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Fennel

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Fennel - Other Names, Past and Present

Greek (ancient): marathon / marathos
Chinese: xiao hui xiang
Japanese: hinojo
Sanskrit: shatapuspha
Arabic: sanuf / bari-sanuf
French: fenouil / fenouil amer / fenouil sauvage / fenouil commun
Italian: carosella / feniculum / finocchio
Spanish: carosella (pronounced: kah-roh-sell-yah)
English (Old / Middle): fenel / fenyl / finule
English: fennel / common fennel / garden fennel / large fennel / wild fennel / sweet fennel / torch plant
Latin (esoteric): feniculum / ferula / foeniculum
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Foeniculum vulgare / Foeniculum officinale (other nomenclatures exist, depending on varietal and species)

Background and History

Fennel is a relatively ancient herb with history and usage that dates back to the time of the Ancient Greeks. Initially called marathos or marathon (from whence our modern term 'marathon', literally 'a field of fennel', is derived) it was originally employed as no more than a ceremonial herb, either burnt or infused for ritualistic purposes. Later on, the Greeks made use of its aromatic nature and employed it for medicinal purposes until they also found it fitting for culinary purposes. Today, the use of fennel chiefly belongs to the culinary range of things, although its use is somewhat limited only to selected varieties of cuisine, usually with a 'regional' flavor redolent of Mediterranean (and some branches of Continental) cuisine. Outside of the realm of cuisine, some species of fennel may also be employed chiefly as ornamental or garden-variety plants mostly due to its unique foliage and (after a time) aromatic nature. Fennel may be grown in herb gardens for one's personal pharmacopoeia, ensuring a regular fresh supply for either medicinal or culinary uses, or they may be grown for no more than ornamental purposes.

Left to grow on its own devices, fennel typically flourishes in moist to semi-moist soils that receive generous to moderate amounts of indirect (and in some cases, direct) sunlight. Fennel is a relatively allpervasive herb that possesses a distinct hardiness, making its flourishing in ideal areas quite fast and easy, while its growth in un-ideal areas displays a subtle tolerance with minor chances of minor flourishing. When left to ideal environments in the wild or in a semi-domesticated state, fennel has a tendency to grow into 'fields' or patches of a myriad of selfsame plants all closely interlinked to one another (as was and still is its wont since ancient times) with mature species resembling a veritable grassland of the singular plant. [1] Fennel is typically characterised by its grass-like or hay-like appearance (hence it's esoteric name of "feniculum" being a diminutive of the Latin word "fenum", literally translating to "hay") and commonly grows to up to some forty centimeters in length. Fennel is typified not only by its "hay-like" growth pattern, but by its considerably "compact" features, among them it's long, yet delicate threadlike (filiform) leaves which resemble very thin, almost semi-translucent filaments (at only 0.5mm in width), as well as its delicate yellow-hued efflorescence which grows in a cluster-like mass comprised of some 50 flowers at the most. The plant is also notable for its tiny, darkcoloured seed-like fruits which possess distinct grooves upon its outer skin. [1]

While fennel is typically employed in its dry form, it was initially more popularly employed (both medicinally and culinary) in its fresh state regardless of the constituent parts used. Fennel is among the few herbs which can be employed as a vegetable, a spice, or an herb depending upon the constituent parts and any (if any) subsequent preparation employed prior to its usage and thus is considered extremely versatile. When employed medicinally, each constituent part of the plant has specific medicinal benefits and purposes, although the as a whole, is typically consumed more as a vegetable than a mere complimentary herb.

