wild fennel: sweet playful victory
OOOOOOOHHHHHH I am so excited to rave about this bright little beast of a plant. I'm going to talk about her in very familiar language as she is like a dear friend to me....one of my dearest plant allies. I first want to explore some of the plants that can be confused for her when foraging so that you don't die from eating poison hemlock or giant fennel on accident. Cause that would be really bad.
Just a couple weeks ago I went to visit a dear friend at the California School of Herbal Studies. I wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and as I was nearing the bridge on foot (I walked 6.5 miles to get to the bridge!) I encountered a beautiful area with lots of native plants as well as some naturalized invasive plants (such as wild fennel). I found poison hemlock growing alongside the wild fennel. Deadly hemlock. A plant whose chemistry demands we be very thoughtful in our interactions lest we suffer dearly. There is not a lot of Poison Hemlock down in Southern California near the spots I harvest from, so I was initially not sure if I was seeing wild carrot or poison hemlock. And, because the fennel was in flower, shining her bright yellow spice, I could clearly differentiate between the two.
But to someone new to foraging, there can be some confusion. What did this herbalist do in my attempt to identify the poison hemlock from wild carrot? Exactly what you are not advised to do: I picked a little blossom of the hemlock and licked it. It was like a spell came over me and I couldn't help but put some of it in my mouth. Sigh. Don't do that folks. ☺ Once I met up with my friend (herbalists have really fun car conversations) and I described the plant we concluded that it had one of the key identification factors that can help you distinguish it: a purpleish pattern along the stem of the plant. So, yeah, I licked poison hemlock.
it is when poison hemlock and wild fennel are in seed, growing in close proximity that you want to be extra mindful of your harvesting, that you do not grab some hemlock seeds by mistake.
Okay, back to identifying fennel: This is a beautiful plant that has naturalized itself over much of the world. It emerges in late Spring, early Summer with feathery green fronds that resemble Dill and have a sweet, anise-like, or black licorice smell + flavor to them. They continue to grow tall stems which are crowned with bright yellow flower clusters. This is not the same version of fennel you get in the grocery store, as that fennel has been cultivated to create a large edible root. Wild fennel is, well the wild version, and does not create the large bulb. The leaves however, can be trimmed and used when they are green and lush as a fresh culinary herb and the flowers are collected by foodies and chefs as a specialty. The pollen from fennel makes a delightful and delicate spice.
Add some wild fennel pollen to sugar, say 1 teaspoon pollen to 1 cup sugar and it is a lovely sprinkle for fruit, iced tea, over dessert cheeses.....
The yellow flowers grow in a shape called compound umbels, with clusters usually about 4 inches across as a group. The flowers are aromatic with the characteristic sweet anise flavor of the fennel and can be identified by aroma. The poison hemlock flowers are white, fyi. BUT, another look alike, called GIANT FENNEL, Ferula communis, which is not a true fennel, does have big yellow clustered flowers. This plant is called giant fennel because of its resemblance to wild fennel on steroids, and that resemblance has led to wild fennel (since she grows so tall and lovely) to be also called giant fennel. The common names of many plants can get tossed around loosey goosey, so knowing some key identification factors can be important as you don't want to be walking with a friend who says, "yeah, that's giant fennel," and you go, "well I read from the crazy herbalist that it is poisonous," when you are actually cruising past wild fennel.
Stop and crush a leaf piece, flower or fruit/seed between your fingers. Does it smell like a smile? Does it smell like licorice/anise/candy? That's wild fennel. The plant called Giant Fennel seems to have one dominant stalk form which large, almost baseball shaped flower clusters grow from. You can see the Wild Fennel has more umbrella shaped flower clusters and while they emerge from a central stalk near the ground, do not have a dominant, trunk like stalk all the way up. Plus Wild Fennel smells like anise/candy/spice. <---- key identification factor ☺
Another fun fact: the parts of the fennel that we call seeds are actually the fruit! The fruits are tiny, like seeds, and grow following the flowers. They are the part we collect to use medicinally and as a spice. They are collected and dried in the late summer, early fall, and it is common to see a wild fennel plant with both clusters of flowers as well as the fruits at the same time. The biggest reason I wanted to bring up Poison Hemlock here is that the fruiting/dried seed part is the one that can be the most dangerous to cross-contaminate your harvest. When they are growing together, the small fruiting bodies of these two plants can be mistaken, and I would prefer you stay alive to keep reading about more plants. Again, the little fennel fruits/seeds will have the characteristic anise smell/flavor and they are more oval and smooth than the seeds of the Hemlock, but if they grow in close proximity to one another in your neck of the woods, just be very aware during your harvest.
