Fennel – characteristics, cultivation and use

fennel plant
fennel plant

Fennel is undoubtedly one of the most versatile herbs. Fennel bulbs with their slightly aniseed flavor are considered excellent vegetables. The seeds can be used as a spice for stews or fish dishes. But the plant is not only popular in the kitchen. Fennel tea and honey relieve discomfort such as stomach cramps or stuck cough.

Profile of fennel:

Scientific name: Foeniculum vulgare

Plant family: umbellifer (Apiaceae)

Sowing time / Planting time: May – July

Flowering period: July – September

Harvest time: depending on cultivation method

Location: sunny

Soil quality: nutrient rich, well drained and deep soils

These information are for temperate climate

Use as a medicinal herb: stomach pain, indigestion, bloating, colds, loss of appetite

Use as aromatic herb: seeds as a spice for fish, meat, soups; bulb as vegetables

Plant characteristics and classification of fennel

Origin and occurrence of fennel

The origin of fennel is the Mediterranean. However, the aromatic herb was already very popular in ancient times and has spread quickly to the Middle East and Europe. Today, the plant is cultivated mainly in the south-eastern European countries, in India, and in the northern Mediterranean countries. Its occurrence, however, reaches as far as South America and Japan.

Wild fennel can sometimes be found in Italy, especially in Tuscany. Also on the Iberian peninsula some specimens on sun-exposed slopes can be found wild.

Plant order of fennel

The fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a representative of the Umbelliferae (Apiaceae). The plant is related to other economically important herbs such as dill, anise and caraway.

Due to the high importance of fennel, various subspecies (varieties) have emerged over time.

Characteristics of the fennel


Fennel is a perennial herbaceous plant. Depending on the site conditions, the plant can grow between 50 and 60 cm high (20 and 24 in). The roots have a white to pale yellowish color, grow spindle-shaped and are usually between 1 and 2 cm (0.4 and 0.8 in) thick. The whole plant emits a pleasant sweet-aromatic fragrance.


The upper leaves of fennel are finely feathered, usually light green and resemble the dill. The leaves grow upright on the blue-green, hairless and grooved stems. Near the bottom the plant forms so-called memory sheets, which are usually much lighter (usually even white) colored. These storage leaves form the typical bulb, which ensures that the plant can shoot again in the following year. This is especially distinctive with the Florence or sweet fennel. For the other varieties, the bulbs are much less obvious or smaller.


At flowering time, it produces yellow flowers that grow in so-called double umbels. Fennel plants usually bloom between the beginning of July and the end of September. Each double umbel is between 6 and 10 cm wide (2.4 and 4 in) and can contain up to 40 individual flowers. Its flowers are basically hermaphrodite.


Mostly towards the end of September, the yellow flowers form the typical fennel fruits, which in the botanical sense are schizocarps. In the beginning, there are always two partial fruits, but they decompose quickly. Their color is usually greenish to slightly brownish, slightly bent at the top and strikingly ribbed. The fruits contain the highest amounts of essential oils, which is why they are usually easily recognizable by their scent. The seeds are usually equated with the term fruit, which, however, is not correct. In the fruit itself is still a seed and numerous oil passages, but so tight that they are barely perceived.

yellow flower of  fennel
yellow flower of fennel

Cultivation and care of fennel

The cultivation of the plant is not particularly difficult, if some small hints are considered. This is especially true when choosing the variety. Roman fennel, which is mainly used to harvest the herb and seeds, must be grown much earlier than the Florence fennel, where the bulb is being used mainly.


Fennel requires a humus-rich, calcareous, well-drained soil and an permanent supply of water and nutrients. Warm climate favors the cultivation of bulbs. The bed should be in any case, sunny.


Florence fennel is usually sown in the field between early April and early May. If strong night frosts are to be expected, a preculture in the greenhouse or on the window sill may make sense. On the other hand, Florence fennel must be sown approximately from mid-June to mid-July. Since the plants can be quite large, a planting distance of at least 30 x 40 cm (12 x 16 in) should be maintained. Lower planting distances may cause that the plant is not optimally supplied with nutrients and that the risk for diseases is increased. Its seeds are considered dark germs. Therefore, the seeds should be pressed about 2.5 cm (1 in) into the ground and covered well with soil. The seedlings usually show up after two to three weeks. Sowing on the balcony or in pot culture is possible. As soil, a good herbal soil can be used, which should be mixed with sand (10 percent by volume).


During sowing, it is sufficient to mix some compost in the ground. If Florence fennel is grown, it is advisable to incorporate an organic nitrogen fertilizer such as bone meal. Florence fennel is basically a bit hungrier than Roman fennel and is considered a so-called moderate feeder. When cultivating for many years, the soil should be re-fertilized after fruiting in October. If it grows in the pot, it should be treated every 4 to 5 weeks with an organic or organic-mineral herbal fertilizer.