Common / Popular Uses

While chiefly employed as a culinary herb in both its fresh and dry form, nearly all parts of the fennel plant have been employed for cuisine, typically either as a complimentary herb, a spice, and in some applications, even as a vegetable. The plant itself is grown both for practical and ornamental purposes, although its most common usage veers towards the culinary. Long employed in various cuisines, chiefly country or Mediterranean in flavour, fennel is also employed for savoury and aromatic dishes. In Oriental cooking, particularly in Indian and Arabic cuisine, fennel is typically used as a spice (employing its seeds), and as a flavouring herb (employing either fresh or dried leaves), whereas in general Western cooking such as those found in the Americas, fennel is usually employed as a salad vegetable. Further culinary usage of fennel's constituent parts may include its being integrated into soups, stews, and vegetable-based dishes, or otherwise employed as a garnish in its fresh or dried form. Its seeds and its dry leaves may also be employed to flavour beverages or sweetmeats and sundry desserts. Within specific cultures, fennel leaves or seeds are not simply integrated into foodstuffs, but is a type of food in itself, usually consumed as a digestif or as an appetite stimulant prior to, and after meals. [3] In Greece and Rome where the use of fennel was commonplace since ancient times, the plant plays a very major role in nearly every facet of cuisine and culinary culture, although its culinary applications have been somewhat reduced of late, it having been replaced by other herbs or spices which are similar to, or superior in flavour to the ancient herb. As in the Americas, fennel is employed as a vegetable when its fleshy bulbous stem is employed, but is chiefly used as an herb or spice when employing its leaves or its seeds. Fennel is usually incorporated into fish-based dishes due to its ability to cut off the fishiness often associated with fattier seafood such as tuna or mackerel, or otherwise added into meat-based dishes to add a slightly fuller range of flavours.

Some countries even veer so far as to employ fennel blossoms as a type of special spice, often employed as a garnish to meals, or otherwise integrated into light soups or stocks for added flavour and nuance. The flower of the fennel plant may also be dried and used as a condiment in meals, as is done in India and some parts of Greece. During ancient times, the use of fennel flower was more commonplace, although its modern usage has become somewhat limited to a number of traditional ethnic foods and a few beverages of note.

Outside of the culinary range, fennel can be used to flavour alcoholic beverages, and may even constitute the majority of its flavour profile. Because of its minute thujone content, fennel is very similar in flavour to anise or aniseed, hence it's being quite a popular choice for flavouring alcoholic beverages such as gin, aquavit, and even some types of inauthentic (read, imitation) absinthe. While in most cases, such beverages would be flavoured by anise, wormwood, or some other similar bitter, the larger availability and cheaper price of fennel seeds make it a good, if not always a prime choice for an alternative. Old absinthe recipes usually called for the integration of Florence fennel alongside wormwood and a number of other herbs, although nowadays, fennel-flavoured or infused alcoholic drinks are typically sold as cheaper alternatives to authentic absinthe, or is otherwise specifically created to imitate "traditional" drinks, or to create a unique flavour profile. [2]

When employed medically, the seeds and leaves of fennel can be consumed as is, typically as an after-dinner digestive aid, a practice quite common in Arabia and India. [3] Outside of consuming it (in like manner as one would consume gum via chewing, and expurgating the chewed matter, retaining only the volatile essences absorbed via the salivary glands) in whole form, the leaves, seeds, and even the flowers of fennel may either be infused or decocted to form a medicinal tea. Long employed by many cultures as an early precursor to mefenamic acid, a mild to moderately strong decoction of fennel seeds (or a combination of its seeds and leaves) can be drunk to relieve minor aches and pains, or to soothe minor swelling. It was a reputedly potent remedy for common female complaints such as dysmenorrhea, menstrual cramps, bloating, flatulence, and nausea and was usually drunk in moderate doses, typically in small amounts. [3] Strong decoctions of fennel may be drunk as a remedy for hypertension, although it must be made a part of one's regular diet in order to facilitate significant therapeutic benefits. Because fennel contains similar compounds to anise and wormwood, moderation is of the utmost importance when consuming fennel for the treatment of hypertension. [4] Quick relief from sudden peaks of blood pressure may be had from a combination of lavender and fennel, although one should note that pre-prepared remedies containing fennel may also contain traces of licorice which can be dangerous to hypertensive individuals. It is best to shy away from ready-made preparations (in the form of either capsules or tinctures), or to request for a custom-made remedy for one's specific ailment from an expert herbalist.

