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Synonym: fennel seed (fruit)

botanical name: Foeniculum vulgare ssp. vulgare var. azoricum



Fennel presumably stems from southern and south-western Europe. It was already a well-known seasoning and medicinal plant in ancient times among the Romans, the Greeks, the Chinese and the Indians. Today, fennel is common in most parts of Europe (with the exception of the north), Asia Minor, North and South Africa, and central and southern Asia, but it can also be found in New Zealand.


German, French, Italian and Indian fennel is sold on the market. Varieties from southern France are called "Roman" or "Cretan" fennel.



The leaves and stems of fennel are cut prior to florescence, which takes place from July to September. Cutting back the tips prevents the development of the blossoms.


The dried seeds and leaves are available all year round. The seeds are harvested in October/November.


Appearance, taste, characteristics

Fennel is normally an herbaceous perennial plant and belongs to the family Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae). Its relation to dill is unmistakeable. If these two plants grow very close to one another on the field, hybrids may even develop. The leaves, stems and seeds of the plant are edible.


As with dill, the leaves are finely pinnate and deep-green. Out of the bright-yellow umbels the yellow-green to yellow-brown, two-part seeds develop. They are termed schizocarps, although they fall into two parts during maturation in only some varieties. These half-seeds are distinctly ribbed, oblong, cylindrical, and are about 10 mm long.


Fennel can be divided into two different subspecies:

* Sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce) can reach up to 2.5 m. It smells and tastes pleasantly fruity sweet and fresh and has a very anise-like aroma. The flavour of the seeds is more intensive than that of the leaves.

* Bitter fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. vulgare) is the wild form of fennel and grows to 1.25 m. It is somewhat spicier than sweet fennel and has a bitter, slightly stinging aftertaste.



As for the majority of spices, the most important flavouring ingredient is the essential oil. The seeds of sweet fennel contain 0.8-3% of this oil, while the content in bitter fennel is as high as 3-8.5%. The chief components of the essential oil in both varieties are anethole and fenchone, whereby the bitter-tasting fenchone in found in only negligible amounts in sweet fennel.


In addition, the seeds contain 20-30% protein and 10-20% fat. The content of essential oil in the leaves is less than in the seeds, at 0.7-1%.


Harmful substances

Some varieties of fennel, from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, India and Spain, among others, may evidence a high content of estragole. As this substance is suspected of being harmful to health, seeds with a high estragole content should not be used. There is a regulatory threshold for this.


Quality criteria, optimal storage conditions

The seeds can be harvested in several ways. When the ripe fennel is cut and threshed by machine, the seeds are known as "straw fennel". The qualitatively higher-grade seeds are harvested one month earlier: The infructescences are cut out of the plant and dried, and the seeds are removed by hand or with a comb. This quality is sold as "combed" fennel.


The leaves and stems should be harvested prior to inflorescence. The fresh leaves should be used as quickly as possible. They will keep in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.


The leaves can be frozen, added to vinegar or oil, or dried. Dried leaves will keep for about 6 months if they are in an airtight container and protected from light and moisture. Under the same conditions the seeds will keep for about 2 years.


Presumed effect on health

Fennel has been used as a medicinal plant for thousands of years. It stimulates the production of gastric juices and is believed to promote digestion. In folk medicine, an infusion of fennel seeds is recommended for indigestion, abdominal fullness and flatulence. Fennel tea is a mild laxative and relieves cramps. It is said to have a calming effect on children.


Fennel is also used for respiratory ailments, because it is supposed to have a mucolytic effect. In addition to infusions and tinctures, fennel is sold in the form of honey and syrup. Further, fennel tea is recommended for rinsing inflamed eyes, for mouth care, and for facial compresses in case of oily skin.


It is presumed, in addition, that fennel oil has an oestrogenic effect; for this reason, pregnant women should not consume high doses of the essential oil. In folk medicine fennel is used to promote lactation and for amenorrhoea.


Form of consumption, use, processing, practical tips for preparation

The leaves and stems of fennel are used fresh or dried, and the seeds are used dried. Less well-known in Germany is the use of the blossoms and pollen from the plant.


Particularly in Italy, France and the USA, fennel is a popular seasoning. In Sicily, for instance, macaroni is combined with sardines and fennel. And in Provence fish takes on a delicate aroma when it is prepared on fresh or dried fennel stems in the oven.


Fennel seeds are especially aromatic if they are crushed in a mortar directly before they are used. Sweet fennel is preferred for seasoning as it has a milder, not so bitter taste. The fresh leaves of the fennel plant are good with tomato and leaf salads.


The seeds are used in Germany above all for baking bread and cake. They can be used similar to caraway and are good with fish, sauerkraut, roast pork and duck, mushroom dishes, soups and sauces. Fennel is also suited for seasoning vegetable dishes, such as potatoes, beans, lentils, cabbage and tomatoes.


In India the seeds are candied and chewed after meals as an aid to digestion. Fennel seeds can even be germinated as sprouts for a salad.


The essential oil is extracted industrially from fennel seeds and used to make candies, spirits and perfume. The seeds are used to make fennel tea and fennel honey.


Seasoning tip

Fennel combines well with chili, dill, caraway, thyme, oregano, parsley and sage. It can also be used with garlic, fenugreek, cinnamon, mint and lemon balm. Owing to their seasoning strength, the seeds should be used sparingly.



In addition to fennel seed there is also Florence fennel or finocchio (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum and var. piperitum), the bulb of which is used as a vegetable or salad.





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