Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a plant species in the genus Foeniculum (treated as the sole species in the genus by most botanists). It is a member of the family Apiaceae (formerly the Umbelliferae). It is a hardy, perennial, umbelliferous herb, with yellow flowers and feathery leaves. It is generally considered indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, but has become widely naturalised in many parts of the world, especially on dry soils near the sea-coast and on river-banks.
|Fennel in flower|
|Foeniculum vulgare |
It is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with culinary and medicinal uses, and is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe. Florence fennel or finocchio is a selection with a swollen, bulb-like stem base that is used as a vegetable.
Fennel is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the mouse moth and the anise swallowtail.
Etymology and historyThe word fennel developed from the Middle English fenel or fenyl. This came from the Old English fenol or finol, which in turn came from the Latin feniculum or foeniculum, the diminutive of fenum or faenum, meaning "hay". The Latin word for the plant was ferula, which is now used as the genus name of a related plant. As Old English finule it is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century.
In Ancient Greek, fennel was called marathon (μάραθον), and is attested in Linear B tablets as ma-ra-tu-wo. John Chadwick noted this word is the origin of the place name Marathon (meaning "place of fennel"), site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC; however, Chadwick wryly noted he has "not seen any fennel growing there now". In Greek mythology, Prometheus used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the gods. Also, it was from the giant fennel, Ferula communis, that the Bacchanalian wands of the god Dionysus and his followers were said to have come.
In Italy, the word for fennel (finocchio) is used in a derogatory way to refer to a homosexual. This use is traced back to the time of the Italian Inquisition, and remains in use today.
Appearanceperennial herb. It is erect, glaucous green, and grows to heights of up to 2.5 m, with hollow stems. The leaves grow up to 40 cm long; they are finely dissected, with the ultimate segments filiform (threadlike), about 0.5 mm wide. (Its leaves are similar to those of dill, but thinner.) The flowers are produced in terminal compound umbels 5–15 cm wide, each umbel section having 20–50 tiny yellow flowers on short pedicels. The fruit is a dry seed from 4–10 mm long, half as wide or less, and grooved.
Cultivation and uses
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||130 kJ (31 kcal)|
|Dietary fiber||3.1 g|
|Thiamine (Vit. B1)||0.01 mg (1%)|
|Riboflavin (Vit. B2)||0.032 mg (2%)|
|Niacin (Vit. B3)||0.64 mg (4%)|
|Pantothenic acid (B5)||0.232 mg (5%)|
|Vitamin B6||0.047 mg (4%)|
|Folate (Vit. B9)||27 μg (7%)|
|Vitamin C||12 mg (20%)|
|Calcium||49 mg (5%)|
|Iron||0.73 mg (6%)|
|Magnesium||17 mg (5%)|
|Phosphorus||50 mg (7%)|
|Potassium||414 mg (9%)|
|Zinc||0.20 mg (2%)|
|Manganese 0.191 mg|
|Percentages are relative to US recommendations for adults. |
Source: USDA Nutrient database
The Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Azoricum Group; syn. F. vulgare var. azoricum) is a cultivar group with inflated leaf bases which form a bulb-like structure. It is of cultivated origin, and has a mild anise-like flavour, but is more aromatic and sweeter. Florence fennel plants are smaller than the wild type. Their inflated leaf bases are eaten as a vegetable, both raw and cooked. There are several cultivars of Florence fennel, which is also known by several other names, notably the Italian name finocchio. In North American supermarkets, it is often mislabelled as "anise".
Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum', "bronze-leaved" fennel, is widely available in the UK, where it is grown as a decorative garden plant.
Fennel has become naturalised along roadsides, in pastures, and in other open sites in many regions, including northern Europe, the United States, southern Canada and in much of Asia and Australia. It propagates well by seed, and is considered an invasive species and a weed in Australia and the United States. (see Santa Cruz Island)
absinthe, an alcoholic mixture which originated as a medicinal elixir in Switzerland and became, by the late 19th century, a popular alcoholic drink in France and other countries.