Fennel loves moist soil. The soil should never completely dry out if possible. The soils are optimal if they are evenly moistened on the surface. On hot summer days it may be necessary to water the plants morning and evening. Too much water should be avoided, however, as the roots of the plant do not tolerate waterlogging.


In order for Florence fennel to form particularly tender and snow-white bulbs, the plants should be ridged up no later than two weeks before harvesting. Pull the soil to the vegetables with a dram hoe, so that the fleshy leafstalks are completely covered, leaving the green part of the leaves free. Check the thickness of the bulbs from time to time. The best harvest time is when the bulbs are about the size of a fist. Important: The soil around the Florence fennel should be fine crumbly and moist, but never wet. Therefore, ensure a uniform soil moisture. Regular chopping keeps the soil loose and prevents weed growth. If you plant Florence fennel, you should know that it produces lots of seeds. Cut it in time or harvest the seeds in September.


Florence fennel is sensitive to frost. However, in most cases it is sufficient to cover the bulb with a bit of brushwood or hay. Roman fennel, however, is quite tolerant of frost and requires no special care.


Depending on the weather, you can harvest the bulbs about 3 to 4 months after sowing. Cut the bulbs off the root collar and cut the leafstalks to about 5 to 8 cm (2 to 3 in). Freshly harvested Florence fennel can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. First wrap the bulbs in cling film so that they do not dry out, becoming stringy. Larger quantities of self-harvested bulbs are best to heel in a cool cellar or in sandy soil next to each other in a cold frame. So they stay crisp until the late winter and at the same time blanch a bit.

Pests and diseases

The cultivation of aromatic herbs may cause pest infestation under certain conditions. The fennel is loved by many types of snails. It can help to plant it together with snail-repelling herbs like rosemary or thyme. In unfavorable growing conditions also the inconspicuous capsid bug attack the plants. Generous planting distance and careful weed removal reduce the risk. Affected plants with pale yellow, brown or reddish punctate staining discoloration should be removed immediately.

fennel bulb
fennel bulb

Use of fennel

Fennel is a very versatile herb and is used both in the kitchen and in relieving many ailments. The following plant components can be used:

  • seeds
  • bulbs
  • leaves

Fennel in the kitchen

With its anise-like aroma, Florence fennel not only refines salads and fillings, it can also be used to make tasty dips. With the tender green you can season sauces or mayonnaise. The fresh leaves can be harvested continuously and used like dill. In addition, Florence fennel is the ideal vegetable for those who are prone to bloating. Its dietary fiber binds toxins and fats in the intestine, which lowers cholesterol levels. In addition, it is rich in potassium, beta-carotene and vitamins C and E and also contains many important minerals.

The bulb is suitable as a vegetable both red, fried, cooked or grilled. In this case, it is usually worthwhile to remove the outermost layer of leaves, as this is usually fibrous and may contain brown spots. A special tip is in small cubes chopped fennel bulbs, which are mixed in with a salad. There they give the whole salad a pleasantly subtle-sweet aroma.

The fruits can be used as an additional spice, especially for hearty meals. In addition, ground or whole fruits are also used for numerous baked goods. Good are breads, cookies but also spice cake. Ground fennel seeds can also be used to make herbal marinades. There they give meat dishes a fine and sweet background flavor.

Unfortunately, the leaves are rarely used in the kitchen. Although they contain less essential oils than seeds and bulbs and are thus not quite as rich in aroma, they can still be eaten without further ado. The leaves, for example, can be minced in soups and hearty stews. Also, for garnishing salads or wild herb salads they are well suited.

For the preparation of broths or bouillons fennel is ideal. The bulb can be boiled together with root vegetables such as carrots, celery, parsnips and leeks to a broth, always a vegetable oil should be used to dissolve the flavors. Incidentally, in Mediterranean cuisine, its bulbs are often used as an ingredient in broths and soups.

Fennel is an excellent her for fish dishes. Ground fruits can be applied directly to the fish as a spice. When preparing a whole fish, either put the whole fruit or thin slices of Florence fennel into the belly of the fish. Along with lime or lemon, a little lemon balm and salt and pepper you get a delicious fish menu, which can be eaten with baked potatoes or potato salad.

