Fennel can be used in a variety of ways. Learn how to use fennel for culinary, medicinal and gardening purposes.
Fennel is a tall perennial with hollow, upright stems, and glossy, aromatic leaves.
Illustration courtesy The Chelsea Physic Garden
Inspired by the extensive herb grounds of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, herbalist Deni Bown has cataloged 150 essential herbs for modern living. Herbal (Pavilion Books Ltd., 2001) is an excellent source book for experts and novices alike. With Bown’s expertise and anecdotes, the story of each herb unfolds and is heavily illustrated with personal photographs and botanical name plates. In the following excerpt, use the herb profile to learn how to use fennel in everything from soap to soup.
A tall perennial, reaching 2m (6ft), with hollow, upright stems, and glossy, aromatic leaves that are divided into thread-like segments. Umbels of tiny, dull yellow flowers are produced in summer, followed by grey-brown seeds. Fennel originated in southern Europe and the Mediterranean but is naturalized in coastal areas and waste ground in most temperate countries. In Mediterranean regions, sweet or Roman fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce) predominates, while in central Europe and Russia, the bitter or wild fennel (F. vulgare) is more common. The essential oil from these strains is quite different.
The use of fennel as a culinary and medicinal herb dates back to at least ancient Egyptian times. Egyptian herbals recommended it as a remedy for eye problems, and in ancient Greece it was taken as an aid to slimming. Throughout history it has also been regarded as an antidote to poisons, especially to snake venom. In medieval times the seeds were eaten during Lent to allay hunger, and put in keyholes to bar the entry of ghosts.
Essential oil from sweet fennel seeds is used in aromatherapy, perfumery, soaps and toiletries.
How to Use Fennel for Cooking
The anise-flavoured leaves are particularly good with fish, olives and snails, and may be added, finely chopped, to salads, sauces and soups. Fennel stems make a good base for barbecuing fish. The seeds have a more intense flavour that complements Italian salami, stuffings, bread, biscuits and such like. They also make a very pleasant herb tea. The young flower heads are edible too, and may be added to herb vinegars. Fennel oil is the principal flavouring of liqueurs such as fenouillette and Sambuca. Florence fennel (F. vulgare var. dulce) develops a bulbous base and is eaten as a vegetable, though the leaves can also be used for flavouring. The tender, crunchy leaf bases of young side shoots can also be eaten in salads.
How to Use Fennel for Healing
Fennel relieves indigestion, wind and colic, and improves appetite. It is an ingredient of ‘gripe water’ for babies, and is sometimes added to laxatives and colon-cleansing preparations to reduce griping. In addition, fennel increases lactation and might be a good herb tea for nursing mothers. The other main area of use is in dental hygiene products and massage rubs, as it has anti-inflammatory properties too. Wild fennel oil is an aromatic carminative and respiratory secretory.
Notes for Gardeners
Fennel is an asset to any garden. The flowers attract beneficial insects, such as hoverflies and ladybirds, which prey on pests. Its stiffly upright stems, which seldom need staking, and dense, feathery foliage are both a fine feature and a good background for other plants. The bronze version, F. vulgare ‘Purpureum’ is particularly handsome. Fennel is pretty tolerant of soils and conditions, drawing the line only at shade and getting wet feet for any length of time. Florence fennel is much more fussy, requiring rich, moist but light soil if it is to build up large, succulent bulbs. Plants that are dry or starved will try to flower instead, leaving a puny, elongated, fibrous base that is almost inedible. Where happy, fennel self-sows freely. Elsewhere, or as a start, sow seed in autumn or spring (the bronze form comes true from seed). Clumps can be transplanted or divided in early spring, taking care to dig deeply so that as much root as possible is retained, otherwise they can suffer a serious setback. Don’t plant fennel near dill as the two plants hybridize, producing seedlings that are neither one thing nor the other.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Herbal: The Essential Guide to Herbs for Living by Deni Bown and published by Pavilion Books Ltd, 2001.
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