As we left the Exmouth Kite Festival last year, I noticed a bank of wild fennel growing along the estuary embankment. This year I made sure to investigate further and was rewarded with a whole basket of wildcrafted green and bronze fennel stalks.
For me, fennel is associated with hot summer days spent watching boats on the coast. Usually this has been at Percuil, a tiny harbour on the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall where we used to launch and retrieve our small dinghy during summer holidays. Fennel would add a delightful soothing fragrance to the warm evening air. To find it growing on the Devon coastline was an added bonus.
I have to be honest, I have never used fennel in any structured way. Bronze fennel has always grown in my gardens, the delicate fronds occasionally finding their way into freshly baked fish dishes or omelettes. It was amongst the first herbal vinegars I made, producing a beautiful delicate pink colour to add to salad dressings. I have added the seeds to lemon balm liqueurs over the years in place of aniseed, but there my relationship with the herb ended.
Until last year.
Every so often, when I’m very tired, I get annoying bouts of heartburn. As with most ailments, I try to ignore it as much as possible in the hope it will grow tired of annoying me and go away. Last summer, Darcy Blue mentioned making a useful syrup of fennel and meadowsweet for heartburn, so I made some. Occasionally I remember to take it when I need to.
To be presented with such a wealth of herb made me realise I need to work with fennel much more closely, so last night was spent in the garden processing my harvest. Now I have bronze fennel macerating in cider vinegar, green fennel tincturing in vodka and another jar full of ground marjoram and chopped fennel in vodka waiting to be turned into a digestive liqueur for after-dinner delights. I may add some cumin and coriander seeds to add further digestive support.
Today I have been researching the properties of fennel. The aromatic and carminative uses were something I was aware of, but I was surprised to find it had galactagogic and anti-microbial properties useful in breaking up respiratory congestion.
Jim Macdonald describes the action of an aromatic herb as follows. “Aromatic herbs are those that contain strong smelling volatile essential oils. These oils tend to be anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and are “dispersive” in nature, which is to say that they help break up stagnation of all sorts. This can be respiratory congestion, intestinal gas, or even cluttered minds & cloudy thinking. Although not exclusively so, aromatics are often relaxants, acting perhaps as antispasmodics to help relieve tension and spasm, perhaps as calming nerviness to allay nervous stress and anxiety (and frequently both). Though it sounds strange to say, aromatic herbs are also very often stimulating, and some are both relaxant and stimulant
Aromatics often act as diuretics as well, as the volatile oils are processed by the kidneys, which find them irritating and increase urine output to “flush” them out of the body. This is what provides aromatic’s antimicrobial effect; the antiseptic oils in the urine bathe the tissues of the urinary system as they are swept out of the body.”
Jim also describes carminative as “aromatic herbs that contain volatile oils and initiate the expulsion of intestinal gas. They often relieve cramping as well.” Fennel seeds have always been used to help dispel gas in tiny babies. It was one of the major components in the ubiquitous “gripe water” given to colicky babies. My children never suffered with colic, so it wasn’t something I ever used.
A simple remedy for bloating is to chew fennel seeds or make a tea by pouring nearly boiling water over a teaspoonful of seeds and leave to steep for ten minutes in a covered container before straining and drinking.
Darcy Blue gave a “kitchen spice” remedy to support good digestive function as well as relieving discomfort on the Herbwifery Forum in 2008. She said to mix equal parts of cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, crush a teaspoonful and steep in hot water for ten minutes. She advised adding a touch of ginger and honey for added flavour.
There seem to be many different ways to use fennel for heartburn. While Darcey uses either a syrup (as mentioned before) or fennel honey pills, Jim favours a fennel tincture, which he gave to his wife when she was pregnant and suffered with heartburn.
Darcy shared how to make the honey pills with powdered herbs on the Herbwifery Forum last year. She described the process as “mix the powdered herbs, and a bit of marshmallow powder( helps it to make a dough) with a bit of honey - just enough to hold it together- and work into a stiff dough, then roll into pills. These can be taken fresh, or dehydrated in the oven with the light on, or in a dehydrator to be stored on the shelf.” Darcey uses the honey pills for indigestion or nausea if she is suffering in the middle of the night, popping the pills in her mouth to let them continue their work while she returns to sleep.
Tansy has also recently posted about making herbal honey pills on the "Not Dabbling in normal" blog. I am very tempted to try making some of my own soon.
I had never thought to use fennel with congestive respiratory conditions, but several herbalists suggested using fennel tea, or a mixture of fennel tea with marshmallow or mullein and rose to loosen a stagnant, hot, wet cough in a young child. It seems as if fennel has the extreme gentleness needed for babies and young children combined with a tenacity to move “stuck” infections as well as providing support and nourishment to a breastfeeding mother or an adult in digestive distress.
Fennel has also been cited in a list of herbs along with plantain, calendula, marshmallow and chamomile to heal a troubled gut or gastro-intestinal difficulties. Truly a herb to be valued!