Fennel, a popular and versatile herb, has been prized for its culinary, medicinal and spiritual uses since antiquity. It is a member of the Apiaceae (umbelliferous) family, which also includes carrots, celery, anise and coriander. Fennel has a long, slender stalk with delicate feathery fronds that are a bright, vibrant green in color. Its bulbous base is white and can range in size from the size of a large onion to the size of a grapefruit. Fennel has a strong and unique flavor - a combination of sweet anise, licorice and bitter celery - that adds complexity to many dishes.
In the kitchen, fennel is used in both raw and cooked forms. Its bulb and stalks are often used in soups, salads and stews while its seeds are a common addition to many spice rubs and seasoning mixes. The feathery fronds can be chopped and used as a garnish, giving dishes a vibrant pop of color. Fennel pollen, a seasoning made from the yellow, pollen-covered pods of the fennel flower, can also be purchased and used as a smoky addition to dishes.
Fennel also has many medicinal and spiritual uses. It has long been used in folk medicine for its digestive benefits, as its essential oils have a stimulating effect on the stomach, liver and intestines. Fennel is thought to improve digestion, relieve gas and bloating, reduce nausea and vomiting, and may even increase milk production in lactating mothers. In addition to its gastrointestinal healing properties, fennel is often used to treat coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. Fennel's essential oil is said to be antispasmodic and a natural diuretic as well, relieving fluid retention and helping to reduce high blood pressure.
On a spiritual level, fennel was once used in ancient Roman temples for food offerings to the gods and in many Eastern religions to honor the gods and demons. It has been used in ceremonies for centuries as a symbol of protection and prosperity. In Judaism, fennel is one of the seven species that were native to Israel and fennel seeds were traditionally used as the spice in the havdalah blessing that ends the Shabbat. In folk medicine, fennel is said to evoke feelings of self-confidence and heightened alertness and is thought to protect against curses and hexes.
When growing fennel, it is best planted as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Fennel is a biennial, meaning that its first year of growth yields the herb and second year it will produce its characteristic umbels of yellow to white flowers. Fennel loves full sun and moist, well-draining soil. It grows best in cool weather and does not tolerate extended periods of heat or drought. Fennel is harvested throughout the season, but its bulbs and fronds should be harvested in the late summer just before the umbels bloom. The mature seeds should be harvested once the umbels have dried.
Fennel is a delicious and versatile herb that has been used for culinary, medicinal and spiritual purposes for thousands of years. Its sweet, licorice flavor adds depth to many dishes and its health benefits make it an attractive choice when looking to support digestive and respiratory health. Its spiritual symbolism indicates protection, courage and prosperity. Fennel is easy to grow and can provide a continuous supply of this delicious, healing herb.