Culinary usesculinary traditions of the world. Fennel pollen is the most potent form of fennel, but also the most expensive. Dried fennel seed is an aromatic, anise-flavoured spice, brown or green in colour when fresh, slowly turning a dull grey as the seed ages. For cooking, green seeds are optimal. The leaves are delicately flavored and similar in shape to those of dill. The bulb is a crisp, hardy root vegetable and may be sauteed, stewed, braised, grilled, or eaten raw.
Fennel seeds are sometimes confused with those of anise, which are very similar in taste and appearance, though smaller. Fennel is also used as a flavouring in some natural toothpaste.
Fennel features prominently in Mediterranean cuisine, where bulbs and fronds are used, both raw and cooked, in side dishes, salads, pastas, vegetable dishes such as artichoke dishes in Greece, and risottos. Fennel seed is a common ingredient in Italian sausages and meatballs and northern European rye breads.
Many cultures in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East use fennel seed in their cookery. Fennel is one of the most important spices in Kashmiri Pandit and Gujarati cooking. It is an essential ingredient of the Assamese/Bengali/Oriya spice mixture panch phoron and in Chinese five-spice powders. It is known as saunf or mauti saunf in Hindi and Urdu (Devanagari सौंफ़, Perso-Arabic: سونف), sompu or madhrikam in Telugu, badesoppu in Kannada, mouri (মৌরি) in Bengali, shombu or peruncheeragam (பெருஞ்சீரகம்) in Tamil and Malayalam language, variyali (વરીયાળી) in Gujarati, badeeshop or badeeshep (Devanagiri बडीशेप) in Marathi and barishap in the Malay language, Razianeh or رازیانه in Persian, jintan manis in Malay, and shomra (شمرة) in Arabic. In many parts of Pakistan and India, roasted fennel seeds are consumed as Mukhwas, an after-meal digestive and breath freshener. Some people in farming communities also chew on fresh sprigs of green fennel seeds. Fennel leaves are used as leafy green vegetables either by themselves or mixed with other vegetables, cooked to be served and consumed as part of a meal, in some parts of India. In Lebanon, it is used to make a special kind of egg omelette (along with onions, and flour) called ijjeh (عجة).
Many egg, fish, and other dishes employ fresh or dried fennel leaves. Florence fennel is a key ingredient in some Italian and German salads, often tossed with chicory and avocado, or it can be braised and served as a warm side dish. It may be blanched or marinated, or cooked in risotto.
Medicinal usesanethole, which can explain some of its medical effects: it, or its polymers, act as phytoestrogens.
Intestinal tractMrs. Grieve's Herbal states:
Fennel can be made into a syrup to treat babies with colic (formerly thought to be due to digestive upset), but long term ingestion of fennel preparations by babies is a known cause of thelarche.On account of its carminative properties, fennel is chiefly used medicinally with purgatives to allay their side effects, and for this purpose forms one of the ingredients of the well-known compound liquorice powder. Fennel water has properties similar to those of anise and dill water: mixed with sodium bicarbonate and syrup, these waters constitute the domestic 'gripe water', used to correct the flatulence of infants. Volatile oil of fennel has these properties in concentration. Fennel tea, also employed as a carminative, is made by pouring boiling water on a teaspoonful of bruised fennel seeds.
For adults, fennel seeds or tea can relax the intestines and reduce bloating caused by digestive disorders.
EyesIn the Indian subcontinent, fennel seeds are also eaten raw, sometimes with some sweetener, as it is said to improve eyesight. Ancient Romans regarded fennel as the herb of sight. Root extracts were often used in tonics to clear cloudy eyes. Extracts of fennel seed have been shown in animal studies to have a potential use in the treatment of glaucoma.
Blood and urineSome people use fennel as a diuretic, and it may be an effective diuretic and a potential drug for treatment of hypertension.