The evolution of a name:
The greeks are considered some of the first big fans of wild fennel, at least as far back as we can go in written history, and called wild fennel 'marathos,' and named a city after it, Marathon. In 490 B.C.E. Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens (some say 26.2 miles, some say 22 miles) to give word that the Greek army had overcome the Persian army. The Marathon folks are running today? Yep, translates to 'fennel field,' and it became synonymous with long events and activities. This is one of the ways fennel became associated with victory. Sweet victory. The Latin name, feniculum, means hay, and the name was given because the smell of fennel was related to sweet hay drying in the sun. In reference to the Latin name, it began to be commonly called 'fenkel,' which has evolved to fennel. Roman soldiers would eat fennel for strength before battles and receive it as gifts upon return from victorious battles. Wild fennel has made her way around the Mediterranean, Middle East, Southern European, and both Northern and Southern America territories. Fennel seed is a beloved culinary spice as it is known to have both flavoring and digestive powers, a winning combo.
The fennel we get in the grocery store is like many of the vegetables you are buying, it is a domesticated variety of its wild relative. Less medicinal and higher caloric content. California produces much of the fennel seed on the market and is an invasive plant, so plant with caution as she will run her own marathon over your garden, into your neighbors and down the highway....oh, and the second half of the Latin name, vulgare, means 'common,' and references how common and abundant this wild plant is. It is also an interesting reference to classism, as we use the word vulgar today to reference something that is gross, indecent, crude...well, this reference came from calling lower order, poorer, working class folks as 'commoners,' by the ruling aristocratic, "one percenters" in Europe. They viewed the commoners as crass, tasteless and offensive. That hasn't changed too much when you look at modern sentiments about the economically disadvantaged from many folks with economic, social and political power.
Let's explore this glorious beast in herbal medicine.
I love her. She has helped me to restore parts of myself that I had forgotten were long suppressed. This "being an adult" business is only really great when we are also still able to access our playful, young and child like selves. I mean, growing up just means adding layers of skill, but let's not let go of the part of ourselves that are wild kids. Too much of that is happening. Too much sacrifice of the inner wise kid. In herbal magic, which calls upon the energetic personality and talents of a plant, wild fennel is considered a very effective force to drive out both physical and energetic negativity. Like St. John's Wort, in European traditions, wild fennel would be gathered near summer solstice and placed strategically in the home or on the person to protect from negative forces. While St. John's Wort would be often placed over altars and had a deep association with protecting one from being possessed or overcome from darkness, wild fennel is often placed around beds and clothing to help prevent possession by 'bugges,' annoying negative forces and quite literally, bugs. Fleas and small bugs can be driven out by wild fennel who dislike the aromatic oils of the plant. Wild fennel is associated with victory in ancient Greece as is grew prolifically at Marathon, the sight of a victorious battle. It's cheery disposition and tall presence inspires a gleeful sense of courage and purpose.
Another traditional power attributed to wild fennel is the ability to restore sight and function to the eyes, slowing the progression of cataracts and delaying blindness. There is a long history of referencing fennel as an external eyewash (calling on its anti-microbial actions) and internally to help slow and/or prevent cataracts, which is a nasty buildup of proteins in they eye. To test out this common herbal folklore, some scientists gave some poor, unlucky rats a nasty case of cataracts artificially to 'discover' that indeed, wild fennel has active chemical constituents which have anti-cataract activities. Yay. Go science. Poor rats. Ask folks who have worked with plants in the European, Middle Eastern and Indian countries and they would probably say that wild fennel is for brightening eyesight as much as digestive woes. Pretty cool. Over here in the US, in Traditional Western Herbalism, I have mostly heard of its digestive powers, which we will cover shortly.
Fennel is a great ally for folks who have a general malaise and lack of overall functioning due to a combination of stress and aging. Listen for things like,"I don't digest like I used to," and "I feel older all of a sudden." For these folks, wild fennel would be part of a larger herbal regimen addressing underlying imbalances. Fennel, if they like the flavor, can be a wonderful tea, tincture and elixir and should not be underestimated in its restorative energy. It is strongly anti-microbial topically and internally, anti-oxidant (so it is great in any cases of inflammation and food allergies) and anti-spasmotic. The essential oils of fennel are distributed throughout the plant with highest concentrations in the green fruit (usually called the seeds because they are tiny) just before they dry out. In commerce, you will mostly find the dried fruits/seeds and if they were dried really well, they have a good quantity of essential oil left in them. Make sure to store in a cool, dark area, preferably in a dark jar/bag/box that will protect them as the light can degrade the oils over time. Anethole, one of the active phytochemicals that science has focused some research on has shown the ability to help lower our cells inflammation responses, thus lowering our systemic inflammation levels and freeing up the body's energy and immune responses for other important tasks. Though considered a warming plant, I have used it successfully with hot, dry types in an overall protocol where dietary changes (reducing animal proteins, simple carbohydrates and limiting sugars) were made in addition to the herbal remedies.
