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Fennel

Foeniculum vulgare Parsley family

by Greg Tilford  c.2010

Appearance: Fennel looks very much like dill— delicate, finely divided leaves, yellow umbel flowers, and hollow stems.  The most obvious difference rests in the aromatic nature of the plant— fennel smells somewhat like anise (or licorice), whereas dill smells like, well, dill pickles.  Fennel also has sturdier stems, and proportionately large bulb, which is considered a  gourmet delicacy by salad and sautéed vegetable connoisseurs.  The entire plant may grow in excess of six feet tall.

Habitat & Range: Native to Eurasia, fennel has become a full-time, naturalized resident in southern half of California, where it its frequently found on the margins of waste areas. 

Cycle & Bloom Season: There are many subspecies of Foeniculum vulgare— many are perennials, others are annuals or biennials.  In northern climes, fennel usually grows as an annual.

Parts Used: Seeds, leaves, roots.

Actions: Carminative, antispasmodic, galactogogue, stimulant, nutritive, antibacterial.

Affinities: Digestive tract.

Preparation: Fresh or dried leaves, seeds, or roots, or a tincture or tea of the same.

Specific Uses: Fennel seed is among the first herbs to reach for in cases of flatulence or colic. Its activity in the digestive tract is very similar to that of catnip. However, fennel tastes very different from any mint, and it’s flavor is often favored by dogs and cats who are turned off by “minty” herbs.  About 20% of cats won’t go near a flake of catnip, making fennel the herb of choice for gastric upset and irritability.  In chronic cases, it serves as a gentle anti-gas and antispasmodic agent that can be added directly to the animal’s food, to bring symptomatic relief while the care taker investigates for the deeper cause of the problem.  In acute cases, such as when the horse finds an open bag of molasses and oats that you forgot to put away (or when he grazes on too much fresh alfalfa because you left a gate open), fennel may help to reduce the subsequent bloating caused by intestinal gas build up.   For flatulence or colic, horses can be free-fed fresh fennel greens— as much as they want— until they find relief.  For dogs and cats, fennel seed works to relieve gastric discomfort from the “no-nos” which are inevitably consumed as a result of human weakness at the Thanksgiving dinner table— or from the dishes that “can wait until morning.”  A cooled tea works very well for this purpose— one teaspoon of the fresh or dried seeds (fresh are better) in eight ounces of boiling water, steeped until cool.  The tea can be fed at a rate of two to four tablespoons for each 20 pounds of the animal’s body weight, or it can be added to drinking water, as generously as the animal will allow.  A glycerin tincture also works very well, and allows the convenience of a smaller dosage for finicky animals— 10-20 drops (or more precisely, up to 0.75ml) per twenty pounds of the animal’s weight, as needed.    Fennel is high in vitamin C, A, calcium, iron, and potassium, and varying amounts of linoleic acid. It is an especially good nutritional adjunct for dogs and cats with chronic indigestion which cannot be attributed to a specific disease entity.  Fennel also helps increase appetite, and freshens the breath by minimizing belching and through its antibacterial activity in the mouth.  The leaf tea is said to be an effective skin and coat rinse, for repelling fleas.   Traditionally, fennel is fed to increase milk flow in nursing mothers. 

Availability: Fennel seed, root, and sometimes the greens can be found in food stores which stock specialty vegetables.  Fennel tinctures are available through herb retailers.

Propagation & Harvest: Fennel is very easy to grow from seed or nursery starts.  It does best in areas with a cool climate, and likes light, dry, slightly alkaline soil.  The seeds should be harvested in the fall, just as they begin to dry and turn to a light brown color.  The leaves and flowers can be harvested and used anytime.  For food use, the one inch wide bulb is hilled up with soil  and “blanched” throughout the remainder of their growth— this makes the bulbs white and tender, with a mild flavor.

Alternatives and Adjuncts: Catnip serves as an excellent alternative, as does anise seed, celery seed, or dill seed.  For chronic flatulence, try using a bitter herb, such as dandelion leaf or Oregon grape, a few minutes before each feeding.  Fennel can then be used after the meal, if flatulence persists.

Cautions & Comments: Like most plants that derive their medicinal activities from volatile oil constituents, fennel should be used with caution in pregnant or lactating animals.  The volatile oils in fennel may also cause a photosensitive dermatitis in some animals, but such occurances are rare.  In general, this herb is very safe.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. March 15, 2014

    very interesting,my dog had lots of gas and loose bowels from time to time,will try this!

  2. Greg Tilford permalink*
    March 27, 2014

    Let us know about the results! Thanks for reading!

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