Fennel is a large perennial plant that grows wild in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, where it is indigenous, as well as in Mediterranean climates in Europe and the United States. It is in the Apiacea (or Umbelliferae) family and is considered the sole species in the genus Foeniculum. It has a long, carrot shaped root, hollow ridged stems, and large compound umbels of yellow flowers that bloom in the summer and fruit into brown ridged seeds. The decompound leaves are bright green, filiform and feathery. It does best in dry soils close to the sea or river banks. It is an important food plant for the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the mouse moth and the anise swallowtail. If gathering wild fennel, beware the deadly semi-lookalike poison hemlock, which has white umbel flowers and fern like leaves, but similar stems.
Fennel starts easily from seed in rich, moist soil, and although it can do well without regular watering once established, it will be more succulent if it gets regular water. It does not grow well next to tomatoes, bush beans, caraway, and kohlrabi, and will not fruit at all if it is planted near coriander. The leaves can be harvested once the plant is established, and the stems can be harvested when they are about an inch thick. Often, soil is mounded over the bulb at the base of the stems to blanch, which results in milder flavor. Let the seed umbels dry on the plant and harvest in the autumn when they are brown and have split.
Fennel seed and root is typically the part of the plant used medicinally, and it is a carminative, aromatic, anti-spasmodic, stimulant, galactogogue, rubefacient, and expectorant. It works as a great stomach and intestinal remedy, stimulating the appetite and digestion while easing flatulence, cramps, and colic. Additionally, it has a calming effect on bronchitis and coughs, making it a good choice as a flavoring in cough syrups and drops. It also increases the flow of milk in mothers and can help regulate menstruation. Externally, fennel seed oil can help sooth muscular and rheumatic joint pain. A compress of an infusion can sooth pink eye (conjunctivitis) and inflamed eyelids. The leaves of the fennel plant can be made into an infusion and used as a brain and memory tonic. A infusion of the roots and seeds are detoxifying and diuretic, aiding the liver after too much alcohol. The seeds and stems can also help deep clean and detoxify the skin. In Aryuvedic medicine, fennel is a commonly used digestive aid, especially for children and the elderly with weak digestive systems. The scent calms the nerves and promotes mental alertness. For urinary issues, fennel seeds combine well with coriander, and provide pleasant taste to tea blends for urinary health. It’s also used in some cultures to aid weight loss.
The root, bulb, stems, and leaves are all used culinarily as well as a folk rememdy for digestion. The bulb and leaf can be chopped up in salads or grilled, and the seeds are often added to curries, breads, and cheese for flavoring. In India, fennel seeds are coated with sugar and eaten after a meal to sweeten the breath and aid digestion in a treat called mukhwas. Fennel pollen can be collected throughout the summer from the flowers and can be used in teas, to flavor honey and cheese, or in refreshing summer drinks. Fennel seeds combine well with cumin and coriander seeds as a trilogy of cooling spices, especially in curries where hot chilies might cause intestinal distress. In ancient Greece, fennel was named marathon (or marathos), and was the place of the battle of Marathon, which literally means a plain with fennels. According to legend, Pheidippides, a Greek messenger, ran without stopping from the Marathon battlefield to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians. He collapsed in death after announcing the Greek victory in Athens. Fennel is also one of the nine herbs invoked in the old world Nine Herbs Charm.
2-4 ml of a tincture, three times daily, of a ten minute infusion of 1-2 teaspoons of the crushed seeds, three times daily. A cup of this tea before meals will help with flatulence, and makes a good gargle for a sore throat as well. The seeds can also be chewed to freshen the breath. For colic, prepare 1-2 teaspoons of seeds boiled in 1/2 cup of milk for 5-10 minutes. 1-3 drops of fennel oil in raw honey is excellent for soothing coughs; Fennel oil should not be used by very young children or epileptics, but the plant itself is safe.
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