Very mild infusions of dried leaves or seeds can be drunk as a carminative to relieve bloating, flatulence, and even mild cases of heartburn, while stronger decoctions can be combined with purgative herbs or tonifying herbs to either lessen the unsavoury side effects of the former, or to assist in the better assimilation of the latter's tonifying properties by helping to improve the digestive capacity of the stomach. [4] Infusions or very mild decoctions of the plant matter can be employed as a remedy for infant colic, and may even be applied in the modern context as the water for preparing formula (if such is used contrary to breast milk), although prolonged usage or the employment of too potent a decoction can prove to be detrimental to infant health, so moderation and very mild preparations should constantly be observed. [5] Extremely potent decoctions of fennel seed or leaves can be applied topically as a remedy for fungal infections. When applied to the hair and scalp it can help to remove dandruff caused by fungal infections, encourage hair growth, and (as ascribed by traditional medicine), control lice infestation. [6]

The essential oil derived from fennel seeds also possesses potent medicinal properties. Typically diluted in one's choice of base oil, fennel oil is used for its anti-fungal, anti-microbial, rejuvenative, and invigorating properties. When applied topically, it is used to disinfect wounds, facilitate in the healing of minor injuries, invigorate and rejuvenate skin, and stave off topical infection. When employed in trifling amounts, diluted in water and drunk, it is said to be a remedy for stomach upset, indigestion, nausea, and vertigo. Used in aromatherapy, fennel possesses a refreshing, slightly invigorating effect, although when used in excess it can result in narcotic side-effects. [7]

In traditional Grecian, Egyptian, and Roman herbal medicine, fennel was said to be excellent for improving the eyesight, and was commonly eaten raw or liberally garnished in the meals and beverages of individuals who were suffering from ocular problems. Both aqueaeous extracts of fennel seed, as well as tinctures (often heavily diluted with water to remove the 'sting') were ingested or otherwise used to wash the eyes. It was believed by ancient herbalists to be able to cure cataracts, clear cloudy eyes, and provide relief from ocular pains brought about by either un-corrected nearsightedness or farsightedness. Its efficiency however was at best dubious, although modern scientific studies have shown that the ingestion of moderate amounts of raw herb matter, or the ingestion of its many preparations may remedy glaucoma; it may even be effective for curing sore (red) eyes, [8] although washes made from mild infusions rather than tinctures are a wiser choice (as tincture are undoubtedly more potent, and they pack quite a sting).

Folkloric medicine traditionally ascribed galactagogue properties to fennel, although its consumption is now discouraged due to the possibility of neurotoxicity in an infant who partakes of milk from a mother who regularly consumes fennel or its subsequent preparations. It was initially thought that the potent phytoestrogens in fennel (particularly in the seeds) facilitated better milk production, although not-sorecent findings have revealed that it may actually be toxic to infants. [10] Moderately potent decoctions of fennel may be drunk as to hasten one's metabolic rate, thereby helping with weight-loss issues. Very strong decoctions of fennel, or infusions of bruised fennel seeds and leaves in honey may be drunk as a remedy for strep throat, mild to moderate coughing, and hoarseness of voice with the latter remedy being of greater efficacy than the former. Honey infused with fennel may also be applied topically as a remedy for mild skin irritations, itchiness, and flea and mosquito bites. Combined with cloves and ginger root, one can create a near perfect cough and strep-throat syrup. [10]

Medicines created from fennel is best made from a combination of its flowers and seeds (especially the flowers of wild fennel), which, although expensive, pack quite a curative wallop. The flowers more so are more than simply wonderful culinary additives - they are among the most potent parts of the fennel plant, and can be made into disinfectant, nutritive, and tonic tinctures, teas, or even balms if allowed to infuse in one's choice of beeswax or natural plant-based or lard-based butter.

Non-medicinal usage of fennel veers toward its employment as an additive for livestock fodder, due to the long-standing belief that allowing cattle and other grazing animals to feed on fennel may help in the better digestion, and subsequently, the assimilation of nutrients that they derive from their food. The practice of 'lacing' fodder with fennel or other nutritive herbs or spices dates back to the latter part of the Middle Ages, persisting until the latter part of the eighteenth century, where the practice (once common) soon dwindled into selected areas or have become embraced more as a personal preference than a general farming practice (as is the case today).

