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Plants of Colonial Williamsburg: Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare aka F. officinale)

Fennel is a herbaceous perennial and a member of the carrot family, Apiaceae that also includes parsley, celery, and Queen Anne’s lace.  It is native to the Mediterranean region region where it grows in dry calcareous soil near the sea. Plants grow 4-6′ tall from a tapering carrot-like root and have a round, branching,  blue green stem with dark green, pinnately divided,feathery leaves on broad petioles.  The small yellow flowers appear in flattened compound umbels in summer.  Both the foliage and seeds are aromatic and have an anise flavor.  The flowers attract butterflies and the foliage is the larval food for some swallow-tail butterflies.  Fennel grows best in full sun in moist, well-drained soil and is hardy in zones 4-9.  It is an attractive plant for the garden as well as providing medicinal and culinary benefits.  The genus name. Foeniculum, is the ancient Latin name for the plant.  The specific epithet, vulgare, is the Latin word meaning common.  The alternative specific epithet, officinale, is the Latin word meaning of shops, and is given to plants that have a real or imagined medicinal value.

The ancient  physicians Hippocrates and Dioscorides recommended fennel to increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers.  The ancient Romans  believed that fennel was good for the eyes and ate the young shoots.  Charlemagne introduced fennel to central Europe and cultivated it on his imperial farm for its medicinal properties.   The Anglo-Saxons  believed that fennel was sacred and used it as both a medicinal and culinary herb before the Norman invasion. Medieval Christians chewed on the seeds during long church services and on fast days to suppress their appetite and  hung bunches of fennel over the doors to their houses on Midsummer’s Eve to discourage witchcraft or frighten away ghosts.  The 18th century gardener and diarist John Evelyn claimed that the white stalks of fennel induced sleep and the leaves were used  as in ingredient in “gripe water” crying to calm babies.