Fennel , a traditional symbol of bravery and courage, is a fearless contender in the war on inflammation, gastrointestinal disturbances, and respiratory ailments. Fennel is also an herb of significance for women since studies have found that it may help minimize symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and bone loss, but without increasing the risk of hormone-driven cancers associated with conventional hormone replacement therapy. It tastes pretty darn good too!

Fennel ( Foeniculum vulgare ), a hardy perennial native to the Mediterranean, was first introduced to Europe by the emperor Charlemagne, who cultivated the herb on his royal farms in Germany. However, fennel was a popular crop in ancient Greece many centuries earlier, where it was known as marathon and considered a symbol of bravery. In fact, the Battle of Marathon that followed the Persian invasion of Greece was named in honor of the feathery plant that covered the battlefield in which it was fought in 490 BC. The Athenian runner, Pheidippides, was rewarded with a marathon sprig for carrying news of the invasion to Sparta, which is why statues created in honor of this legendary hero portray him grasping fennel in his hand. Prometheus, the Titan deity of Greek mythology, used a stalk of fennel to steal the power of fire from Zeus to give to the mortals during the Golden Age. Perhaps these acts of valor inspired Dionysus, the son of Zeus and the god of wine, to carry a stalk of giant fennel to serve as his thyrsus, the magical wand used to promote fertility and immortality while engaging in midnight revelry.

Fennel was also regarded as a symbol of courage to the ancient Romans. In fact, it was traditional for warriors to indulge in food and drink made from fennel bulbs and seeds before entering battle. They also faced their foes with wreaths of fennel leaves crowning their heads. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century American poet known best for his historic work, Paul Revere's Ride, acknowledged these rituals in The Goblet of Life:

Above the lowly plants it towers The fennel, with its yellow flowers, And in an earlier age than ours, Was gifted with the wondrous powers, Lost vision to restore. It gave new strength, and fearless mood; And gladiators, fierce and rude, Mingled it in their daily food; And he who battled and subdued, A wreath of fennel wore.

It’s interesting to note that Longfellow not only alluded to the belief that fennel could instill courage, but also restore lost vision. This is likely a reference to the claim made by naturalist Pliny the Elder (23 AD -79 AD), who wrote about his observation that snakes consume fennel to help restore their sight after shedding their skins. Pliny’s assertion may have also led to fennel seed tea being used as eyewash to treat vision disorders in Medieval Europe. This practice is still common today in many parts of the world. For example, in India, fennel preparations formulated into eye drops are reputed to relieve inflammation and improve vision. There is also recent scientific evidence to suggest that fennel extracts may be helpful in treating glaucoma.

Medieval Europeans thought fennel could help those wishing to shed a few pounds. This belief may have been first fueled by the ancient Greeks, who had yet another name for fennel: maraino , which translates to mean, “to grow thin.” Later, the 17th-century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, wrote that regularly eating fennel could make "people lean that are too fat." As such, the peasantry routinely kept a supply of fennel seeds on hand, which they chewed as an appetite suppressant in times of famine. The seeds were also eaten on days of religious fasting, or to evoke the herb’s carminative powers to deter belching, a growling stomach, or bouts of flatulence while seated in Church.

European mothers frequently gave colicky infants Gripe Water, a diluted tea made from fennel seed. This is actually quite effective in soothing stomach troubles in adults as well as babies. However, a word of caution: Long-term or high doses of fennel tea is not recommended for infants since this has been known to promote thelarche, a medical condition associated with precocious puberty, specifically the premature development of breasts.

Given the above, it’s not surprising that fennel has a reputation as a galactogogue, meaning that it stimulates milk production in mammals due to some of its constituents containing phytoestrogenic properties. Both Dioscorides and Hippocrates wrote of this characteristic of fennel, an observation that may have proven to be an economic boon since fennel was once fed to goats to increase milk output. In fact, the genus designation of foeniculum is taken from the Latin word of the same name, which literally means, “little hay.” Today, nursing mothers consume fennel to increase milk flow, as well as to prevent mastitis.