Esoteric / Magickal Uses

When employed magickally, fennel is typically used to confer protection. In traditional magick, fennel is employed as a talismanic herb that is said to protect an individual from negativity and harm that is directed upon one's person. Hoodoo and voodoo traditions furthered this association with "safety" and believe fennel to be a good talismanic herb to have around if one wishes to evade the law. [11] In shamanic practices, fennel is typically encased in a juju pouch or a medicine bag and carried or worn upon one's person to promote luck, invoke healing, and confer protection from spiritual and physical harm. When burnt as an incense and the vapours inhaled, it is believed to help improve psychical abilities, drive away evil entities, cleanse or banish negativity, and increase strength and courage [12] It is typically employed in this manner in the form of a smudge stick or an incense powder, usually combined with other protective herbs. In folkloric magick, fennel is said to be a potent warding herb, and was typically hung top doorjambs or made into a charm to be hung on a peg at a door to ward off sickness and evil. In hedge witchcraft, planting fennel plants around a household was said to protect the inhabitants from any physical or spiritual harm and to dispel any negativity within or outside of the homestead.

In Greek mythology, fennel is considered as a sacred herb due to its stalk having been employed by the Titan Prometheus as the means to steal the Sacred Fire of Mount Olympus and thus gift it to humankind. Because of its associations with the Sacred Fire of Hestia, and the ultimate sacrifice of the Titan Prometheus, traditional Grecian sorcery typically employed it as an herb of blessing and invigoration. It is also due to the myth of Prometheus's theft that fennel is also called the 'torch-plant', and not without good reason, as dried stalks of fennel have been employed for the purposes of firestarting. Further 'mystically' associated usage of fennels are found in the early Dionysian Mystery religions, which often employed the fennel stalk topped off with a pine-cone as a symbolic wand denoting vigour, renewal, and fertility (it also made for an ineffective weapon in the event that two reveling drunks decided to have a go at each other's heads!). [13]

Fennel Safety Notes

While fennel is relatively safe in moderate doses, pregnant and nursing women are ill-advised to partake of fennel for the duration of their pregnancy or nursing due to the risk of possible abortion or neurotoxicity caused by the herb. Likewise, fennel decoctions or any foodstuff containing fennel (even in moderate concentrations) must never be given to children below the age of six, for similar reasons (infant neurotoxicity). It should also be noted that while there are a myriad species of fennel, not all of these species are absolutely safe for human consumption, with some strains of fennel possessing more potent concentrations of toxic substances than others, and so extreme care must be taken when employing wildcrafted fennel for either culinary or medicinal purposes. Fennel in extremely large or concentrated dosages can be dangerous or even fatal - due to the presence of the compound anethole.

Inexpert herbalists and wildcrafters may also mistake poisonous plants as fennel, since there are a number of plants which closely resemble true fennel in appearance, foliage, efflorescence, and even taste and aroma. Because of this, it is advised that one only obtain fennel from reliable sources. It should be noted that while store-bought fennel is safer than wildcrafted fennel, some herbal stores or groceries sell adulterated fennel, which often include older leaves or seeds intermixed with new ones to cut down on the expense of purchasing new stocks, and to help 'sell' what should otherwise be discarded produce.

References:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fennel

[2] http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=23

[3] http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-311-FENNEL.aspx?activeIngredientId=311&activeIngredientName=FENNEL

[4] http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/f/fennel01.html

[5] http://www.livestrong.com/article/368288-fennel-medicinal-properties/

[6] http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/natural-medicine/herbal-remedies/fennel-herbal-remedies.htm

[7] http://www.experience-essential-oils.com/benefits-of-fennel.html

[8] http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/fennel-seed.html

[9] http://www.ageless.co.za/herb-fennel.htm

[10] http://www.anniesremedy.com/herb_detail24.php

[11] http://herb-magic.com/fennel-seed.html

[12] http://www.gardensablaze.com/HerbFennelMag.htm

[13] http://anentangledbank.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/torch-plant-foeniculum-vulgare-fennel/

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt. © herbs-info.com 2013

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