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Faithful Fennel

By Audrey Stallsmith


Above the lower plants it towers,
The Fennel with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to retore.
It gave new strength and fearless mood;
And gladiators, fierce and rude
Mingled it with their daily food;
And he who battled and subdued,
A wreath of fennel wore.

Longfellow--"The Goblet of Life"

Fennel loomed large, in size and reputation, in the ancient world. One of the nine sacred herbs, foeniculum vulgare hung with St. Johnswort over doors on Misummer's Eve to repel witches and evil spirits. The Book of Iago ab Dewi asserts that "He who sees fennel and gathers it not, is not a man but a devil."

The salt fish served during Lent was often spiced with the herb, which has also been known as finocchio or carosella. Parkinson explained that fennel "being sweete and somewhat hot helpeth to digest the crude qualitie of fish and other viscous meats."

Besides stewing the plant in their churches to perfume the air, monks chewed the anise-flavored seeds--sometimes sugar-coated--to relieve hunger pains while they were fasting. Since the Puritans knew fennel as "meeting seeds," they probably also used them to slake hunger during seemingly interminable sermons.

Those abstaining for less than religious reasons appreciated fennel too. Although its Greek name, marathon, may derive from the village of that name, it has also been associated with moraino. That term means "to grow thin," and fennel has often been employed by dieters.

Pliny claimed that snakes eat it while shedding their old skins "and they sharpen their sight with the juice by rubbing against the plant." Fennel was also thought to improve the memory, impart strength and courage, and add years to a person's life! In the Language of Flowers, after all, it means "strength" and "worthy of all praise."

I can't help but wonder if this hero status was due as much to fennel's physical stature as to its virtues. The perennial plant, with its finely-cut leaves and flat umbels of yellow flowers, can grow as tall as a man. It is something of a bully too, being known to inhibit the growth of nearby plants, especially beans and tomatoes.

Fennel should be kept away from other members of the Umbelliferae family, like caraway, coriander, anise, and dill, with whom it may cross-pollinate. The herb has a short, squat little sister called Florence, who stands on her head! The overlapping stalks at the base of Florence fennel form a ball which is good, sliced raw, in salads, or cooked in a cream sauce. It tastes something like celery--only sweeter.

You can also eat the shoots, stalks, and leaves of common fennel when they're fresh, but they lose their flavor when dried. So, for winter seasoning or teas, you'll want to collect the seeds. They are small and oval, straighter than caraway.

Fennel is especially popular in Italian pizza, sausage, tomato sauce, breads, and vegetable and fish dishes. It has, in fact, been called "the fish herb."

The black swallowtail butterfly likes to lay its eggs on fennel. So, if you see any black and gold caterpillars on your plant, please consider sharing it with them!

As for the herb's medicinal uses, the School of Salerno listed them thusly:
Of fennel virtues foure they doe recite,
First, it hath power some poysons to expell,
Next, burning Agues (fevers) it will put to flight,
The stomach it does cleanse and comfort well:
And fourthly, it doth keepe and cleanse the sight
And thus the seed and herb doth both excel.

One very practical use not mentioned is that fennel made less-than-fresh meals more edible. Although we have the option of throwing out stale food these days, our forefathers weren't so fortunate. And fennel's hot anise flavor could cover up a multitude of evils! Fortunately, it is also able to kill some bacterias!

The herb would also relieve the internal discomfort that might have been caused by such a meal. So good is fennel at treating indigestion that herbalists used to mix it with laxatives to prevent any cramps that those purgatives might cause. A weak tea made from the seeds will relieve colic in babies.

Baby's mother might want to try it too, since the mildly estogenic action is said to stimulate the flow of breast milk. Fennel tea will also soothe a sore throat or cough and clear up respiratory congestion. (Please make sure that you use the herb itself, however, and not the oil--which can be highly toxic!)

In The Green Pharmacy, James Duke reports that fennel also "increases the libido of both male and female rats." Those who need to avoid estrogen, however, shouldn't consume the herb. And persons with liver diseases should be wary also since, while fennel helps some liver problems, it has been said to aggravate others.

You might want to carry a few of the seeds with you to chew in church. They could prevent your stomach from making embarrassing noises, not to mention sweetening your breath. And, should you take exception to parts of the pastor's sermon, they will lower your blood pressure! One way or another, after all, fennel has been helping the holy for centuries!

Plant plate is from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library