The joy of growing and using herbs:
by Rachel McLeod
Of fennel virtues foure they doe recite,
First, in hath power some poysons to expell,
Next, burning Agues it will put to flight,
The stomack it doth cleanse and comfort well:
And fourthly, it doth keepe and cleanse the sight
And thus the seed and hearbe doth both excel.
~The School of Salernum
The medical school in the town of
Salerno in Italy was the oldest school in Western Europe for the teaching of
medicine and philosophy. It is not known when it came into being but was
considered ancient in A.D. 846 and it continued to be the most famous school for
some centuries. It was at its greatest from the eleventh to the thirteenth
century. The original prescriptions for a healthy regime were in Latin but were
translated faithfully into English in 1607.
The lines above are one of the references to Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
and show how at that time it was considered a very important medicinal plant.
All through Mediterranean countries and other countries in the world with a
similar climate such as New Zealand and parts of California, big stands of wild
fennel are common. It grows up to a meter or more in height and with its huge
columns of feathery leaves it is an impressive sight. In late summer the fronds
are crowned with umbels of yellow flowers, these form seeds which ripen in the
Fennel is easy to grow, the seed germinates quickly but needs to be started
early in northern climates where it will not overwinter and has to be treated as an
annual. Place the seedlings at the back of the garden where their height and
beautiful fronds will make a lovely backdrop. Though it is beautiful, fennel is
disliked by many plants and it has been found by companion planters to inhibit
the growth of bush beans and tomatoes also it should not be planted near dill as
they are closely related and may cross pollinate which might affect the flavor
of the seeds.
If you are fortunate enough to find caterpillars on the leaves do not spray
or kill them until you have identified them. Fennel is host to the swallowtail
butterfly caterpillars and swallowtails are large and beautiful, like flying
flowers making the garden even more lovely. The caterpillars are green with
transverse stripes in black but they vary with the species of swallowtail.
For culinary use, the tender stalks and leaves can be picked fresh but they
lose their flavor if they are dried. For winter use and for teas and medicinal
purposes, the seeds are used. They should be harvested at the end of summer by
placing a paper bag over the seedhead so that they do not fall as they ripen.
The dried seeds are delicious in bread, cookies and apple pie, also as one of
my favorite herb teas. Fennel seed tea has a lovely flavor and the added
benefit of the reputation of helping the body to lose weight and relieving
indigestion. It has other medicinal uses; the tea is recommended as an eye
lotion, to soothe tired eyes and clear the sight. Fennel seed is used with
leaves and barley water to increase the milk yield for nursing mothers and the
seeds are the basis of gripe water which over the years has helped millions of
babies to burp their problems away! Greek athletes included fennel in their diet
to guard against overweight and give stamina and courage. Perhaps today's
Olympic athletes use fennel too.
Another variety of fennel is Finocchio or Florence Fennel (Foeniculum
vulgare.var.dulce), which in late summer forms a large white swollen bulb
at the base of the stem. This is often sold in the vegetable department as
anise. Although fennel and anise are related this white swollen stem is not
anise but the confusion probably comes from it having a distinctly anise aroma
Anise (Pimpinella anisum) is a small, rather weak stemmed relative of
fennel grown only for its seeds which have a liquorice flavor).
Timing is important when growing Florence fennel. Once the bulb has formed it
should be harvested quickly; if left the plant will send up a flowering spike
using the energy stored in the bulb which will shrink overnight! The mature
fennel bulb can be chopped up and used in salads or with fish dishes. Fennel
combines particularly well with oranges and a delicious salad can be made from
thinly sliced rounds of the bulb mixed with orange segments, dress with lemon
juice and oil and add salt and pepper to taste.
Bronze fennel is another beautiful garden plant. Like the green fennel, it
grows large feathery fronds but this time they are a copper color, which is
magnificent in any flower border and acts as a wonderful contrast in color,
form, and texture. The only snag is that it too changes character when it flowers
and stops the production of the handsome leaves, the bushiness disappears as the
stems elongate to hold the flower umbels high leaving a gap in the garden
design. This could easily be overcome by succession planting. Bronze Fennel is
best treated as an annual here but in well drained soil and a warm sheltered
position it may winter and will certainly self seed. The leaves are edible like
all the fennels and make a beautiful garnish combined with the green variety.
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.