By Hwaa Irfan
Fennel, sweet fennel, wild fennel, is a member of the Umbelliferae family of the plant kingdom. Known as fenkel, saunf in India, and xiao hui xiang in Chinese, this hardy perennial has been a popular herb for a very long time. It was known to the ancient Romans who traveled far and wide, for its edible shoots. The ancient Greeks regarded fennel as supportive of courage, strength and a long life. Although the entire plant is edible, in general only the seeds and the oil is used today.
Like the family name indicates, a cluster of tall stems topped with bright yellow clusters of tiny flowers open out like an umbrella. Native to the Mediterranean the plant became naturalized in many countries with a temperate climate with a preference for residency in dry limestone soil around coastal shores, and river banks. With its stout stems fennel can grow to a height of over 5 feet supporting rays of tiny yellow flowers as many as twenty. From July to August the blooms are apparent brightening the dullest dry soil. In fact the fennel that grows in the garden Foeniculum officinale differs from its wild relative which is stouter, taller, and has less leaves which act to protect the stems. The fruit or the seeds, are shorter and darker the flavor of which is not as palatable as its sweet cousin.
Fennel essential oil is achieved through the process of steam distillation of the crushed seeds, and is used in the pharmaceutical industry in cough carminative, and laxative medicines, and is used in the food and cosmetic industry.
For commercial purposes fennel is mainly cultivated in France, India, Iran and Russia, and for the oil France, Greece, and Italy. Depending on where it is grown, the quality of oil will vary. Good quality fennel essential oil will contain as much as 60% of the bioactive constituent fenchone, which is bitter. The oil from Russia contains up to 18% of fenchone, French/Roman hardly any fenchone, the Indian fennel contains over 6% fenchone, and the Japanese oil contains over 10% of fenchone.
When buying look for an almost colorless – pale yellow oil with a fragrant aniseed/camphor-like scent with an earthy undertone. The bottle should be of dark glass, and kept in a cool place. It is not unusual to find fennel essential oil adulterated with bitter fennel, and synthetic anethole, fenchone, methyl chavicol, and/or limonene.
Some of the constituents of Fennel essential oil are:
- Anisic acid
- Anisic aldehyde
- Methyl chavicol
Scientific research has established fennel essential oil to be affective in prohibiting the growth of the bacteria Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, Staphylococcus epidermidis, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Fennel essential oil has also proven effective in preventing contractions when labour was artificially induced with oxytocin and prostaglandin.
Fennel oil carries with it a sweet aroma that is warming. Some of the therapeutic properties identified so far are:
- Insecticide (fleas)
- Stimulant (circulatory system)
- Tonic (liver, spleen)
For glossary see It All Makes Good Scents!
Due to its antispasmodic quality, fennel essential oil is ill suited for those with epilepsy or who are pregnant. Those with endometriosis, and estrogen dependent cancer should avoid the oil as it contains trans-anethole, which is an estrogen. It can also cause skin irritation for those who have sensitive skin.
The oil can only be used for external use, and when used it should be diluted by means of Carrier Oils like Sweet Almond Oil. Drops of no more than 5 should be used for:
- Antidote – Poison mushrooms
- Gastrointestinal – Anorexia, colic, constipation, cramps, dyspepsia, flatulence, nausea, obesity,
- Genitourinary – Fluid retention
- Glands – Liver, spleen
- Menses – Amenorrhea, balances hormones (including menopausal symptoms), PMS
- Mind – Emotional extremes, crave for sugar, weak memory,
- Oral – Pyorrhea
- Reproductive – Labor, lactation,
- Respiratory – Asthma, bronchitis, coughs, sore throat
- Skeletal – Rheumatism
- Skin – Bruised, cellulitis, dull, fleas, oily, mature
Fennel essential oil works synergistically well with foot reflexology.
- Vapor therapy – to stimulate the appetite, for anorexia, upper respiratory problems, and for facing emotional challenges
- Bath – (maximum of 5 drops before filling the bath) for gastro-intestinal, and respiratory problems, as a diuretic, for fluid retention, and cellulitis.
- Massage oil – see ‘Bath’
- Added to a natural cream/lotion – cellulitis, rheumatism, skincare, and water retention
“Common Adulterations of Essential Oils.”