Fennel as a medicinal herb

In naturopathy, fennel is almost indispensable today. Archaeological research has confirmed that the plant has been used for more than 5,000 years. Medicinal herbs were already well known to healers of ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

According to herbal books of the Middle Ages, the beneficial effects on the stomach were already known. Fennel strengthens the stomach, works against flatulence, stimulates milk flow in women and helps against feeling of fullness. It was also recommended internally for kidney problems and bladder complaints. The root was – boiled in wine – used for convulsions and dropsy. Crushed seeds mixed with warm milk are said to have helped against coughing or respiratory problems. Also, for external applications fennel was used. Especially with eye complaints pressed juice or root extracts were used.

Even in today’s natural healing fennel plays a big role. In most cases, the seeds of the plant are used, more rarely the flowers or the root. The plant is mainly used as a wild fennel or bitter fennel, but the other species and varieties are also suitable for medicinal use.

The healing effect of fennel is primarily due to the essential oils that are present in all plant parts, but most concentrated in the fruits. Probably the most important oil of fennel is the trans-anethole. This works mainly anti-spasmodic, expectorant and antibacterial. In addition to anethole, the fenchone plays a bigger role, which has a rather bitter taste and above all has a germ-inhibiting effect.

Fennel can be used for these ailments and diseases

  • asthma
  • blepharitis
  • bloating
  • biliary colic
  • bronchitis
  • cold
  • conjunctivitis
  • dry cough
  • epilepsy (supportive)
  • headache
  • heart failure
  • indigestion
  • insect bites
  • insomnia
  • loss of appetite
  • menopausal symptoms
  • migraine
  • milk production
  • promoting menstrual
  • stomach pain
  • three-month colic (infants)
  • throat infection
  • ulcers
  • whooping cough

Medicinal properties

  • antibacterial
  • antispasmodic
  • diuretic
  • expectorant
  • relaxing
  • toning

Fennel is given in most cases as tea, honey or oil. Fennel tea and honey are suitable for the complaints mentioned above. Often, however, the tea is used to relieve abdominal pain, gastrointestinal discomfort, and mild digestive problems. While tea and honey are taken directly, the oil is massaged only on the affected areas. Pure fennel oil is too irritating for the stomach and should never be drunk.

Preparation of a fennel tea

Time needed: 8 minutes

This is how to prepare a fennel tea by yourself

  1. take a lightly heaped teaspoon of fennel fruits and carefully crush it with a mortar

  2. the fruits should not be ground or pulverized

  3. the crushed fruits should then best be put in a tea filter ina cup

  4. dash with boiling water

  5. let brew for about 5 to 8 minutes

  6. drink the tea in small sips

Per day, adults should drink a maximum of three cups, toddlers one to two cups. Fennel tea can also be given to infants, but only diluted. However, if you are breast-feeding, you should consult a doctor or midwife.

Fennel oil and honey are great for relieving abdominal cramps in babies and toddlers. For babies, fennel oil is often used in combination with caraway, where it is gently applied to the baby’s stomach in a clockwise circular motion. Fennel honey can also be used to relieve cough in infants (13 months and older). However, not more than three teaspoons should be administered per day throughout the day. Insofar as further antiseptics or cough-releasing medicines are administered or prescribed, the intake of honey should be clarified with the attending physician.

As a stomach herb, fennel is often used in combination with caraway and anise. All three plants belong to the Umbelliferae and contain numerous essential oils, which complement each other. A tea from these three herbs is often used for mild stomach pain, indigestion, flatulence or for supportive digestion.

Flatulent tea blend


40 gr aniseed seeds

40 gr fennel seeds

20 gr chamomile flowers


  • put a tablespoon of tea mixture in a tea filter in a cup
  • let the tea brew for 10-15 minutes
  • drink the tea in small sips


Ask your doctor or pharmacist. Visiting this page can not replace the visit to the doctor. For serious or unclear complaints, consult your doctor.

Buying Fennel – What is there to pay attention to?

Fresh vegetable fennel from the supermarket or weekly market should first be searched superficially for brown spots. A good quality bulb has a fresh green color and still decent foliage on or between the stems. The leaves should not hang.

If fennel is to be cultivated in the garden, most plant specialist markets and online retailers offer seeds in various varieties. Occasionally, preferred plants are available in smaller pots. In colder areas shoot-proof varieties such as Perfection, Rondo or Fino may be the better choice.

Fresh fennel fruits are available at specialized herbal specialist shops or online. The fruits should be airtight and not older than three years. For medical applications, however, there are also inexpensive fennel-cumin-anise mixtures in the supermarket, which are usually much more convenient to prepare.

Buying fennel honey you should pay attention to the purpose. The honey is used as a remedy for infants, it should be a pure fennel honey. Sometimes other herbs such as thyme are added, which should be avoided for toddlers. Basically, the honey is not real honey, but one with essential oils offset.

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