Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a hardy perennial member of the family Apiaceae (carrots) that is used for food, medicine, and perfumery. Its flower heads are yellow umbels which give way to fragrant seeds. Fennel can grow to six feet tall with finely divided, ferny leaves. The entire plant is edible and smells quite like anise or licorice.
Because fennel is a member of the carrot family, it may bear a superficial resemblance to other members of that family, some that are quite toxic. Take care when wildcrafting fennel to make a positive identification before eating it!
Fennel has a long history of use in Europe as it has grown plentifully around the Mediterranean basin for millennia. Fennel is mentioned in the Nine Herbs Charm, 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem about the magical uses of common herbs and it gives its name to several locations, including Funchal, Portugal (from the Portuguese funcho=fennel) and Marathon, Greece (from the Greek marathos=fennel).
The word fennel itself comes from the Old English word for “hay”.
Giant fennel (Ferula communis) was used to make a thyrsus, the ceremonial wand carried by followers of Dionysus
Pliny mentions fennel in his Natural History and recommended it for improving the eyesight.
In 1842, Longfellow echoes this recommendation in his poem The Goblet of Life
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.
Roman conquest spread fennel throughout Europe and, by the medieval period, it had gained quite a bit of popularity in England, where it found a treasured place in monastic gardens, grown for its healing properties and the production of liquors (It later became an ingredient in absinthe.) The 9th-century Benedictine monk Walahfrid Strabo praised fennel saying
Let us not forget to honor fennel. It grows
On a strong stem and spreads its branches wide.
Its taste is sweet enough, sweet too its smell;
They say it is good for eyes whose sight is clouded,
That its seed, taken with milk from a pregnant goat,
Eases a swollen stomach and quickly loosens
Sluggish bowels.?? What is more, your rasping cough
Will go if you take fennel-root mixed with wine.
Fennel was also a popular potherb and vegetable and it appeared in cottage gardens and recipe books across the region. The leaves, or “beards”, were used to flavor sauces, poultry and fish and the seeds used to sweeten beverages and baked goods, as well as coming highly recommended from a number of sources to stave off food cravings.
The purchase of fennel seed was recorded in great quantities for the household of King Edward I. Later, the Puritans brought fennel to the “New World” as “meetin’ seeds”, which they chewed to help them stay alert and stave off the munchies during long church services.
Fennel is a tall, tender perennial that can tolerate light frosts. It will overwinter above zone 6ish, and is grown as an annual in cooler climates. Fennel is pretty easy to grow in a variety of garden conditions, but it prefers full sun and well-drained, mildly acidic soil. Because of its size, you may wish to keep it near the place it near the back of the bed.
If you are growing bulb fennel, you’ll get the best flavor from a fall crop, so plant about 90 days before your first expected autumn frost. If you’re looking for a seed crop, plant as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring.
Fennel grows well from seed and it does tend to bolt from transplant stress, so if you are hoping to grow fennel bulbs, you should plant it directly outdoors. You can soak the seeds overnight or as much as 48 hours before planting to help speed up germination. They need dark to germinate, so cover them well with soil and keep them moist. Your fennel plants will need about a foot of space between them.
Keep the plants moist while they’re young, but you can pretty much ignore them once they get going. If you are growing you fennel for seed, you may need to provide the taller plants with some shelter from strong winds to prevent damage. They aren’t likely to fall over though, as their tap root holds them pretty firmly into the ground.
Fennel is a good companion for cabbage, sage and mint as well as other members of the carrot family.
Swallow tail butterfly caterpillars enjoy munching on fennel.
Young fennel leaves make an interesting addition to baby green salads. You can harvest fennel stalks when they’re about pinky width. Don’t be afraid to cut your plant back sharply, it will grow back bushier if you do so.
The bulb should be harvested when it’s about the size of a baseball, about 90 to 100 days after planting. Any bigger and it’ll start to get woody. Just use a sharp knife to cut the whole plant away from the root at the base of the bulb, or uproot the whole thing. The root is also useful.
Fennel pollen can be harvested while the flowers are in full bloom. Cut the flower stalks, carefully upend them into a paper bag, and secure them there until they have thoroughly dried, giving them a good shake every few days, then sift to separate the pollen from other materials.
