain phytoestrogens. But, it has never been scientifically proven that it helps in any way. Nonetheless, there are several anecdotes throughout history that state it is highly effective in increasing the amount of milk supplied by mothers who nurse their children. Other stories say that fennel can be given to breastfeeding mothers. This is done to help ease breast swelling, commonly associated with nursing and breast-feeding.
Fennel fruits/seeds have an extremely sweet taste and are commonly used as breath fresheners. The seeds can be eaten as part of a meal or used to create a fennel tea, which is then gargled. It helps freshen the breath. Instructions for making fennel tea are given below.
There are many other stories throughout history and even still today of fennel being used for a myriad of things. None of these things has been scientifically proven. Many myths state that fennel can be used by women who are menopausal to relieve their symptoms. Fennel is said to be useful for quieting hiccups and soothing coughs as well as fighting colic in babies. Less-grounded claims say that it can even be used for the breaking up of kidney stones or reversal of liver damage caused by alcohol.
More medicinal effects include the prevention of nausea or gout as well as being helpful as a diuretic to increase the occurrence of urination. Fennel is often used in drugs that help with the treatment of hypertension (or high blood pressure) and is said to be able to be used to expel worms from the human digestive tract. Some even claim that when used with conventional treatments, fennel can be ingested and is effective in helping to treat prostate and colon cancers. The reason for this is that the fiber in fennel helps absorb carcinogenic toxins in the colon. It is highly recommended that a doctor be consulted in advance, about the use of fennel in the treatment these cancers.
Those who advocate the use of fennel around the home say that fleas find fennel to be quite disgusting by nature and will not live in places where fennel does. Thus, it can be sprinkled around pet beds and homes where pets reside to help prevent fleas from staking a foothold within the house. Fennel is a popular herb for gardeners who grow herbs for food preparation and medicinal purposes, but is also popular with those who grow butterfly gardens. The herb is said to be like a “siren’s call” to the beautiful swallowtail butterfly and attracts colorful butterflies of all sorts with is a sweet smell and bright yellow color.
Side Effects of Fennel Products
When used as a culinary enhancement product, fennel leaves, stalks, and seeds have no side effects. There are no document cases of fennel interacting with other drugs to enhance or suppress their effects. The extract essential oil should not be used by pregnant women as it has in some cases induced seizures and hallucinations. Fennel taken in excessive amounts can be disruptive to the body’s nervous system. If home medicines are to be made, it would be wise to consult with a physician or health practitioner before administering any treatments.
Homemade Fennel Products
It is relatively easy to create entirely home made fennel products. Fennel can be grown in a personal garden or bought from a rather large number of places (this will be discussed in-depth later). It does not matter where the fennel comes from as long as it is fresh.
Many of the medicinal uses of fennel such as eye washing call for fennel water. In this case, essential oil with fennel extracts will be needed. Simply mix one pint of water with eight drops of fennel oil to create fennel water. Fennel water can be ingested (up to 8 tsp. per day) or used for things such as flea-guarding homes. Fennel oil itself can be mixed in with other massage oils or used on its own and is said to produce a warming sensation and a delightful aroma to add to the soothing properties of massages.
Fennel tea is the easiest of the fennel products to make at home. The seeds or the actual leaves of the plant can be used to make the tea which suppresses appetite and soothes coughs. It has even been said that it can help clear up mucus in the lungs. If using fresh leaves, the necessary amount is 3 tablespoons of fennel per one cup of water. For seeds, only half of this amount is needed, so 1 1/2 tablespoons of fennel seeds per one cup of water. This will make a strong infusion of fennel tea; individuals should feel free to experiment with adding more or less fennel to create tea to their liking.
To make the tea, individuals should first boil the water, separately. Then they should put the herbs or crushed seeds at the bottom of a pot and pour the boiling water over them. The mixture should then be covered and allowed to soak for five minutes, though this time is not exact and it could take more or less time to infuse the water with the right strength for individual purposes. When satisfied with the strength of the tea, simply use a strainer to drain the herbs out of tea and enjoy!
In addition to these products, it is possible to make a paste by using a mallet to pound down fennel stems and/or leaves. This paste can then be either shaped into home made caplets which can be reserved for later use or used in paste form. By creating pastes and caplets in this way, individuals can choose the concentration of fennel in their products. However, they should clearly adhere to the earlier warnings that taking too much fennel can result in the nervous system disruptions and consult a doctor before making medicines from home.
Other Fennel Products & Forms
Many people lead busy lives and do not have time to make their own fennel products, or they would prefer to obtain them from stores in order to minimize the risk that they will use too much or too little fennel, causing their products to either be ineffective or harmful. These people are in luck! Fennel is mass-produced in many countries such as Mexico, Morocco, Syria, and India for use in creating fennel products or for resale as a raw herb.
Fennel herb products are available in a variety of forms including capsules, caplets, tea bags, seeds, and extract oils. It can also be purchased in its raw plant form or as Florence fennel bulbs from supermarkets. Conventional grocery stores are less likely to have raw fennel in plant or bulb form, which is more easily found at organic food stores and markets as a specialty herb/food. Fennel bulbs should be free of bruises or brown spots with stalks that are firm and crisp and leaves that are fresh and not wilted. The leaves and stems can be refrigerated and will last for several days when stored like this; the bulb can last for weeks. Much like any other vegetable or herb, once the leaves begin to wilt the fennel should be thrown out.
The full line-up of fennel products (aside from culinary use fennel) can be found in many nutrition or health stores such as GNC or from online retailers including Amazon.com and smaller health shops. Fennel capsules can be purchased for about $5.50 per 100 pills that are to be taken three times daily at maximum, preferably with meals. The two most common brands of pre-made fennel tea bags are Heather’s and Alvita. Alvita sells both caffeine-free and regular fennel tea bags which cost $3.50-$5.00 per 24 count package. Heather’s sells the teas by the bags or in canisters and charges up to $19 per canister of 45 tea bags.
One pound of organic fennel seeds costs anywhere from $5-$10, and fennel essential oils go for about $8 per ounce. Fennel seed extract is more expensive at about $10 per ounce. Because fennel is a seasonal herb that is grown during the spring and summer, it is highly likely to find it cheaper during these times of the year. Those wishing to save money on fennel products can stock up on them when they are at their cheapest during the summer months and use them throughout the year. However, these individuals are cautioned to check the shelf lives of their various fennel products as some last only a few months and some will last for over a year. For example, fennel tea bags can lose some of their scent and flavor if allowed to sit on the shelf and age for a few months.
Legality of Fennel Growing & Usage
Though it is considered to be a pesky weed in some places, there are currently no countries throughout the world where the growing and usage of fennel is illegal.
Caution When Picking Fennel
Fennel itself is a remarkably safe herb to use. However, poison hemlock looks much like fennel when growing wild in nature and is toxic when ingested. Like fennel, hemlock grows near water and can be up to 2 meters tall. It creates tiny white flowers in flower heads much like the fennel plant does except that fennel flowers are yellow. When picking fennel in the wild, be sure to test the plants to be sure that they truly are fennel.
The best way to do this is to crush a few leaves and smell them. If they smell like anise or licorice, they are safe. If they smell musty or mousey, they are highly likely hemlock leaves. They should immediately be discarded. This test should not be done with bare hands as hemlock contains coniine, a toxin that the skin can absorb. Contact with the eyes and mouth should also be avoided until the individual thoroughly washes his/her hands.