top of page

Getting to Know Fennel

by Karyn Siegel-Maier


Fennel is perhaps one of the most versatile herbs you can grow. Once established in the garden, this tall perennial will provide a graceful backdrop for shorter herbs, will thrive vigorously even in poor soil, and will attract the swallowtail butterfly caterpillar, which feeds on the leaves. Fennel is a popular ingredient in many cosmetic preparations, including anti-wrinkle cream, perfume, and soap. Creative cooks value the licorice like flavor of fennel, which makes a flavorful addition to cream sauces, baked goods, grilled fish, sausage, rice, Chinese marinades, curries, eggs and cheese. All parts of the plant are edible, and the celery like stalks of Sweet fennel (F. vulgare var. dulce) are eaten as a vegetable, raw or cooked. Finocchio, or Florence fennel (F. vulgare var. azoricum) has a bulbous base that can be roasted, or shredded into slaw or salad. Fennel is also an ingredient in the popular Chinese 5-spice blend.

The Greek battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. was named after the foliage that grew in the field in which it was fought. Fennel, known as marathron to the ancient Greeks, was named from the word maraino, which meant "to grow thin." The 17th-century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, maintained that every part of the fennel plant was suitable to help make "people lean that are too fat." In medieval times, fennel was believed to be an appetite suppressant, and the seeds were kept on hand to help people endure long periods of time between meals, or on days of religious feasting. Fennel is still regarded as an effective carminative (an aid in digestion), and a weight loss herb reputed to help in the digestion of fat. The Latin word for fennel, foeniculum, meaning "little hay" is thought to describe its sweet aroma, although it may be a reference to the fact that it was fed to goats to stimulate their milk production.


Pheidippides, the runner who carried the news of the Persian invasion to Sparta, was rewarded with a sprig of fennel. Statues created to honor Pheidippides have always shown him holding fennel, a symbol of his courage. Roman warriors ate fennel, and wore wreaths made of the feathery leaves to give them courage before going into battle. Longfellow paid tribute to this tradition in this poem:


Above the lowly 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.

It gave new strength, and fearless mood;

And gladiators, fierce and rude,

Mingled it in their daily food;

And he who battled and subdued,

A wreath of fennel wore.

- from "The Goblet of Life," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1842)


Fennel has long been considered to be of medicinal value, primarily as a carminative, a diuretic, and a mild stimulant. Culpeper recommended fennel to break kidney stones, to relieve gout, as an antidote for mushroom poisoning, a detoxifyer of the liver, to cure colic in infants, and to relieve congestion of the lungs. In Europe today, fennel water is often given to infants to relieve colic, and the herb is found in many cough preparations. Other medicinal uses of fennel include a poultice of the powdered seed for snakebite, a remedy still used in China today. Dioscorides and Hippocrates believed fennel would stimulate milk production in nursing mothers. Dioscorides found fennel to contain diuretic properties, and recommended it for urinary tract disorders. The Greeks thought fennel to be useful in treating disorders of the eye, since they believed serpents ate fennel to regain their sight after shedding their skins. Fennel was one of the four "warming seeds" and declared by the Anglo-Saxons to be one of the nine sacred herbs that would cure the nine causes of medieval diseases.


Fennel, a native to the Mediterranean, was introduced to Europe in the eighth century by the emperor Charlemagne, who cultivated the herb on his imperial farms in Germany.


Tomato Soup with Fennel


3 cups vegetable stock

3 cups chopped fresh tomatoes

2 medium fennel bulbs, chopped

2 large carrots, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

1 cup milk (or use soy, or low fat)

1 tsp. sugar

2 tbl. chopped fennel leaves for garnish

salt & pepper to taste


In a large soup kettle, cook onion, fennel and carrot in one cup of the vegetable broth over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Add remaining stock, tomatoes, and sugar, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.


Puree the soup in a food processor or blender, and return to the kettle. Add the milk, salt and pepper to taste, and blend well. Reheat the soup over a low flame to a serving temperature. Add the chopped fennel leaves for garnish just before serving.



Fennel Sauce


This recipe was created by the Roman gourmet Apicius, and dates to the first century A.D.


1/8 tsp. fennel seeds

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp. mint

2 tsp. chopped parsley

1 tsp. honey

1 tsp. white wine vinegar (or tarragon if handy)

1 cup water (or use potato water or soup stock)


Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer another 20 minutes. Serve warm or cold.




Return to Herb Profiles



bottom of page