By Hwaa Irfan
Popular in Bengali, Italian and Iranian cuisine, fennel is reminiscent of anise and licourice, but more spicy with a subtly sweet earthy aroma. In Central Europe it has been used to flavor rye bread, in pickled vegetables, pastries, and with meats and poultry, and is important in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. The leaves and the stalks of fennel are vegetables in themselves, which when roasted/toasted the spicy flavor is heightened. In Medieval Europe fennel was considered a preventative against evil influences and was hung over the entrance on a Midsummer’s Eve. It was introduced to Italy and France by the Romans and became popular as it increases mother’s supply of milk. In Italy the roots were used for medicinal purposes, but today we find only the fruit, which we refer to as seeds in cooking are acknowledged by modern pharmacopoeias. The poor would eat fennel to satisfy the hunger on days of fasting, and use it to improve the flavor of food that did not taste too good, while the household of King Edward I would buy large quantities.
Known as maraja in Albania, shamar in Arabic, mouri in Bengal, hui xiang/wuih heung in Chinese, sweet cumin in English, maratho in Greek, razianeh in Farsi, variyali in Gujurati, jintan manis in Malay, and hinojo in Spanish, native to the Mediterranean region, fennel spread through Greece to the rest of the world. Today one can find fennel growing wild in most parts of temperate Europe. It grows almost anywhere as a hardy perennial, up to 5 feet in height from a bulbous stock root. With thick stems, bushy feathery leaves reminiscent of Dill, and a profusion of tiny yellow flowers that go into bloom around June fennel is of the Umbellifereae family. Much of the plant is edible, including the fruits which we refer to as seeds. The fruits from the center of the rays of the flowers carry a stronger flavor. The common garden fennel foeniculum capillaceum/officinale bears thicker stems, and less leaves which protect the stem. In fact there are many varieties each with their own characteristics including taste on cooking.
The Egyptian government has been working with, the World Health Organization, WHO to protect fennel plants as resource for pharmaceutical compounds. Today, commercial cultivation takes place mainly in Iran, Egypt, India, South America, Russia, Southern France, and the U.S.
It is worth noting that the medicinal properties of fennel differs slightly according to the variety that is being used, and the conditions under which it is grown.
- Anethol (fruit)
- Fenchone (fruit)
- Oleum foeniculi
- Rutin, flavanoid
- Quercitin, flavanoid
- Kaempferol glycosides
- Estragole (fruit)
The strong antioxidant properties of fennel is representative of nature’s challenge to the toxic antioxidant butylated hydrixytoluene, BHT added to processed foods today. The constituent anethole acts as an anti-inflammatory, also reduces risk of cancer. The constituent, rutin is a flavanoid glycoside, which is a strong antioxidant that happens to stabilize Vitamin C, strengthens capillaries important when bruising of the body occurs, and is also an anti-inflammatory. Flavanoids are a soluble polyphenols which are also powerful antioxidants (prevents deterioration of cells).
Flavanoids are anti-allergic, anti-cancerous, anti-viral, and reduce the risk of atherclerosis. The flavanoid quercetin relieves hay fever, eczema, sinusitis and asthma. Quercetin also improves cardiovascular function, and protects against osteoporosis. It is anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, and anti-toxic. Quercetin also reduces the symptoms of diabetes.
The constituent limonene is anti-cancerous by increasing the level of liver enzymes that are involved in the detoxification of carcinogens. It is also useful for household use as a replacement of solvents as a cleaner.
Kaempferol is another flavanoid making it a strong antioxidant. It inhibits the formation of cancer cells working in tandem with quercetin.
The therapeutic qualities include the following: (see It All Makes Good Scents for definitions)
The best medicinal properties are achieved from a spring harvesting.
As a carminative, fennel water (aqua foeniculi) as long been known as the main constituent in the gripe water given to babies in the case of flatulence. As a glactagogue, it has been used for the problem of amenorrhoea, and because of its ability to balance female hormones as an emmenagogue it eases PMS, menopausal symptoms, and menstrual irregularities. Syrup of fennel is used to treat catarrhal infections.
As a spasmolytic fennel eases chronic coughing via the nervous system, and thus is able to relieve muscular spasms. An extract of fennel root is used as a diuretic, and to reduce water retention. By stimulating urine production toxins are eliminated.
