During a recent holiday in Croatia, on islands off the Dalmatian coast, I came across countless fields of wild fennel, spread along the sprawling roadside or as part of the ancient food forests. Walking through these scented fields, I delighted in seeing the fennel plant in its remarkable ecosystem which includes several species of butterflies and spiders, brambles, grapevines, olive, peach and fig trees, all growing in harmony.
Fennel is indigenous to the Mediterranean where it grows wild and ubiquitous along most of the coastline. The fact that it can now be found growing almost all over the world is a testament to its usefulness as a medicinal plant food. Having been cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, fennel continued to be consumed as both food and medicine through medieval times, and today is used almost worldwide.
Latin roots and plant names
Its Latin name is Foeniculum vulgare, from the word ‘foenum’ which means ‘hay’. This is in reference to its sweet scent, particularly noticeable when walking through fennel fields baking in the hot summer sun. In the Middle Ages, it became known by a popular common name, 'fenkel’.
Its Sanskrit name, Shatapushpa, translates to ‘a hundred flowers’ which describes the plant's large, delicate, parasol-like flowering heads.
Fennel belongs to the Umbelliferae plant family and is also related to other common edibles like carrot, celery and parsley.
The small new yellow flowers of wild fennel, known as fennel ‘pollen’, are the most medicinally potent form of fennel. They produce a strong scent when crushed and taste like anise when chewed.
Fennel seeds are popularly made into an infusion or aperitif, are added as a spice to seafood and curry dishes, and are incorporated in herbal preparations for medicinal use. Sugar-coated fennel seeds called ‘mukhwas’ are a traditional Indian after-meal snack. Some herbal toothpastes contain fennel for its distinctive liquorice-like flavour and mouth-refreshing properties.
The fennel bulb and leaves are versatile and have many culinary uses, in both raw and cooked form. My favourite Mediterranean fennel dish is from Sicily. It is a raw salad of shredded fennel bulb with orange segments, olives, red onion and mint.
Fennel tea (warm or iced) can be a perfect palate cleanser or post-meal digestive – a refreshing finale to a wonderful summer holiday meal.
Sicilian Fennel salad
Combine the following ingredients on a plate:
•1 fennel bulb finely sliced
•1 small red onion finely sliced
•1 orange peeled and sliced
•Half cup black olives pitted and roughly sliced
•Handful of mint leaves
•Extra virgin Olive oil for drizzling
Serve immediately and enjoy!
Fennel has a reputation as a natural digestive aid with anti-spasmodic properties. It is recommended for a variety of digestive problems including heartburn, intestinal gas, bloating and irritable bowel syndrome. Breastfeeding mothers find fennel useful both to increase breastmilk supply and to reduce colic in infants. Fennel is one of the most researched medicinal plants and is recommended by herbalists, naturopaths and integrative doctors for a wide range of health conditions.
If fennel is one of those unused herbs in your pantry, I hope you are inspired to experiment with it and will benefit from this historical, humble and healing herb. If food be your medicine, the best place to start is with the pharmacy in your kitchen and garden.
For more information on the therapeutic uses of fennel, watch the episode on fennel in Wellness Place International series on Medicinal foods.