Fennel offers additional health-giving benefits for modern times. For one thing, the phytoestrogens in the plant are known to help reduce unpleasant symptoms associated with menopause, such as hot flashes. Recent clinical studies also show that these components may inhibit the progression of osteoporosis. However, naturally occurring phytoestrogens behave very differently than synthetic estrogen compounds sometimes given during hormone replacement therapy, which have been linked to a higher risk of cancer. Plant-based compounds synthesize diphenolic estrogenic compounds through the conversion of lignans and isoflavonoids, which then bind to estrogen receptors. This has the effect of reducing the risk of cellular proliferation in breast or prostate tissue and, therefore, the risk of developing hormone-dependent cancers.

Fennel has also long been used to ease congestion and cough associated with colds and flu, as well as asthma and bronchitis. Its effectiveness is likely due to the presence of anethole, an agent with anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-spasmodic, and anti-inflammatory properties. While fennel tea or juice was once prepared at the hearth and given to suppress coughs, it continues to be a popular ingredient in commercial cough syrups today.

Anethole is also a powerful insecticide against many pests, including beetles, weevils, and cockroaches. It also repels mosquitoes and fleas. In fact, commercial stables and kennels commonly use powdered fennel and seed for this purpose.

In the kitchen, the licorice-like flavor of fennel pairs well with tomato-based dishes. In fact, the bruised seeds lend exceptional flavor to homemade tomato sauce, Italian-style meatballs, and sausage. The seed is also an ingredient found in Chinese 5-spice blend. All parts of the plant can be eaten, though. The sliced bulb and stalk are delicious roasted in the oven and added to salads or pasta dishes. The feathery fronds can be added to soups, salads, and sandwiches.

There’s little doubt that fennel has much to offer. Just as the Roman gladiators “mingled it in their daily food,” it’s easy to incorporate fennel into your diet too. It’s a warm and wonderful spice that can be added to many sauces, cheese and egg dishes, rice, curries, baked goods, and a whole lot more! Stock up on some fresh whole fennel seed [link] and start experimenting yourself. And when stomach upset strikes? Just steep 1/4 cup of fennel seeds in 1 pint of boiled water for 20 minutes, strain, and enjoy sweet relief.

Need some more inspiration? Try our Creamy Penne with Roasted Fennel, Pancetta and Crimini Mushrooms…

Creamy Penne with Roasted Fennel, Pancetta and Crimini Mushrooms

Pancetta is Italian bacon that is salt-cured instead of smoked. You can find it pre-packaged in the deli department of most supermarkets. Whole fennel bulbs and stalks can be found in the produce isle. This dish is especially good prepared with a mixture of Italian cheeses, such as Romano, Asiago, Mozzarella, etc. Or, you can simply use grated Parmesan instead.

Serves 4-6


  • 1 pound dried penne
  • 1 fennel bulb, including stalks
  • 10 slices pancetta
  • 1½ cups crimini mushrooms (baby portabellas)
  • ½ chicken or vegetable broth
  • ¼ cup dry white wine
  • 1½ cups light cream
  • 1 cup shredded Italian cheese blend (or grated parmesan)
  • 1 sprig thyme (or 2 teaspoons dried)
  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1 tablespoon flour Cracked black pepper Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400’ F.

  1. Peel the outer layer of fennel bulb and discard. Remove fronds, reserving them for another use, if you wish. Rinse the remaining bulb and stalk under cold running water, pat dry, and slice into one-inch pieces. Spread the fennel pieces on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and drizzle with olive oil.
  2. Cut the sliced pancetta into strips. (You’ll find this easier and faster if you stack them.) Place the pancetta strips directly on top of the fennel and roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or just until the fennel is tender and the pancetta has crisped slightly. When done, remove from oven and set aside.
  3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, or about 8-10 minutes.
  4. While the pasta cooks, sauté the mushrooms in one tablespoon of the butter and a few drizzles of olive oil until tender.
  5. Meanwhile, make a roux for the sauce. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to the bottom of a medium saucepan and melt under medium-high heat. When melted, add the flour and stir. Reduce the heat to low and add the broth, wine, light cream, thyme, and cracked black pepper to taste. Stir for two minutes, then add the cheese and stir again. Let the mixture come up to a low boil. As soon as the sauce begins to bubble, stir well and continue to stir for another 2-3 minutes to avoid scorching. Remove from heat and cover. The sauce will thicken while standing.
  6. Drain the pasta and place in a large pasta bowl. Add the roasted fennel, pancetta, and sautéed mushrooms to the pasta. Pour the sauce over all and toss to combine before serving. Enjoy!