To produce the best seed, stop watering the plant after the flowers appear. To harvest fennel seeds, cut off the flower heads just after they have turned brown and hang them upside down inside a paper bag to dry, finish ripening and to allow the fruit to fall into the bottom of the bag.
Then spread the fennel seed fruits onto a screen and allow to dry in a well-ventilated place out of the sun for a week or two. You will get a small crop of seeds your first year and a larger crop in subsequent years if you live in a mild enough climate. Fennel will reseed in the garden if you don’t harvest the seed head, even in cold areas.
Varieties of Fennel
- Florence fennel is a type of Foeniculum vulgare that forms a juicy bulb at the base of the plant. You can’t really get seeds and the bulb, as the bulb isn’t very good anymore after the plant has matured and produced seeds.
Not all Foeniculum vulgare varieties form a bulb, but their fruits and stalks are all edible and similar in flavor.
- Giant fennel Ferula communis is quite large and grows wild in the Mediterranean region. It has cultural significance, but is not food. Some of this species are poisonous.
The vegetative parts of fennel should be stored in a cool, humid condition and will remain fresh for about 7 days in the fridge. If you aren’t able to use your fresh fennel right away, blanch it and freeze it for up to a year. Adding lemon juice to the blanching water will help preserve its color.
Fine fennel leaves can be dried and stored in an airtight container for use as a cooking herb.
Fennel fruits can be dried and stored in an airtight container as well.
Healing with Fennel
Fennel seed is purported to be high in anti-oxidants and inflammatory so it is used as a general disease prevention as well as a cure. It is said to be quite good for digestive issues, soothing acidic stomachs and encouraging proper digestion and absorption of food.
Its most well-known use historically is as an appetite suppressant. Its sweet flavor curbs sugar cravings and its chemical constituents soothe hunger pangs. It also eases bloating and gas caused by overindulgence in the wrong foods. The whole seed may be chewed to achieve this effect, or it may be taken as a tea at the end of a meal with the added bonus that it freshens the breath.
The essential oils in fennel seed also act as an expectorant and it makes a valuable addition to herbal teas for the supportive treatment of coughs.
Fennel seed tea is a valuable ally for women as it is said to ease symptoms of both PMS and menopause and to stimulate lactation for mothers wishing to increase their supply. I would not use it while pregnant.
It is also a traditional remedy for colic in babies.
Cooking with Fennel
Fennel is rich in vitamin C, Calcium and Potassium. The entire fennel plant is edible, leaves, stalk, bulb and seed and all parts have varying degrees of anise or licorice-like flavor and fragrance, the seed being the most potent.
Fennel leaves make a lovely, edible garnish and are used to season soups and sauces. The stalks and bulbs can be cooked as a vegetable and shredded into salads. Fennel stalks are good stir-fried and the bulb is lovely tossed with some olive oil and roasted with other vegetables and because it is naturally sweet, it is also a natural companion for fruit. Fennel sauce is a traditional accompaniment to fish.
It is important to clean your fresh fennel before you cook it because dirt can collect in its various layers.
Fennel seed is part of Chinese Five Spice Powder, along with star anise, peppercorn, cinnamon and cloves and is part of Bengali Panch Phoron along with nigella fenugreek, black mustard seed, and cumin. Fennel also appears in Indian cuisine as a flavoring in foods and also candied as an after-dinner breath freshener and digestive aid. In European dishes, fennel seed can be found in baked goods.
Fennel pollen can be sprinkled on food to enhance flavor.
Fennel corresponds to the element Air and the planet Mercury.
Chew fennel before giving an important speech to feel more confident and eloquent, also before meeting important people or trying to convince someone of something.
Use fennel in a beverage or inhale its fragrance to strengthen the mind and memory. Chewing fennel while studying will help you maintain focus and retain the information.
Fennel was historically used to ease hunger pangs for those fasting of necessity or for religious reasons, thus fennel can be included in spells to combat cravings.
Fennel seeds can be used in charms and spells to repel interference from outsiders, particularly to keep law enforcement from bothering you.
In traditional medieval folkways, fennel was hung over the door to protect the home and its inhabitants from witchcraft, particularly at Midsummer.