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Fennel in flower
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Apiales
Family: Apiaceae (Umbelliferae)
Genus: Foeniculum
Species: F. vulgare
Binomial name
Foeniculum vulgare

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a plant species in the genus Foeniculum (treated as the sole species in the genus by most botanists). It is a hardy, perennial, umbelliferous herb, with yellow flowers and feathery leaves, grows wild in most parts of temperate Europe, but is generally considered indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, whence it spreads eastwards to India. It has followed civilization, especially where Romans have colonized, and may be found growing wild in many parts of the world upon dry soils near the sea-coast and upon river-banks. It is a member of the family Apiaceae. It is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with culinary and medicinal uses, and is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe. Fennel is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the Mouse Moth and the Anise Swallowtail.


Fennel is a perennial herb, meaning that it grows year-round. It is erect, glaucous green, and grows to heights of up to 2.5 m, with hollow stems. The leaves grow up to 40 cm long; they are finely dissected, with the ultimate segments filiform, about 0.5 mm wide. Its leaves are similar to those of dill, but thinner. The flowers are produced in terminal compound umbels 5–15 cm wide, each umbel section having 20–50 tiny yellow flowers on short pedicels. The fruit is a dry seed from 4–10 mm long, half as wide or less, and grooved.

Cultivation and uses

Florence fennel bulbs
Fennel, bulb, raw
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy 130 kJ (31 kcal)
Carbohydrates 7.29 g
- Dietary fibre 3.1 g
Fat 0.20 g
Protein 1.24 g
Thiamine (vit. B1) 0.01 mg (1%)
Riboflavin (vit. B2) 0.032 mg (3%)
Niacin (vit. B3) 0.64 mg (4%)
Pantothenic acid (B5) 0.232 mg (5%)
Vitamin B6 0.047 mg (4%)
Folate (vit. B9) 27 μg (7%)
Vitamin C 12 mg (14%)
Calcium 49 mg (5%)
Iron 0.73 mg (6%)
Magnesium 17 mg (5%)
Phosphorus 50 mg (7%)
Potassium 414 mg (9%)
Zinc 0.20 mg (2%)
Manganese 0.191 mg
Percentages are relative to
US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient Database

Fennel is widely cultivated, both in its native range and elsewhere, for its edible, strongly-flavoured leaves and seeds. The flavour is similar to that of anise and star anise, though usually not as strong.

The Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Azoricum Group; syn. F. vulgare var. azoricum) is a Cultivar Group with inflated leaf bases which form a bulb-like structure. It is of cultivated origin, and has a mild anise-like flavour, but is more aromatic and sweeter. Its flavour comes from anethole, an aromatic compound also found in anise and star anise. Florence fennel plants are smaller than the wild type and have 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 the Italian name finocchio. In North American supermarkets, it is often mislabelled as "anise".

Fennel has become naturalised along roadsides, in pastures, and in other open sites in many regions, including northern Europe, the United States, southern Canada and in much of Asia and Australia. It propagates well by seed, and is considered an invasive species and a weed in Australia and the United States (see Santa Cruz Island).

Florence fennel was one of the three main herbs used in the preparation of absinthe, an alcoholic mixture which originated as a medicinal elixir in Switzerland and became, by the late 19th century, a popular alcoholic drink in France and other countries. Fennel itself is known to be a stimulant, although many modern preparations marketed under the name "absinthe" do not make use of it.

Culinary uses

Fennel, from Koehler's Medicinal-plants (1887)
Fennel seeds

The bulb, foliage, and seeds of the fennel plant are widely used in many of the culinary traditions of the world. Fennel pollen is the most potent form of fennel, but also the most expensive. Dried fennel seed is an aromatic, anise-flavoured spice, brown or green in colour when fresh, slowly turning a dull grey as the seed ages. For cooking, green seeds are optimal. The leaves are delicately flavored and similar in shape to those of dill. The bulb is a crisp, hardy root vegetable and may be sauteed, stewed, braised, grilled, or eaten raw.

Fennel seeds are sometimes confused with those of anise, which are very similar in taste and appearance, though smaller. In India, it is common to chew fennel seed (or saunf) as a mouth-freshener. Fennel is also used as a flavouring in some natural toothpaste. Some people employ it as a diuretic. Others use it to improve the milk supply of breastfeeding mothers, but it has shown neurotoxicity in certain cases where the mother ingested it as an herbal tea to enhance her breast milk.

Fennel is most prominently featured in Italian cuisine, where bulbs and fronds appears both raw and cooked in side dishes, salads, pastas, and risottos. Fennel seed is a common ingredient in Italian sausages and meatballs and northern European rye breads.

Many cultures in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East incorporate fennel seed into their culinary traditions. It is an essential ingredient in the Bengali/ Oriya spice mixture panch phoron and in Chinese five-spice powders. It is known as saunf or mauti saunf in Hindi and Urdu, mouri in Bengali, shombu or peruncheeragam in Tamil language and Malayalam language, variyali in Gujarati, badeeshop or badeeshep in Marathi and barishap in the Malay language.

Many egg, fish, and other dishes employ fresh or dried fennel leaves. Florence fennel is a key ingredient in some Italian and German salads, often tossed with chicory and avocado, or it can be braised and served as a warm side dish. It may be blanched or marinated, or cooked in risotto. In all cases, the leaves lend their characteristically mild, anise-like flavour.

Medicinal uses

Fennel seeds close-up

Fennel contains anethole, which can explain some of its effects: it, or its polymers, act as phytoestrogens. On account of its aromatic and carminative properties, Fennel is chiefly used medicinally with purgatives to allay their side effects and for this purpose forms one of the ingredients of the well-known compound Liquorice Powder. Fennel water has properties similar to those of anise and dill water: mixed with sodium bicarbonate and syrup, these waters constitute the domestic 'Gripe Water,' used to correct the flatulence of infants. Essential oil of Fennel has these properties in concentration. Fennel tea, formerly also employed as a carminative, is made by pouring boiling water on a teaspoonful of bruised Fennel seeds. Syrup prepared from Fennel juice was formerly given for chronic coughs. Fennel is also largely used for cattle condiments. It is one of the plants which is said to be disliked by fleas, and powdered Fennel has the effect of driving away fleas from kennels and stables.

Etymology and history

Closeup of wild fennel flowers

The word fennel developed from the Middle English fenel or fenyl, which came from the Anglo-Saxon fenol or finol, which in turn came from the Latin feniculum or foeniculum, the diminutive of fenum or faenum, meaning "hay". The Latin word for the plant was ferula, which is now used as the genus name of a related plant.

In Ancient Greek, fennel was called marathon (μάραθον), and is attested in Linear B tablets as ma-ra-tu-wo. John Chadwick notes that this word is the origin of the place name Marathon (meaning "place of fennel"), site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC; however, Chadwick wryly notes that he has "not seen any fennel growing there now". In Greek mythology, Prometheus used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the gods. Also, it was from the giant fennel, Ferula communis, that the Bacchanalian wands of the god Dionysus and his followers were said to have come.

In medieval times fennel was used in conjunction with St John's wort to keep away witchcraft and other evil things. This practice may have originated from fennel's use as an insect repellent.

Fennel is thought to be one of the nine herbs held sacred by the Anglo-Saxons. (The other eight are not entirely certain, but were probably mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), greater plantain (Plantago major), watercress (Nasturtium officinale), wild chamomile ( Matricaria recutita), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), and viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare).)

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