DOWN TO EARTH

article image

Melodic Indian music played in the room near us
as fireworks ignited the New Delhi skyline just outside the window.
It was Independence Day, and I was the guest of an Indian
businessman. We had just finished a leisurely meal of foods so
flavorful and unfamiliar that I thought nothing could surpass the
experience — until the fireworks and music began. As we sat,
contemplating India’s changes, I was offered a pinch of
meethi-saunf, the traditional equivalent of our after-dinner mint.
I took a pinch and placed a few grains into my mouth.

Meethi-saunsf, sometimes called mukhwas, is a surprising breath
freshener, not minty as I’d expected. Made of fennel seed, it was
dyed bright colors and mixed with sugar crystals, betel nut for
flavor and dried seeds of melon, cucumber and pumpkin, all in
bright colors. I’d seen these in jars in the markets but didn’t
realize what they were for.

An excellent aid for digestion, fennel seed is offered at the
end of meals in restaurants and is a staple of any dinner party in
India. The combination of the rock sugar crystals and fennel works
as a tooth polish, and is a delightful way to finish off a
meal.

The sweet taste of fennel transported me back to my own garden
and to a time when a well-meaning garden helper dug up and threw
away my fennel bed.

I’ve cultivated bronze and sweet fennel for years as a backdrop
to other herbs. It’s a great attractant for the black swallowtail
butterfly, whose eggs turn into little black, yellow and white
striped caterpillars. They eat a leaf, go into their pupa stage,
then — in their magical way — turn into one of the most beautiful
of butterflies. Swallowtails enjoy parsley and dill, but they’ll
turn their proboscis down at both if they can find a bed of fennel.
The caterpillars harm nothing else, so I encourage them because I
like the butterflies.

I was going to be away on business in late summer and asked my
garden helper, Judy, to help in the garden while I was away.

I pointed out that the fennel bed with several spindly plants of
bulbing fennel had gone to seed and needed to be removed. Growing
beside those were my head-high bronze fennels, the ones for the
butterflies (and for stuffing the leaves into trout before
broiling). Those, I explained, were prize plants and she shouldn’t
do anything to those. “But the little plants with bulbs,” I said,
“you can dig out and throw to the goats.”

She nodded studiously, and off I went, secure in the knowledge
that I carefully had transmitted my directions. I returned after
several days and discovered the little rows of overgrown fennel
bulbs, as happy survivors, but spindly and useless as ever. Nowhere
in sight were my robust, prized bronze fennels.

When Judy came to work the next morning, I asked her why she’d
uprooted the prized bronzes.

Looking completely aghast, she dug out her note and immediately
went pale. She apologized profusely for the mistake, and I
retrieved what was left of the goat-munched plants after a week in
the late summer sun, and replanted the shriveled roots.

They grew and are the plants I still have, a dozen years later.
When we see each other, Judy reminds me of the fennel, and I remind
her how tenacious the plant is and how we all learn about gardening
from the mistakes we make.

Coming back to the present as the New Delhi skyline exploded
again and again with fireworks, I took another pinch of the fennel
mix, enjoying the sweetness and the digestion-enhancing qualities
of this remarkable ancient plant. Durable and tenacious as the New
Delhi skyline, fennel’s roots are firmly planted in antiquity and
its sweet bounty continues today.

Jim Long, contributing editor to The Herb Companion, writes and
gardens in the Ozarks Mountains. Questions and comments are welcome
via his website: www.Longcreekherbs.com.