for the belly
Ok, so wild fennel is bright, cheery, associated with victory, protecting from negative energy and able to help restore and nourish the functioning of the eyes. Dang, that's good. But that's just the beginning. Seriously. Fennel is one good, good friend when it comes to digestive woes. In my motherwort post, I referenced an experience I had where I was near crippled with stomach pains, high cramping in my upper intestines and seriously felt like I was going to explode, the inflammatory response was so strong. IT WAS PAINFUL. I was unable to stand up strait it hurt so bad. When my friend and I got back to my place I to a big chug of fennel glycerite. (I estimate about 1 and a half tablespoons, which was more than necessary, but I couldn't think straight because of the pain.) Plus a few drops of motherwort tincture to stimulate bile flow and calm my heart. Within a matter of about ten minutes I felt the spasms stop, some pressure get relieved and I was able to make a very, very big fart. Then some grumbles. Then I was back to normal. Seriously, if you saw that, you would have thought either fennel is a miracle worker or I was faking how bad the pain was. It was the first for sure.
Alcohol extracts (tinctures), Glycerin extracts (glycerites), aqueous extracts (tea), and eating the seeds are effective ways to take fennel when the belly is revolting. Fennel is a powerful carminative - which means it helps farts. It helps dispel intestinal wind as my northern european ancestors would say. It helps to get it moving and out of us. In my story above, it was one of the coolest farts ever. When digestive troubles are not so acute, you are less likely to notice bigger farts. Instead you will probably have more effective ones, less trapped gas. The essential oils of wild fennel are anti-spasmotic and anti-inflammatory, which help to relax the smooth digestive muscles and allow gas to move along. Herbalist David Winston has recommended a combination of wild fennel and lavender as tea or tincture to help relieve stinky farts.
Fennel is also a mild diuretic, pulling out retained water, another cause of discomfort and bloating. The lovely thing about fennel is that it can be an ally for long term use as it is extremely safe and well tolerated by a variety of bodies, as well as a fast acting herbal friend when you are in digestive pain. What you don't want to do long term, however, is to use fennel's ability to help calm digestive cramping and discomfort without addressing the reasons your digestion may be compromised. If you or someone you love is having frequent digestive upsets it is worth figuring out the cause as eventually the digestive imbalance WILL move to another body system. Fennel makes a great ally as part of a larger digestive formula for long term restoration, particularly when the digestion has gone 'cold,' i.e. the furnace doesn't feel on, indicated by a combination of the following:
- bloating/cramping in either the upper or lower abdomen
- sour stomach
- nausea before meals of instead of feeling hungry
- lowered appetite and loss of desire for foods that are normally appealing
- difficulty digesting a type of food like fats or proteins
- heartburn and acid reflux
- recognizable food stuffs in the stool (that are not digested)
- bad breath and tasting your food long after eating
Fennel is gently warming to the digestion and in that way can help to stem some of the symptoms of a cooled digestion as well as providing some protective and energetic help. It works great as a partner to rosemary to help get some heat in the core. Some ayurvedic protocols call for a combination of fenugreek seed, fennel seed and coriander as a tea to be drank several time throughout the day as a warming and restoring protocol for the digestion. Cold digestion would indicate a Kapha imbalance, if you are familiar with the Ayurvedic body types.
Wild fennel is a gentle diuretic, helping to increase the activity of the kidneys and is hepatoprotective, assisting some of the liver's detoxification pathways while reducing inflammation and oxidative damage. I like to use wild fennel tea and extracts (not chewed as seed) in an herbal protocol for folks with Diverticulitus, Crohn's disease flare ups, IBS, Celiac's or food allergies. These conditions, from varying causes, create inflamed intestinal tissue and reduce absorption of nutrients. Wild fennel helps to relax, soothe and de-flame these tender tissues.
By the way, if you want to buy great quality dried fennel seeds and/or to play with, my go-to source is Mountain Rose herbs :) That's not an affiliate link, just wanted to make sure you have a great place to get seeds from if she doesn't grow near you.
For babies and reproductive system care.....
