Photo © Steven Foster
Fennel is a perennial plant that grows up to 6 feet tall.1 Native to the Mediterranean region, fennel is most often found in dry limestone soils near the sea. Yellow flowers appear in late spring or early summer followed by green or yellow fruits. Fennel is now cultivated in North America, Asia, and Egypt as an annual or perennial. Two varieties of fennel are often used, common or bitter fennel and sweet fennel.1
History and Cultural Significance
Fennel was traditionally used in Greek medicine by Hippocrates and later by Dioscorides.2 Pliny the Elder recommended it for improving eyesight.3 Traditionally, fennel fruit and oil were used to relieve gas, to treat stomach trouble, and for inflammation of the upper respiratory tract.1 Traditional Chinese medicine also utilized fennel to treat backache, bedwetting, and snakebites.1 The oil has also been used to preserve stored fruits and vegetables.3 Tea has been made from crushed fennel seeds and used as eyewash.3
The dried ripe fruit (or seed) and the oil that is obtained by steam distillation have similar medicinal applications. Both fennel seed and oil are approved by the German Commission E for stomach spasms, fullness, and gas, and for inflammation of the upper respiratory tract.4 In Europe, fennel syrup is approved for inflammation of the upper respiratory tract in children.5 The current Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia (plants used in traditional Indian medicine) recommends fennel for gassy colic in children and dyspepsia (painful digestion).6 The Chinese pharmacopoeia acknowledges the use of fennel in vomiting, diarrhea, and severe menstrual cramps.7
Both the bitter and sweet fennel oils are used as fragrance components in creams, lotions, perfumes, soaps, and detergents.1 Fennel fruit can also be found in herbal teas or honey syrup. Sweet fennel is used in a variety of food and beverage products, including alcoholic drinks, meats, baked goods, processed vegetables,1 pickles, and candies.3
Scientists have studied the internal use of fennel in infant colic,8 and painful menstruation.9
Fennel can be commercially grown in a wide variety of locations as it thrives in sun, in most soils and is drought tolerant.10
Leaf blight, Cercosporidium punctum, is the major disease that affects fennel11 while Stem Rot, Sclerotinia minor, referred to as “drop,” is very prevalent in the coastal production areas.12 Cercosporidium punctum causes heavy leaf loss and damage to the developing flowers.11 Thrips, potato myrid, and aphids are the major yield-reducing pests.11 The only controls in place for fungal diseases and parasites or predators are chemical pesticides.12 Application of pesticides is inappropriate for those who only want organically grown materials.
1 Leung AY., Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley-Interscience; 1996.
2 Tanira MOM, Shah AH, Mohsin A, et al. Pharmacological and toxicological investigations on Foeniculum vulgare dried fruit extract in experimental animals. Phytother Res. 1996;10:33–6. Cited in: Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, editors. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.
3 DerMarderosian A, Beutler JA. The Review of Natural Products: The Most Complete Source of Natural Product Information. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons; 2002.
4 Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, Gruenwald J, Hall T, Riggins CW, Rister RS, editors. Klein S, Rister RS, translators. The Complete German Commission E Monographs¾Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Boston: Integrative Medicine Communication; 1998.
5 ESCOP. “Foeniculi aetheroleum” and “Foeniculi fructus.” Monographs on the
Medicinal Uses of Plant Drugs. Exeter, U.K.: European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy 1997.
6 Karnick CR. Pharmacopoeial Standards of Herbal Plants. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications; 1994.
7 Tu G, editor. Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China (English Edition) Beijing: Guangdong Science and Technology Press; 1992.
8 Alexandrovich I, Rakovitskaya O, Kolmo E, Sidorova T, Shushunov S. The effect of fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare) seed oil emulsion in infantile colic: a randomized, placebo-controlled study. Altern Ther Health Med. 2003 Jul-Aug;9(4):58-61.
9 Namavar-Jahromi B, Tartifizadeh A, Khabnadideh S. Comparison of fennel and mefenamic acid for the treatment of primary dysmonorrhea. Int-J-Gynaecol-Obstet. 2003 Feb;80(2): 153-157.
10 Plants For A Future: Database Search Results. www.pfaf.org. 2000. Available at: http://www.ibiblio.org/pfaf/cgi-bin/arr_html?Foeniculum+vulgare&CAN=LATIND. Accessed March 14, 2005.
11 Peterson L. The New Rural Industries: A handbook for Farmers and Investors. 1998. Available at: http://www.rirdc.gov.au/pub/handbook/fenneloil.html. Accessed March 14, 2005.
12 Crop Profile for Fennel in California. 2000. Available at: http://pestdata.ncsu.edu/cropprofiles/docs/cafennel.html. Accessed March 14, 2005.