Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a plant species in the genus Foeniculum (treated as the sole species in the genus by most botanists). It is a member of the family Apiaceae (formerly the Umbelliferae). It is a hardy, perennial, umbelliferous herb, with yellow flowers and feathery leaves. It is indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean but has become widely naturalized in many parts of the world, especially on dry soils
near the sea-coast
and on riverbanks.
It is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with culinary and medicinal uses and, along with the similar-tasting anise, is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe. Florence fennel or finocchio is a selection with a swollen, bulb-like stem base that is used as a vegetable.
Fennel is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the mouse moth and the anise swallowtail.
Etymology and history
The word "fennel" developed from the Middle English fenel or fenyl. This came from the Old English fenol or finol, which in turn came from the Latin feniculum or foeniculum, the diminutive of fenum or faenum, meaning "hay". The Latin word for the plant was ferula, which is now used as the genus name of a related plant. As Old English finule, it is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon
Charm, recorded in the 10th century.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the gods. Also, it was from the giant fennel, Ferula communis, that the Bacchanalian wands of the god Dionysus and his followers were said to have come.
The Greek name for fennel is marathos (μάραθος), and the place of the famous battle of Marathon and the subsequent sports event Marathon (Μαραθών), literally means a plain with fennels.
Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, is a perennial herb. It is erect, glaucous green, and grows to heights of up to 2.5 m, with hollow stems. The leaves grow up to 40 cm long; they are finely dissected, with the ultimate segments filiform (threadlike), about 0.5 mm wide. (Its leaves are similar to those of dill, but thinner.) The flowers are produced in terminal compound umbels 5–15 cm wide, each umbel section having 20–50 tiny
on short pedicels. The fruit is a dry seed from 4–10 mm long, half as wide or less, and grooved.
Cultivation and uses
Fennel is widely cultivated, both in its native range and elsewhere, for its edible, strongly flavoured leaves and fruits. Its aniseed flavour comes from anethole, an aromatic compound also found in anise and star anise, and its taste and aroma are similar to theirs, though usually not as strong.
The Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Azoricum Group; syn. F. vulgare var. azoricum) is a cultivar group with inflated leaf bases which form a bulb-like structure. It is of cultivated origin, and has a mild anise-like flavour, but is more aromatic and sweeter. Florence fennel plants are smaller than the wild type. Their inflated leaf bases are eaten as a vegetable, both raw and cooked. There are several cultivars of Florence
which is also known by several other names, notably the Italian name finocchio. In North American supermarkets, it is often mislabelled as "anise".
Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum' or 'Nigra', "bronze-leaved" fennel, is widely available as a decorative garden plant.
Fennel has become naturalised along roadsides, in pastures, and in other open sites in many regions, including northern Europe, the United States, southern Canada and in much of Asia and Australia. It propagates well by seed, and is considered an invasive species and a weed in Australia and the United States. In western North America, fennel can be found from the coastal and inland wildland-urban interface east into hill
areas, excluding desert habitats.
Florence fennel is one of the three main herbs used in the preparation of absinthe, an alcoholic mixture which originated as a medicinal elixir in Switzerland and became, by the late 19th century, a popular alcoholic drink in France and other countries.
The bulb, foliage, and seeds of the fennel plant are widely used in many of the culinary traditions of the world. The small flowers of wild fennel (mistakenly known in America as fennel "pollen" ) are the most potent form of fennel, but also the most expensive. Dried fennel seed is an aromatic, anise-flavoured spice, brown or green in colour when fresh, slowly turning a dull grey as the seed ages. For cooking, green
optimal. The leaves are delicately flavoured and similar in shape to those of dill. The bulb is a crisp vegetable that can be sautéed, stewed, braised, grilled, or eaten raw.
Fennel seeds are sometimes confused with those of anise, which are similar in taste and appearance, though smaller. Fennel is also used as a flavouring in some natural toothpastes.
Fennel features prominently in Mediterranean cuisine, where bulbs and fronds are used, both raw and cooked, in side dishes, salads, pastas, vegetable dishes and risottos. Fennel seed is a common ingredient in Italian sausages and meatballs and northern European rye breads.
Many cultures in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East use fennel seed in their cookery. It is one of the most important spices in Kashmiri Pandit and Gujarati cooking. It is an essential ingredient of the Assamese/Bengali/Oriya spice mixture panch phoron and in Chinese five-spice powders. In many parts of India and Pakistan, roasted fennel seeds are consumed as mukhwas, an after-meal digestive and breath
Fennel leaves are used as leafy green vegetables either by themselves or mixed with other vegetables, cooked to be served and consumed as part of a meal, in some parts of India. In Syria and Lebanon, it is used to make a special kind of egg omelette (along with onions, and flour) called ijjeh.
Many egg, fish, and other dishes employ fresh or dried fennel leaves. Florence fennel is a key ingredient in some Italian and German salads, often tossed with chicory and avocado, or it can be braised and served as a warm side dish. It may be blanched or marinated, or cooked in risotto.
