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Bitter Fennel

( Originally Published 1933 )


Umbelliferae Perennial

This fennel is also native to South Europe. It flowered the first summer in my garden, but was killed at the first "black frost." The whole plant is smooth, fragrant of anise, and tastes of anise.

Stem. The stems are tender, hollow, glaucous, gray-green, ridged, not the least woody, but of a quite herbaceous consistency and grow up to five feet high.

Leaf. The striking characteristic of this plant is the broad leaf bases which half surround the stems. Each base overlaps the preceding one and bends outward, and the effect is as if one had been braided in and under the next. These leaf bases are striated and light in color, especially at the margins, and where they join the stem. When the broad part ceases, the leaf continues as a central stem from which others branch off, and each in turn is divided into branching thread-like segments many of them one and one-half inches long. These leaflets are a bit droopy.

Flower. The flowers are borne in terminal umbels which are not flat, but made up of about twenty smaller umbels carried on stems of varying lengths. There are about fifteen yellowish-green florets to each of the little umbels.

Seed. The seeds are dark gray, round at both ends, and retain the remains of the withered stigmas. They have five ribs, three of them on the back, and one on each side. According to Vilmorin they keep their germinating power for four years.


Food. Fennel seeds flavor liqueurs such as L'anisette of Strasbourg; in England they flavor soups; in Germany, bread. The leaves flavor the famous Polish soup, bortsch, and are also put in with boiled mackerel. They were a garnish to fish and in sauces as early as Parkinson's day. They are supposed to help digest the fat of the fish, whence perhaps the idea that to eat fennel was thinning.

Medicine. The dried ripe seeds are used. Culpeper said this fennel was the best for medicinal uses, and it is now in all pharmacopoeias. The action is carminative and it stimulates the secretion of sweat. Sometimes it is given hot in infusions such as barley water. The oil distilled from the fruits is also applied externally in eye lotions, and internally to cover the taste of unpleasant remedies, and to quiet babies.

Perfume. The oil from the seeds of F. dulce and F. sativum is not used much in perfumery, but occasionally in soaps.


It comes readily from seed and flowered the first summer for me in light, well-drained soil, and did not seem to need watering. The seeds should be sown as early as possible in the spring and thinned, if they are too thick, to about twelve inches apart in the rows. The plants can be transplanted if started indoors, but this sometimes proves fatal.

Harvest. The seeds should be gathered before they are fully ripe, according to Dr. Stockberger, who also writes that during recent years 275,000 pounds of seed have been imported annually.

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