Fennel is a cheery help for new mothers. It helps to increase the production of milk through phytoestrogen-like compounds. Fennel has a long history of use for new mothers in both increasing the production of breast milk, but also, traditionally, was used after births to ensure the full evacuation of blood from the womb, as an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial agent able to help build strength post labor. The essential oils can help a baby's digestion when they come through the breastmilk. Fennel, along with Dill, is one of the herbs in traditional recipes for Gripe Water, a concoction for babies with troubled tummies. Wild fennel is considered incredibly safe, which is a blessing for busy mommas who are looking for help with digestive support for self and/or baby. A simple tea from dried seed can be drank by mom before and after meals, or a tincture can be added to water or taken directly. More traditionally, seeds can also be chewed post meals to freshen the breath and promote digestive strength. Fresh fennel seeds infused nicely in honey, which can be added to cow milk or teas as a treat. I do know that a fennel can be given to little ones as a dilute tea, in small doses appropriate for their size, but I personally have primarily worked with a few drops of the fennel glycerite as it is sweet in flavor and easily taken. For appropriate dosages for babies and really young ones, I would connect with an herbalist or do some good research as little ones aren't my specialty so I don't want to overstep my expertise. Here is a great article with kid-friendly dosages and a popular herbal formula for kids anxiety and belly aches (she recommends fresh herbs, which are awesome, but dried can be used too).
Fennel, though not considered a true emmenagogue (stimulates the uterus and helps bring on menstration), has been used historically for women whose menstration is delayed. The phytoestrogens play a role in reducing the body's ability to hold onto the abundance of its own estrogen through some complicated cellular activities, which then lowers the total estrogen content in cells. In women who have conditions of heightened estrogen in their bodies, such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), which is often accompanied by Insulin Resistance, the phytoestrogens can play a helpful role in reducing the effects of the estrogen as well as helping with the inflammation that accompanies such high hormone levels. This is the primary action by which fennel can help bring on delayed menses. Also common in cases of PCOS is Hirsustism, excessive male pattern hair growth, you know, the bearded lady. Fennel seed has shown ability to assist with reducing hirsustism topically as a lotion with the extract or essential oils. Internal use to help balance hormones could be of benefit here too I believe. Wild fennel, as a relaxant to smooth muscle as we see in the digestive tract, can also relax the uterus and can be used as a culinary spice and not in high therapeutic doses during pregnancy. The seeds can also be used as an ally in a protocol for women entering menopause, helping to provide some phyto-estrogen support when the personal production of estrogen is declining. Try a tea of rose, sage and fennel seeds, drink iced during the summer throughout the day along with herbs to strengthen the adrenals based on the individual's needs.
There is a strong historical association of wild fennel as an aphrodisiac and libido stimulant. I don't have any experience on this and didn't find current sources that I trusted which spoke of this, so I am going to plead the fifth on this one and would LOVE TO HEAR if you have experienced fennel as a libido enhancer. I do understand how this might happen for women as it can help regulate estrogen levels in the right circumstances, but I am unclear how its reputation of enhancing libido might work for men. A couple of theories:
- when you reduce systemic inflammation and increase digestive powers, energy and vitality is thus able to move to bodily functions and systems that are not survivial dependent. Energy is thus freed up to be used as libido and sexual activity
- wild fennel has a very, very playful personality to me....playfulness is at the heart of that flirtatious drive that helps stoke the libido and engage in fantasy and delights...
Please do let me know if you feel like a hotty after adding some fennel to your life!
for the skin
I really love fennel in skin care. It is anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, soothing, assists cleansing and blood flow to the skin. It is really lovely for folks who tend to break out, but also have patches of dry, red or tender skin. I have noticed that it seems to have helped fine lines on my face plump up/smooth out a bit. It is used in beauty products for the eyes often, to help relieve puffiness as well as anti-aging regimens.. One of the easiest ways you can use it topically at home is to brew a strong tea (for facial care I would use 1 Tablespoon of dried seeds to 3/4 cup of water), and store in the fridge in either a spritze bottle or a jar. You can mist this tea right on your face or use a cotton ball to apply the tea as a treatment. The tea should last several days in the fridge. It's a really lovely treat. To celebrate wild fennel, I made some extra of personal formulations I make for myself, you can check them out here! ☺
Wild fennel has a long tradition of being a bug repellent, particularly mites, fleas and mosquitoes, so using the diluted essential oil (in a alcohol + water based solution) as a spray on the skin can be recommended, and combines well with catnip for that. You can also sprinkle the powdered fennel seed around pet beds and areas where fleas can congregate.