As a carminative fennel aids digestion by stimulating the digestive juices, and relieves headaches due to poor digestion, and as hepatic it stimulates the flow of bile needed in the digestive process, detoxifies the liver, and the body toning and strengthening at the same time. As an anti-inflammatory, fennel reduces inflammation supporting the immune system. An infusion (fennel tea) treats conjunctivitis, and skin problems. As an antibiotic fennel fights against bacterial, fungal, and viral infections
In the later part of the pharonic era, Coptics would used fennel to treat eye infections. In Chinese medicine, it is believed that fennel (foeniculum vulgare) has an affinity with the liver, the spleen, and the kidneys, which is indicative of its strong cleansing properties. Fennel is used for gastroenteritis, hernias, abdominal pain, and chest infections, but it is also used to regulate and balance the vital force (qi/chi), using 2 – 5g of the fruit (seeds).
- Dietary fiber
- Vitamin A
- Niacin, Vitamin B₃
- Thiamin Vitamin B₁
- Vitamin C
- Folate, Vitamin B
The bulb of fennel is high in Vitamin C, and acts as an antimicrobial supporting the immune system. Also high in fiber, useful in helping to remove toxins in the colon, the fennel bulb helps to maintain a healthy intestinal tract. Homocysteine in high levels damages blood vessels. The constituent folate is important as it converts homocysteine to a less toxic form. Potassium lowers high blood pressure.
Fennel grown near beehives seem to increase the production of honey, and the powdered form keeps away fleas from kennels and stables. The growing plant gives off ozone easily, and this may explain the cases of photodermatitis amongst growers.
Taking extracts of natures produce has a different impact on the human body being removed from the counter-balancing constituents present in the plant. It is now possible to obtain standardized extracts of fennel, as well as tinctures, and pills. The directions on the packaging should be adhered to in consultation with one’s doctor. The fennel pill should be taken with a full glass of water, and to ensure correct dosage in the case of liquid extracts a dropper/does measuring spoon or cup should be used. Fennel fruit (seed) can be taken at a dose of 5 – 7g. or 0.1-0.6 ml. These fennel extracts should be stored according to directions given on the packaging and should be protected from light.
If one is pregnant, or suffers from seizures, extracts of fennel should not be taken. As such, fennel extracts should not be taken with related drugs, including the following:
Phenytoin/dilantin – Carbamazepine – Neurontin – Depakene/Depakote – Felbatol – Tiggabine – Levetiracetam (Keppra) – Topomax – Zonisamide – Ethosuximide
Healthy fennel is available from autumn to spring. It is preferable to buy fennel fresh with much of its important medicinal properties present in the water-oil content. The smell will be aromatic with a hint of anise or licorice. Good quality fennel will have firm and solid white-pale-green bulbs without splitting or bruising. Stalks should be of the same color being straight indicative of crispiness. Any flowering buds present are a sign of maturation. Fennel can remain fresh in a refrigerator for approximately 4 days, but the longer it is stored, the more likely it will lose its flavor. Dried fennel fruits (seed) should be kept in a cool place in an airtight container; and can be kept for up to 6 months.
The fruits (seeds) when boiled in water, eases hiccups, nausea and travel sickness, cleanses the liver, and increases urine.
A decoction eases the effect of snake bites, poisonous mushrooms by neutralizing the venom. A decoction is made by boiling ⅟₂ teaspoon of fruit (seed) in water. Once boiled, strain and drink 3 times a day.
One can make an infusion as a carminative by pouring half a pint of boiling water onto a teaspoon of crushed fennel fruit (seeds), which is also useful for conjunctivitis, and it is healthier to sweeten with honey than sugar. As an infusion 10 – 30 grains/1 teaspoon of powdered fruit (seeds) eases amenorrhea, and increases milk production in nursing mothers, and the chemicals passed on through the milk calms the baby.
Syrup of fennel eases chronic coughing. The oil can be used for muscular and rheumatic aches and pains.
When using a tincture, 10-20 drops to a pint of warm water.
Fennel should be avoided as a medicinal treatment by those who suffer from seizures, and pregnant women!
In balance He gave us everything we needed, but as for what we want!
Felter, H. W. King’s American Dispensatory, U.S.1898. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/f/fennel01.html
“Foenuculum Vulgare.” http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Foen_vul.html
Manniche, L. “An Ancient Egyptian Herbal”. British Museum Publ. Ltd, U.K. 1989.
Reid, D. “Chinese Herbal Medicine.” Thorsons Publ., U.K. 1987
Wolters Kluwer Health. “Fennel.” http://www.drugs.com/npc/fennel.html