Fennel has been traditionally used for eye complaints, to induce sleep, aid digestion and to help nursing mothers express milk. Gerard says: “The pouder of the seed of Fennell drunke for certain daies together fasting preserveth the eye-sight”.
The aniseed-like flavour is excellent for dispelling wind and has a calming effect on bronchitis and coughs. It also helps to stimulate an appetite. Like Dill, Fennel is another valuable carminative herb that will dispel trapped gas and ease bloating. It has been used for over 2000 years for these purposes and the chewing of roasted seeds after meals used to be a common practice. It is said that this was a common practice with Roman foot soldiers when on the march. The Romans cultivated fennel for its seed and would put the herb under their loaves while cooking to add flavour. Fennel originated in the Mediterranean and probably worked its way north with the Romans.
During the Middle Ages in Europe fennel was grown in monastery gardens. Puritans would also chew fennel seed to aid digestion, especially when fasting and, one suspects to help keep them awake during long religious services. It is well worth keeping seeds in the kitchen as ‘first-aid’ for acid stomach upsets. A few seeds have been added to babies’ milk in the pan to aid digestion and prevent reflux, but make sure you take them out before giving a baby the milk.
It is rich in volatile oils and has been used to stimulate milk flow in breastfeeding mothers, to help with bad breath and other body odours that originate in the intestines. It is said to stimulate menstruation and for this reason is not recommended for pregnant women.
All parts of the plant help with the digestion of fatty meats such as lamb or oily fish such as mackerel. When I am making mackerel paté I tend to put a few chopped leaves in to aid digestion. The ground seed is a useful addition to making bread. More and more people seem to be sensitive to gluten and fennel seems to help break it down. Add fennel leaves to salads and as a garnish with fish, potato, eggs, lamb and mutton, pork and ham or use it in an herb butter. The seeds are used in both bread and fruit dishes. Fennel is sweet and warm and Culpeper recommended it be combined with watery foods (like fish or fruits) in order to balance them.
Fennel is an herb with long historical use. As a fertility blessing, fennel was thrown at newlyweds. Anglo Saxons used it in both cooking and medicine and it has been used in obscure rituals to dispel evil spirits and counter witchcraft. Traditionally for protection, fennel plants were sometimes hung over doorways on Midsummer Eve to keep away evil and the seeds were put into keyholes to keep away ghosts. Astrologically fennel is ruled by Mercury. It is said to aid the memory and has been used in the past as a remedy for stroke victims.
The flowers attract bees and hoverflies. Many other plants dislike the company of fennel and grow poorly near with this strong herb. Don’t plant it near beans, tomatoes and kohl rabi. Never plant fennel near carrots, coriander or dill as they may cross-pollinate.
I enjoy my fennel plants, a green one and a bronze one standing next to each other. The leaves are most unusual and emit a lovely scent when squeezed. By the end of summer the flower heads tower above me with their clusters of rich and useful seed that I dry for kitchen use, mostly in bread making. If you leave the main stalks to dry after harvesting they can be cut up later to provide nesting places for solitary bees in a ‘bee hotel’.