We all know the pleasant taste of Fennel sauce when eaten with boiled mackerel. This culinary condiment is made with Sweet Fennel, cultivated in our kitchen gardens, and which is a variety of the wild Fennel growing commonly in England as the Finkel, especially in Cornwall and Devon, on chalky cliffs near the sea. It is then an aromatic plant of the umbelliferous order, but differing from the rest of its tribe in producing bright yellow flowers.
Botanically, it is the Anethum foeniculum, or "small fragrant hay" of the Romans, and the Marathron of the Greeks. The whole plant has a warm carminative taste, and the old Greeks esteemed it
highly for promoting the secretion of milk in nursing mothers. Macer alleged that the use of Fennel was first taught to man by serpents. His classical lines on the subject when translated run thus:
"By eating herb of Fennel, for the eyes
A cure for blindness had the serpent wise;
Man tried the plant; and, trusting that his sight
Might thus be healed, rejoiced to find him right."
"Hac mans?erpens oculos caligine purgat;
Indeque compertum est humanis posse mederi
Illum hominibus: atque experiendo probatum est."
Pliny also asserts that the ophidia, when they cast their skins, have recourse to this plant for restoring their sight. Others have averred that serpents wax young again by eating of the herb; "Wherefore the use of it is very meet for aged folk."
Fennel powder may be employed for making an eyewash: half-a-teaspoonful infused in a wineglassful of cold water, and decanted when clear. A former physician to the Emperor of Germany saw a monk cured by his tutor in nine days of a cataract by only applying the roots of Fennel with the decoction to his eyes.
In the Elizabethan age the herb was quoted as an emblem of flattery; and Lily wrote, "Little things catch light minds; and fancie is a worm that feedeth first upon Fennel." Again, Milton says, in "Paradise Lost", Book XI:
"The savoury odour blown, Grateful to appetite, more pleased my sense Than smell of sweetest Fennel."
Shakespeare makes the sister of Laertes say to the King, in "Hamlet", when wishing to prick the royal conscience, "There's Fennel for you." And Falstaff commends Poins thus, in "Henry the Fourth", "He plays at quoits well, and eats conger, and Fennel."
The Italians take blanched stalks of the cultivated Fennel (which they call "Cartucci") as a salad; and in Germany its seeds are added to bread as a condiment, much as we put caraways in some of our cakes. The leaves are eaten raw with pickled fish to correct its oily indigestibility. Evelyn says the peeled stalks, soft and white, when "dressed like salery," exercise a pleasant action conducive to sleep. Roman bakers put the herb under their loaves in the oven to make the
bread taste agreeably.
Chemically, the cultivated Fennel plant furnishes a volatile aromatic oil, a fixed fatty principle, sugar, and some in the root; also a bitter resinous extract. It is an admirable corrective of flatulence; and yields an essential oil, of which from two to four drops taken on a lump of sugar will promptly relieve griping of the bowels with distension. Likewise a hot infusion, made by pouring half-a-pint of boiling water on a teaspoonful of the bruised seeds will comfort belly
ache in the infant, if given in teaspoonful doses sweetened with sugar, and will prove an active remedy in promoting female monthly regularity, if taken at the periodical times, in doses of a wineglassful three times in the day. Gerard says, "The green leaves of the Fennel eaten, or the seed made into a ptisan, and drunk, do fill women's brestes with milk; also the seed if drunk asswageath the wambling of the stomacke, and breaketh the winde." The essential oil corresponds in
composition to that of anise, but contains a special camphoraceous body of its own; whilst its vapour will cause the tears and the saliva to flow. A syrup prepared from the expressed juice was formerly given for chronic coughs.
W. Coles teaches in "Nature's Paradise", that "both the leaves, seeds, and roots, are much used in drinks and broths for those that are grown fat, to abate their unwieldinesse, and make them more gaunt and lank." The ancient Greek name of the herb, "Marathron", from maraino, to grow thin, probably embodied the same notion. "In warm climates," said Matthiolus, "the stems are cut, and there exudes a resinous liquid, which is collected under the name of fennel gum."
The Edinburgh _Pharmacopoeia orders "Sweet Fennel seeds, combined with juniper berries and caraway seeds, for making with spirit of wine, the 'compound spirit of juniper,' which is noted for promoting a copious flow of urine in dropsy." The bruised plant, if applied externally, will speedily relieve toothache or earache. This likewise proves of service as a poultice to resolve chronic swellings. Powdered Fennel is an ingredient in the modern laxative "compound
powder" with senna. The flower, surrounded by its four leaves, is called in the South of England, "Devil in a bush." An old proverb of ours, which is still believed in New England, says, that "Sowing Fennel is sowing sorrow." A modern distilled water is now obtained from the cultivated plant, and dispensed by the druggist. The whole herb has been supposed to confer longevity, strength and courage. Longfellow wrote a poem about it to this effect.
The fine-leaved Hemlock Water Dropwort (Oenanthe Phellandrium), is the Water Fennel.
The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself.
History of Herbs
Herbs for Beginners
Drying & Preserving Herbs
Indoor Herb Gardening
Hints & Tips
Oil and Vinegar
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