FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare): Origin: native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. Fennel sometimes was prescribed in ancient Greece as an aid to lose weight. In rural England sprigs of fennel were interwoven on the harnesses of horses to keep flies away. In the Witches Guide to Gardening, it is said: “Sow fennel – sow sorrow.” In the language of flowers fennel is symbolic of force and strength. According to some traditions Roman gladiators mixed fennel with their food in order to be successful in the arena; if a gladiator won, he was crowned with a fennel garland. Roman accounts state that snakes were fond of fennel, and when consumed it allowed them to be restored to their youth and thus were able to cast off their old skin. Fennel used in traditional medicine to treat the eyes, to remove “worms from the ears”, and as a dieting agent (i.e. to reduce excess flesh and fat). It is reported that consumption of fennel increases the milk supply of nursing. Fennel was one of the nine plants used by Anglo-Saxons as protective charms, a tradition that dates to at least the 10th century of the Common Era. The nine plant charm is found in the Lacnunga text and invoked the god Woden to help heal the sick. The nine sacred plants were:
una = mugwort Artemisisa vulgaris
waybread = plantain Plantago major
stune = lamb’s cress Nasturtium officinalis
atterlothe = betony Stachys betonica
maythe = chamomile Anthemis nobilis
wergulu = nettle Utricia dioca
crab apple Pyrus malus
chervil Anthriscus cerefolim
fennel Foeniculum vulgare
Fennel has a role in ancient Greek mythology as Prometheus used its stalk to steal fire from the gods. The Greek word for fennel is marathon, so named because the plain where the famous battle was fought is covered with natural growth of the plant. The Romans may have introduced the culinary concept of salads to Britain, where preparations known as sallets or salletts ultimately developed through the centuries. Charlemagne encouraged its cultivation throughout his realm.
The Gerarde herbal identified a wide range of information on fennel: a powder prepared from crushed fennel seeds and drunk for a number of days will clear the eyes; leaves and seeds of fennel, filleth womens breasts with milke; fennel decoctions drunk to ease kidney pain, and reduces the possibility for kidney stones, crushed fennel seeds ease stomach pains and the desire to vomit; the seeds and roots of fennel are very good for the lungs, liver, and kidneys.
The Culpeper herbal says: fennel provokes urine and helps to break and/or ease pains caused by kidney stones; fennel leaves or seeds boiled in barley water increases the quantity of breast milk in nursing mothers and improve the quality/wholesomeness of the milk; leaves (but not seeds) when boiled in water will stop hiccough. Fennel leaves will reduce the loathing [stomach upset] of feverish persons. Fennel seed boiled in wine is good for those bitten by snakes or who have eaten poisonous herbs or mushrooms; both the seeds and roots of fennel open obstructions of the liver, spleen, and gallbladder, and reduce yellow jaundice; fennel seed may be used to prepare medicines to help shortness of breath and wheezing, and when powdered and mixed with water are used to clean body parts after childbirth. Preparations of fennel leaves, seeds, and roots mixed with water or prepared as a broth will make fat persons lean and decoctions of fennel seeds dripped into the eyes will cleanse away mists and films that hinder eyesight. One of Culpeper’s legacies are his medicinal aphorisms and one regards fennel:
For Eyes that are blasted …Take of Fennel, Eyebright, Roses, white, Celandine, Vervain and Rue, of each a handful, the liver of a Goat chopt small, infuse them well in Eyebright-water, then distil them in an alembie [a simple still used by alchemists], and you shall have a water [that] will clear the sight beyond comparison.
To take away the marks of the small pox …Take the juice of Fennel, heat it luke-warm, and when the small Pox are well scabbed, anoint the face with it diverse times in a day, three or four days together.
During Shakespeare’s time fennel served as an emblem of flattery and Italians of the era would say Dare Finocchio (to give fennel) or to flatter. One 1390 recipe, attributed to the master cook in the court of King Richard II, included the following ingredients: borage, fennel, garlic, leeks, mint, Welsh onions, parsley, purslane, rosemary, rue, sage, and watercress. A Welsh tradition holds:
He who sees fennel and gathers it not, is not a man, but a devil.
Fennel seed used to relieve hunger on religious fasting days. The master cook ordered the ingredients washed, cut into small pieces, and then combined with a mixture of olive oil and vinegar. In past years citizens of Bologna, Italy, would purchase garlic on Midsummer night as it symbolized abundance, and it was carried home as a charm so poverty would not strike the household during the coming year. Medicinally fennel has been used to treat flatulence as tradition holds it is helpful in expelling intestinal gas and to treat cough. Traditional healers in different world locations prescribe raw fennel seeds to improve eyesight and to increase the volume of breast milk in nursing mothers.
(Summarized from: Gerarde, 1597, pp. 876-878; Culpeper, 1653, pp. 73-74, 396, and 397; Thiselton-Dyer, 1889, p. 79, 140, 227; Colin, 1962, pp. 41-42; Lehner and Lehner, 1962, p. 118; Jacob, 1965, p. 84; Northcote, 1971, pp. 25-27; Powell, 1977, p. 71; Priestley and Priestley, 1979, pp. 59-60; Vickery, 1995, p. 131).