Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, this member of the carrot family is easily distinguished by its yellow flowers and its very delicate, frond-like leaves that taste strongly of aniseed. If you were to dig it up, you would discover that it also has a fleshy bulb that has a similar flavour. The plant in the photo above was planted in the N2 Community Garden next to East Finchley Station, but I noticed that an intrepid seed had germinated in the gutter nearby, and at this rate it will be popping up all over the place.
Fennel loves disturbed ground and has naturalised in many places in the south of England. Vigorous stands of the plant may often be found at the seaside, as if advertising fennel’s long association with fish.
Fennel is said to have been brought to this country by the Romans, and it is a Mediterranean plant. In fact, the Greek name for the plant is Marathon, and the plain where the Battle of Marathon took place means, literally, ‘the plain of the fennel’. The capital of Madeira is also named from the Portuguese word for the plant, giving us Funchal. The English name ‘fennel’ apparently came from the Middle English for ‘hay’.
There can be little doubt that fennel was a deliberate introduction in this country, unlike some plants which probably stowed away in seed crops. Fennel has a long history of culinary use throughout its range, and many parts of the plant are used. The flowers, often described as ‘fennel pollen’, are currently cropping up in fine dining establishments across the land, and the seeds are a popular ingredient in bread and in spice mixtures such as panch phoron (from Assam and Bengal) and Chinese Five Spice. Plus, who can forget the little round steel dishes of mukhwas given with the bill at the end of an Indian meal? The seeds help to freshen the breath, but fennel also has a long-standing reputation for assisting with the digestion, hence this delightful ditty from the Middle Ages, reported by Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica:
In Fennel-seed, this vertue you shall finde,
Foorth of your lower parts to drive the winde.
The leaves and bulb are also widely used, in everything from salads to sauces. I must confess to having an aversion to the raw bulb: I am not a great lover of aniseed flavours at the best of times, probably due to the effects of an unfortunate cocktail of Ricard and Tizer imbibed at a friend’s house when I was fifteen (never again). However, when cooked slowly, or gently caramelised, I find it much more palatable.
Fennel is also one of the key ingredients of absinthe, that delightful green liqueur that is about as far from Baileys as it is possible to get. Otherwise known as ‘the green fairy’, the drink was said to have hallucinogenic properties, and was a favourite tipple of, among others Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso and Aubrey Beardsley. One wonders how much of its fearsome reputation was due to, well, its reputation – it was a strong spirit for sure, but no stronger than many others on offer at the time. Maybe it suffered because of the Bohemian nature of many of its drinkers. And I’m sure that Dega’s picture ‘L’Absinthe’ wouldn’t have helped with the marketing. The spirit was banned in many parts of Western Europe at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, on the basis that:
Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.
However, the spirit was never banned in the UK (we never seem to have developed a taste for ouzo, or raki, or Pernod, although we are partial to licorice allsorts). Hence, quite recently there’s been a new interest in the spirit here, with initial imports coming from Czechia (where it was also not banned in the past). I suspect that drinkers of the spirit will not seem out of place on the streets of many parts of the country on a Saturday night, though the top hat might need to go…
It seems strange that a plant associated with making people go blind (among other things) should have a long history as something that strengthened eyesight. Here is Longfellow’s poem from 1842:
- Above the lower 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.
- Pliny believed that when snakes shed their skins, they rubbed themselves against a fennel plant in order to restore their eyesight – the eyes of such creatures go milky just before they lose their skins, so it’s not a big jump to assume that they are blind.
- It was also said to be a cure for obesity:
- ‘Both the seeds, leaves and root of our Garden Fennel are much used in drinks and broths for those that are grown fat, to abate their unwieldiness and cause them to grow more gaunt and lank. (William Coles, ‘Nature’s Paradise’ (1650) (Thanks to A Modern Herbal))
We should not assume that we are the only creatures who enjoy fennel, however: the caterpillars of the swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon) are fans. This is a butterfly which is now confined to the fens in the UK, but is rather more widespread in Europe (indeed I saw one powering past when I was in the Alps last week).
In North America, where fennel is an introduced plant, it may be used by the caterpillars of the anise swallowtail(Papilio zelicaon). How subtly different this species is, with its powerful wings and yellow and black livery – I wondered if it was migratory and needed to do a lot of flying, but apparently not.
Finally, let’s have a look at the use of the plant in Hamlet. When Ophelia has ‘gone mad’, she speaks to her brother Laertes:
‘There’s fennel for you, and columbines.—There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays.—Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.—There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end (sings) For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy—‘
Fennel (and columbine) are presented to Gertrude. There was an Italian phrase ‘to give the fennel’, meaning to compliment falsely, and this is thought to have been the origin of the later Cockney phrase ‘to give flannel’ (i.e. to try to fool someone). More directly, fennel was a symbol of adultery, so wholly appropriate for the fickle Queen.
Like all members of the carrot family, the flowerheads of fennel are great favourites with the little pollinators like hoverflies and honeybees (I imagine that fennel honey would be a most interesting foodstuff). And so, it is something of a delight, even to those of us who are not overly keen on the flavour that it imparts so relentlessly to everything that it comes into contact with. Thank you once again to the Romans!
Photo One (Fennel seed digestif) – By Nicolas1981 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18773548
- Photo Two (Grilled Fennel) – By Darya Pino at https://www.flickr.com/photos/summertomato/3440076844
Photo Three (Swallowtail caterpillar) – By Superdrac – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33329657
Photo Four (Swallowtail Butterfly) – By Entomolo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48664965
Photo Five (Anise Swallowtail) – By Calibas – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3514460