Fennel is one of my favourite herbs, Foeniculum vulgare. Most people will be familiar with common fennel and/or the bulbous Florence Fennel Foeniculum vulgare azoricum especially prized in Mediterranean cooking.
Fennel is one of the sacred herbs of the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ and for that reason, amongst others as you will see, I think it deserves 6th place in the Alp-Herb-et:
Fille and finule, felamihtigu twa,
Chervil and Fennel, two very mighty ones.
þa wyrte gesceop witig drihten,
They were created by the wise one-eyed Lord,
Halig on heofonum, þa he hongode;
Holy in heaven as he hung on the tree;
Sette and sænde on nygon worulde
He set and sent them to the nine worlds,
Earmum and eadigum eallum to bote
To the wretched and the fortunate, As a help to all.
(from the Lacnunga but can also be found at this website (which I highly recommend)
Growth and Cultivation
Fennel is a beautiful addition to any garden, even if you have no intention of making use of it in healing, food or magic. It grows tall and its feathery foliage dances in the slightest of breezes with a magic all of its own and I think looks best grown among grasses and tall flowers like Echinacea, Ox Eye daisy and so on.
Fennel grows similar to other umbelliferous plants, tall with flat flower heads similar to cow parsley, dill, caraway and such like. The flowers are golden yellow which readily set seed. The leaves are feathery and emerald to light green, similar to dill but I grow Bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Nigra) for its rusty autumnal foliage, the flavours and uses are however the same.
The plant is a herbaceous perennial (dying back and reshooting every year) but if the plant sets seed will grow as an annual and will need to be re sown each spring.
Fennel grows easily from seed, sown direct when the soil temperatures warm up in late spring and, seems to thrive here in south east England especially in our poor chalky, free draining soils and along meadow perimeters where it self-seeds prolifically. The emerging seedlings seem to be rather irresistible to slugs and snails (as do most young green things) so keep a sunken jar of beer close by to distract the little critters. In my garden, Fennel seems to flower when it’s about 3 feet tall, depending on the climate and seasonal variation that particular year but I have seen it much taller in the open, full sun where it thrives.
Florence fennel is different, the bulbous root vegetable is common in Italian cooking with its brilliant fresh white bulb which sits proud of the soil surface from which green feathery leaves similar to those of common fennel emerge. Most of what I speak of in this blog however will be related to common or wild fennel, unless I specify otherwise.
Culinary and Medicinal Uses
Never has one herb been so perfectly gifted to us, both delicious to eat and superb for the digestive system. Fennel is one of the principle constituents of babies ‘Gripe Water’ so you can guess just how beneficial it is in terms of aiding sluggish digestion and relieving trapped wind, bloating and of course cholic.
Florence or bulb fennel can be chopped and added to salads raw where it provides a gorgeous fresh aniseedy crunch, slightly stronger in flavour to chervil or the bulbs can be prepared and roasted whole which sweetens the flavour. I find fennel also tastes great with very strong cheese. And like dill, fennel leaves are great with fish either chopped into fishcakes or as part of a breadcrumb coating.
The fresh leaves of common fennel can also be added to salads to give the same, but slightly more cutting, aromatic flavour although I have to say I prefer the flavour of chervil to fennel leaves raw.
Principally I grow fennel for the seed which I use dried and slightly crushed in teas to aid the lower digestive tract and if I am feeling particularly delicate after a heavy night of excess, Fennel tea seems to clear the head remarkably well. Fennel essential oil, diluted 2 drops to 5ml carrier oil massaged into the temples and abdomen has the same effect. Be warned however, Fennel is a potent carminative and trapped wind will be well and truly relieved!
Fennel is a supposed galactagogue meaning it aids the flow of milk in lactating mothers however as with all things involving pregnancy and new borns, care should always be taken and the advice of a trained medical practitioner and / or herbalist sought.
In Her book “A Modern Herbal” Mrs Grieve sites an older herbal by Longfellow:
‘Above the lower plants it towers,
The Fennel with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore.’
Fennel’s sight enhancing properties were also recorded as far back as Pliny who observed snakes rubbing their eyes on the plant. The Romans, who cultivated Fennel swore by its power to clear the eyes and improve sight.
The appearance, the scent everything about this herb screams Mercury…fresh and bright with a clean aromatic fragrance.
Prometheus, from Greek Myth, created man from clay and stole the fire of the Gods from the heavens concealing it in a hollow fennel stalk in order to carry it to mankind (similarities with Mercury / Hermes!) A powerful metaphor for the Witch, and a great honour for the seemingly humble Fennel!
Interestingly the Greek name for Fennel, Marathos or Marathon gives us some clues into some of Fennel’s other magical attributes. The battle of Marathon was so named because it took place in a field of Fennel. A character from the story, Pheidippides, ran 26 miles from the plains of Marathon to Athens, to tell of the triumph over the Persian army. So the word we use today for an intensive running event actually derives from the word for Fennel…so maybe we can surmise that Fennel has some use in magic of strength and endurance?
Fennel, though seeming humble and unassuming has a proud character, standing tall among the surrounding plants Fennel shows us the best way to weather any storm or strong wind is to bend a little for there is strength in flexibility, allow the worst to pass, use it to your advantage for it is only when Fennel’s leaves are brushed and bruised do we become away of its intoxicating scent…a fragrance which hides in stem and feathery leaf concealed just like the fire of the Gods.
A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Greive
Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing by Stephen Pollington