fennel photoFennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is the most important species in the genus Foeniculum (treated as the sole species by many botanists), and is native to southern Europe (especially by the Mediterranean) and southwestern Asia.

It is a highly aromatic perennial herb, erect, glaucous green, and grows to 2 m tall. The leaves grow up to 40 cm long; they are finely dissected, with the ultimate segments filiform, about 0.5 mm wide. The flowers are produced in terminal compound umbels 5-15 cm wide, each umbel section with 20-50 tiny yellow flowers on short pedicels. The fruit is a dry seed from 4-9 mm long, half as wide or less, and grooved.

Cultivation and uses of fennel

Fennel is widely cultivated both in and outside of its native range for its edible, strongly flavoured leaves and seeds.

The Florence fennel (Cultivar Group F. vulgare Azoricum Group) is a selection with inflated leaf bases which form a sort of bulb. It comes mainly from India and Egypt and it has an anise-like flavor, but is more aromatic and sweeter. Its flavour comes from anethole, an aromatic compound that also flavors anise and star anise. Florence fennel is smaller than the wild type and has inflated leaf bases which are eaten as a vegetable, both raw and cooked. There are several cultivars of Florence fennel, which is also known by several other names, notably finocchio.

Fennel has become naturalised along roadsides, in pastures, and other open sites in many regions, including northern Europe, the United States, southern Canada and in much of Asia and Australia. It is propagated by seed, and is considered to be a weed in Australia and the US.

It is used traditionally as a leaf vegetable or herb in cooking, particularly with eggs and fish. It is also used as a diuretic and to improve milk supply of breastfeeding mothers.

Florence fennel, popular in Italy and Germany, among other countries, may be eaten as a salad, often with chicory and avocado; or blanched and marinated, or cooked in risotto; in all cases, it adds its characteristic mild anise flavor.

Fennel seed is used extensively as a spice in the Indian subcontinent and all over the Middle East. It is an essential ingredient in the Bengali spice mixture panch phoran and in Chinese five spice powders. It is known as saunf or moti saunf (Urdu, mouri Bengali, shombu Tamil ) It is strongly aromatic anise-flavored spice that is the dried fruit of the fennel plant. The seeds are brown or green, but slowly turn a dull grey as the spice ages; a good green color is considered a sign of quality. Fennel seeds are often confused with aniseed, which is very similar in taste and appearance, though smaller. Indians often chew on plain saunf as a mouth-freshener. Fennel is also used as a flavoring in some natural toothpastes.


Etymologically, the word fennel developed from Middle English fenel, fenyl; Anglo-Saxon fenol, finol, from Latin feniculum, fœniculum, diminutive of fenum, fœnum, "hay".

In Ancient Greek fennel was called marathron. This is the origin of the placename Marathon (meaning place of fennel), site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.

In medieval times fennel was used in conjunction with St Johns Wort to keep away witchcraft and other evil things. This might have originated because fennel can be used as an insect repellant. It was also the herb hung around the neck during burning at the stake for the crime of homosexual activity, and consequently has become Italian slang for gay (in the italian form of the word fennel - finnochio).

Fennel is thought to be one of the nine herbs held sacred by the Anglo-saxons. The others are still not totally certain but they seem to be mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), greater plantain (Plantago major), watercress (Nastrurtium officinale), wild chamomile (Matricaria recutita), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), crab apple (Pyrus malus), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), and viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare). The final one still remains a mystery.

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