There’s much to be said for the rare and exotic herbs stumbled upon in dense jungle thickets or clinging precariously to the sides of mountain precipices. They are the plants that tend to draw the world’s attention (and the funding for research) with their promise of effects as spectacular as the places they grow. But my heart is more often captured by the humble and commonplace plants dwelling quietly in the backgrounds of our lives. It isn’t that they are any less spectacular than their exotic counterparts (at least in my opinion); just that they are so gentle – so engrained into our consciousness –that we often forget to notice them.
Fennel is the perfect example of such a plant. Ordinary to the extreme, it is identified by the Latin term vulgare – not because people thought the plant obscene or crude – but because it was so common in Monastic gardens throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. As Nicholas Culpepper described it in the fifteenth century, “every garden affords this so plentifully, that it needs no description.” The fleshy bulb-like stem is well known in Italian cooking and the feathery leaves and yellow flowers are also highly prized for their delicate anise-like flavor, the flowers being known commercially as “fennel pollen.”
But the seeds are what have always been most loved about fennel, forming the base of curry powders in India and five-spice blends in China, flavoring pilafs in Persia and liqueurs throughout Europe, such as Absinthe. In all these applications, the same volatile oils that lend their anise or licorice flavor also strengthen and support the digestive process. Muscle cramps and spasms are soothed, the passage of gas is eased, nausea is soothed, and the appetite is increased. In addition to protecting against gas and bloating, a few seeds chewed at the end of a meal also pleasantly scent the breath (a great thing to remember for first dates, job interviews, and other situations where fresh breath and a lack of flatulence are appreciated).
Because of its gentleness, fennel is a great remedy for children; it eases colic and can be used to soothe a cough or calm frayed nerves. For nursing babes, the seeds can be chewed or taken in tea by their moms, where the relaxing volatile oils are not only present in the milk for the baby to absorb, but also increase milk flow. Topically, a tea made from the seeds can be used as an eyewash for conjunctivitis or added to gargles and toothpastes to soothe sore gums and freshen the breath. A tea of chamomile and fennel frozen into ice cubes is great for soothing the gums of teething babies.
The effects may not seem particularly sensational and there is certainly nothing very exotic about fennel. But for anyone who’s ever suffered from an upset belly (which is almost everyone), fennel is a true gem – a remedy that in its reliability and gentle charm is nothing short of extraordinary.
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Danielle Charles Davies has a BSc in Herbal Science from Bastyr University and in addition completed two years of clinical training at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. She has written for the the American Herbalists Guild and has also served as a food columnist. Her musings, and recipes, can be found at her blog, Teacup Chronicles.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.