BreastmilkThere are historical anecdotes that fennel is a galactogogue, improving the milk supply of a breastfeeding mother. This use, although not supported by direct evidence, is sometimes justified by the fact that fennel is a source of phytoestrogens, which promote growth of breast tissue. However, normal lactation does not involve growth of breast tissue. There is a single case report of fennel tea ingested by a breastfeeding mother resulting in neurotoxicity for the newborn child.
Other usesSyrup prepared from fennel juice was formerly given for chronic coughs. It is one of the plants which is said to be disliked by fleas, and powdered fennel has the effect of driving away fleas from kennels and stables.
ProductionSyrian Arab Republic is the leader in production of anise, badian (star anise), fennel and coriander, followed by India.
|Top ten anise, badian, fennel & coriander producers — 11 June 2008|
|People's Republic of China||38,000||F|
|No symbol = official figure, P = official figure, F = FAO estimate, * = Unofficial/Semi-official/mirror data, C = Calculated figure A = Aggregate (may include official, semi-official or estimates); |
Source: Food And Agricultural Organization of United Nations: Economic And Social Department: The Statistical Division
Similar speciesMany species in the family Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) are superficially similar to fennel, and some, such as poison hemlock (see below), are toxic. It is therefore unwise, and potentially extremely dangerous, to use any part of any of these plants as a herb or vegetable unless it can be positively identified as being edible.
Dill, coriander and caraway are similar-looking herbs, but shorter-growing than fennel, reaching only 40–60 cm; dill has thread-like, feathery leaves and yellow flowers; coriander and caraway have white flowers and finely divided leaves (though not as fine as dill or fennel) and are also shorter-lived (being annual or biennial plants). The superficial similarity in appearance between these may have led to a sharing of names and etymology, as in the case of meridian fennel, a term for caraway.
Cicely, or sweet cicely, is sometimes grown as a herb; like fennel, it contains anethole, and therefore has a similar aroma, but it is lower-growing (to 2 m), has large umbels of white flowers, and its leaves are fern-like rather than threadlike.
Giant fennel (Ferula communis) is a large, coarse plant, with a pungent aroma, which grows wild in the Mediterranean region and is only occasionally grown in gardens elsewhere. Other species of the genus Ferula are also commonly called giant fennel, but they are not culinary herbs.
The most dangerous plant which might be confused with fennel is probably hemlock (poison hemlock). Hemlock tends to grow near water or in consistently moist soil, is tall (0.75 – 2 m), has purple blotches on the main stem, and is heavily branched, with small umbels of white flowers. A useful test to distinguish between it and fennel is to crush some leaves and smell them. Fennel smells like anise or liquorice, whereas the smell of poison hemlock is often described as mouse-like or musty. But take care: coniine, a toxin contained in poison hemlock, can be absorbed through the skin, so do not do this "smell test" with bare hands (and avoid touching your eyes or mouth) unless you can wash them immediately afterwards.
Fennel is found growing, in North America, in the same habitat and alongside natives osha (Ligusticum porteri) and Lomatium species, useful medicinal relatives in the parsley family.
Lomatium (which closely resembles hemlock, and can be very difficult to distinguish from it) is an important historical food plant of Native Americans, known as biscuit root. Most Lomatium species have yellow flowers, like fennel, but some are white flowered and closely resemble poison hemlock. Most Lomatium spp. have finely divided, hairlike leaves; their roots have a delicate rice-like odor, unlike the musty odor of hemlock. Lomatium species tend to prefer dry rocky soils devoid of organic material.
Osha, Ligusticum porteri, has white flowers and finely-divided leaves, similar to poison hemlock, but not as fine as fennel or dill. The leaves are intensely fragrant with a "spicy celery" odor, unlike the musty or "mousy" smell of poison hemlock, but care should be taken in checking this characteristic, as the fresh juice (of the roots) is astringent and can cause blistering.