Fennel is a pleasant-smelling herbaceous plant with deep green feathery leaves and golden-yellow flowers in umbels (short flower stalks). The name comes from the Roman word meaning “fragrant hay,” and it has a faint anise or licorice flavor and aroma.
Native to Southern Europe, and grown extensively all over Europe, the Middle-East, China, India, and Turkey, fennel is a perennial herb belonging to the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family of (mostly) aromatic flowering plants commonly known as the celery, carrot or parsley family. With more than 3,700 species spread across 434 genera, it is the 16th-largest family of flowering plants and includes angelica, anise, arracacha, asafoetida, caraway, carrot, celery, Centella asiatica, chervil, cicely, coriander (cilantro), culantro, cumin, dill, fennel, hemlock, lovage, cow parsley, parsley, parsnip, cow parsnip, sea holly, and giant hogweed.
The plant was introduced to North America by Spanish priests and the English brought it to their early settlements in Virginia. All parts of the plant have been used for flavorings, and the stalks have been eaten as a vegetable. Fennel has been used to flavor candies, liqueurs, medicines, and food, and is especially favored for pastries, sweet pickles, and fish. Its oil has been used to protect stored fruits and vegetables against the growth of toxic fungi, beekeepers have grown it as a honey plant, and kennel and stable owners have used powdered fennel as a flea repellant.
Long revered as one of nine Anglo-Saxon sacred herbs, health benefit claims for fennel have included its use as a purported antidote to poisonous herbs, mushrooms, and snakebites, for the treatment of gastrointestinal inflammation and stomach conditions such as indigestion, to stimulate milk flow in breast-feeding, as an expectorant, and to induce menstruation.
Fennel seeds are harvested when their stalks dry out and the seed heads turn light-brown. The seeds have an oblong or curved shape with fine vertical stripes over their surface.
Though contraindications have yet to be identified for fennel, its long history of use as a spice suggests that fennel is a generally safe substance to consume. And while solid clinical evidence to support the use of fennel for any indication is lacking, it is an excellent source of vitamin C, dietary fiber, potassium, molybdenum, manganese, copper, phosphorus, folate, calcium, pantothenic acid, magnesium, iron and niacin.