In Spain the stems of the fennel plant are used in the preparation of pickled eggplants, "berenjenas de Almagro".
Fennel contains anethole, which can explain some of its medical effects: It, or its polymers, act as phytoestrogens.
The essence of fennel can be used as a safe and effective herbal drug for primary dysmenorrhea, but could have lower potency than mefenamic acid at the current study level.
Fennel is widely employed as a carminative, both in humans and in veterinary medicine (e.g., dogs), to treat flatulence by encouraging the expulsion of intestinal gas. Anethole is responsible for the carminative action.
Mrs. Eencher Herbal states:
On account of its carminative properties, fennel is chiefly used medicinally with purgatives to allay their side effects, and for this purpose forms one of the ingredients of the well-known compound liquorice powder. Fennel water has properties similar to those of anise and dill water: mixed with sodium bicarbonate and syrup, these waters constitute the domestic 'gripe water' used to correct the flatulence
infants. Volatile oil of fennel has these properties in concentration. Fennel tea, also employed as a carminative, is made by pouring boiling water on a teaspoonful of bruised fennel seeds.[
Fennel can be made into a syrup to treat babies with colic (formerly thought to be due to digestive upset), but long-term ingestion of fennel preparations by babies is a known cause of thelarche.
In the Indian subcontinent, fennel seeds are also eaten raw, sometimes with some sweetener, as they are said to improve eyesight. Ancient Romans regarded fennel as the herb of sight. Root extracts were often used in tonics to clear cloudy eyes. Extracts of fennel seed have been shown in animal studies to have a potential use in the treatment of glaucoma.
Blood and urine
Fennel may be an effective diuretic and a potential drug for treatment of hypertension.
There are historical anecdotes that fennel is a galactagogue, improving the milk supply of a breastfeeding mother. This use, although not supported by direct evidence, is sometimes justified by the fact that fennel is a source of phytoestrogens, which promote growth of breast tissue. However, normal lactation does not involve growth of breast tissue. A single case report of fennel tea ingested by a breastfeeding mother resulted
for the newborn child.
Syrup prepared from fennel juice was formerly given for chronic coughs. It is one of the plants which is said to be disliked by fleas, and powdered fennel has the effect of driving away fleas from kennels and stables.
India is the leader in production of anise, badian (star anise), fennel and coriander.
Many species in the family Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) are superficially similar to fennel, and some, such as poison hemlock (see below), are toxic. It is therefore unwise, and potentially extremely dangerous, to use any part of any of these plants as a herb or vegetable unless it can be positively identified as being edible.
Dill, coriander and caraway are similar-looking herbs but shorter-growing than fennel, reaching only 40–60 cm; dill has thread-like, feathery leaves and yellow flowers; coriander and caraway have white flowers and finely divided leaves (though not as fine as dill or fennel) and are also shorter-lived (being annual or biennial plants). The superficial similarity in appearance between these may have led to a sharing of names
as in the case of meridian fennel, a term for caraway.
Cicely, or sweet cicely, is sometimes grown as a herb; like fennel, it contains anethole and therefore has a similar aroma, but it is lower-growing (to 2 m), has large umbels of white flowers, and its leaves are fern-like rather than threadlike.
Giant fennel (Ferula communis) is a large, coarse plant, with a pungent aroma, which grows wild in the Mediterranean region and is only occasionally grown in gardens elsewhere. Other species of the genus Ferula are also commonly called giant fennel, but they are not culinary herbs.
The most dangerous plant which might be confused with fennel is probably hemlock (poison hemlock). Hemlock tends to grow near water or in consistently moist soil, is tall (0.75 – 2 m), has purple blotches on the main stem, and is heavily branched, with small umbels of white flowers. A useful test to distinguish between it and fennel is to crush some leaves and smell them. Fennel smells like anise or liquorice, whereas the
smell of poison
hemlock is often described as mouse-like or musty. But take care: coniine, a toxin contained in poison hemlock, can be absorbed through the skin, so do not do this "smell test" with bare hands (and avoid touching your eyes or mouth) unless you can wash them immediately afterwards.
Fennel is found growing, in North America, in the same habitat and alongside natives osha (Ligusticum porteri) and Lomatium species, useful medicinal relatives in the parsley family.
Lomatium (which closely resembles hemlock, and can be very difficult to distinguish from it) is an important historical food plant of Native Americans, known as 'biscuit root'. Most Lomatium species have yellow flowers, like fennel, but some are white flowered and closely resemble poison hemlock. Most Lomatium spp. have finely divided, hairlike leaves; their roots have a delicate rice-like odor, unlike the musty odor of hemlock.
species tend to prefer dry rocky soils devoid of organic material.
Osha, Ligusticum porteri, has white flowers and finely-divided leaves, similar to poison hemlock, but not as fine as fennel or dill. The leaves are intensely fragrant with a "spicy celery" odor, unlike the musty or "mousy" smell of poison hemlock, but care should be taken in checking this characteristic, as the fresh juice (of the roots) is an astringent and can cause blistering.