for the lungs
My first and beloved herbal teacher, Julie James, taught me that the essential oils of fennel are cleared out through the lungs. Our bodies have these incredible pathways to clear out things we consume (garlic can get cleared out through the lungs and skin, hence the feeling that you keep smelling garlic when you eat a lot of it no matter how many times you bath or brush, lol). As we have covered, the oils in wild fennel are anti-spasmotic and anti-microbial, and as they make their way through the body and through the lungs, they help soothe tissues and clear out microbes that can cause respiratory inflammation, coughs and help move phlegm that is thick and stuck. Fennel seeds can be a great ally to someone who seems to get frequent, low grade inflammations and infections in the lungs and respiratory system, particularly because you can take them for prolonged periods due to their high level of safety. I would recommend a teaspoon of fennel seeds twice daily after meals or some fennel tincture or glycerite 2-3x daily for a few weeks to see if the respiratory irritations lessen. Just make sure that you always take some breaks when you are taking herbs in therapeutic doses daily.
As mentioned above, like St. John's Wort, Wild Fennel has a special relationship to driving away negative forces. (Again, let's not equate witches with negative forces, even if this is what you read, because the view of witches as the source of negative forces comes from the cultural lens of some monotheistic traditions.) Wild fennel was hung over doors and strewn about the house to create a protective barrier from negative spirits who would enter. Greek mythology tells of Prometheus, having found some affection for mankind, steals fire from the Gods to give to mankind, using the hollow stalk of fennel to contain the fire on its journey down from the heavens to men. Fennel is astrologically ruled by Mercury, associated with Virgo and the element of fire. It has long been used in spells of protection, creating longevity, strength, driving out negativity (particularly in areas of home and interpersonal communication). Fennel is a sweet ally to call on during the periods of Mercury retrograde to help develop a cheerful sense of flexibility when the inevitable unpredictable life events happen. You can summon the image of wild fennel, standing tall, open and cheerfully in the moments frustration surrounds you. That is a powerful way to work with her magically.....get to know her.
Carry some of her seed in a pouch and when you need her, open the pouch and take in her aromatic. Allow your internal space to be shifted by her sweet oils. You too can harness the fire of the gods. You too can stand tall and cheerfully when chaotic events surround you. You too can shape-shift your thoughts into your own internal protective force.
Fennel likes to play. She will share this joy with you. Lay in a field of her. She's sweet. Wild. Playful. Warming. Tall. Proud. Like that friend you love to hang out with because you just feel better about life and more restored after. ♥ Use liberally when you are struggling to get out of old stories involving 'who you think you are,' and need help reconnecting to the 'who you have always been.' Take some fennel tea, iced, to the ocean or river or mud and walk barefoot, hopping rock to rock. Do some fun kid stuff. Like I said in the beginning of this fennel exploration, there is too much sacrificing the inner playful warrior and explorer to being adult. Let fennel help guide you to sweet, playful victories of adventures yet unknown. ☺
some notes on safety...
While thousands of years of traditional use and study of wild fennel has indicated a extremely high safety and low toxicity for this herb, there are some modern warnings out there which has led to various reactions from folks who regulate herbal medicine and the use of plants as food additives and preservatives. I am very excited when we learn things from science, how stuff works, etc. But nearly all of the modern research on the chemistry of plnats comes from experiments done on animals, against their will, using both doses and formulations of te herbs we would not use in real practice. There is some great research out there. There is also some terrible research that, for various reasons is actually harmful and misleading. If you heat that fennel causes cancer, or that it is unsafe for internal use, please refer to the following video, from California School of herbal Studies instructor David Hoffman and all around herbal badass. He explains it far better than I could:
Some directions on collecting and drying the seeds from Complete-Herbal.com:
Fennel leaves will keep in a plastic bag in the fridge for 2-3 days. The stalks can be used fresh or tied in bundles and hung up to dry.Once the stems reach full size the seeds appear after a few weeks. They can generally be harvested around the end of August. The yield may be low in the first year but should increase in the second.Loosely secure a permeable bag (cheesecloth or muslin) around each flower head to collect any premature seed releases. When a plant is ready (the seeds will have started to turn brown) cut the plant.Hang the cut plants in a warm dry place over a cloth; when they are thoroughly dry, dump them into a bag (which you will later use for threshing them). When your crop is fully harvested, thresh the lot: beat the bag in which you have collected them against a hard surface to dislodge the seeds. Sift the loose seeds through a 3-inch mesh hardware cloth to remove the chaff. Make sure the seeds are thoroughly dried before putting them away for storage (in the usual manner for dried herbs and spices: an airtight container stored in a cool, dark place. They will keep for 2 - 3 years.
for further study and references: