Common Names

Fennel seed , Sweet Fennel, Fenkel
Botanical Name
Foeniculum vulgare

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What is it?

The richly aromatic seeds are the parts that are widely used in medicine and food from Fennel; a long-lived plant that grows up to a meter and produces an abundance of those 'fruits' that make it famous.




How has it been used?

Fennels grow easily and widely and have been used since ancient times for relieving digestive discomfort, to improve appetite, to soothe sore eyes and as an aid to nursing mothers.

The ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates and Dioscorides highly recommended Fennel to increase milk secretion in nursing mothers and this use has persisted in many parts of the world to this day, e.g. many South American cultures boil the seeds in milk to promote good health for nursing mothers.

Avicenna, in his Canon of Medicine, one of the most influential medical books in history, writes of Fennel as warming and drying. He says 'it is useful in cases of nausea and burning sensation in the stomach, it increases the secretion of milk and strengthens the eye-sight

Fennel was one of the favourite remedies of St Hildegard of Bingen who wrote it 'makes us happy with good digestion and good body odour'.

17th century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote 'Fennel increases milk, cleanses the eyes from mists that hinder sight and take away the loathings which oftentimes happens to the stomachs of sick persons'.

H Felter writes 'A splendid carminative and stimulant for flatulent colic in babies. It should not be sweetened with sugar, as it is sufficiently sweet in itself, while added sugar defeats the purpose for which it is being administered. Hot fennel tea is not an unpleasant remedy for amenorrhoea (absent periods) and for suppressed lactation. Fennel is often used as a corrigent of unpleasant medicines'

WM H Cook, in 1869, writes 'from a very early period of medical history, fennel seed has been credited with the power of increasing the secretion of milk, (galactagogue.) Its use for this purpose is most extensive in Germany; but leading physicians of many countries ascribe to it excellent power in this direction. The infusion of the seed may be used without limitation' He also says 'the fruit (seeds) of Fennel are quite fragrant, and are among the most relaxing and least pungent of all the aromatics. They are eminently carminative, and quite diffusive; and are usually better received by the stomach than are cummin or dill seeds, being also more relaxing than these, but more stimulating than anise seed'


Science on Fennel

~ Fennel has been shown to significantly reduce infantile colic in two randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trials (Alexandrovich, I., Rakovitskaya, O., Kolmo, E., Sidorova, T., and Shushunov, S. The effect of fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare) seed oil emulsion in infantile colic: a randomized, placebo-controlled study. Altern.Ther.Health Med. 2003;9(4):58-61) and (Weizman Z, Alkrinawi S, Goldfarb D, et al. Efficacy of herbal tea preparation in infantile colic. J Pediatr 1993;122(4):650-652)

~ Fennel's notable analgesic and antispasmodic effects has seen it being used in clinical studies to assess how it can help dysmenorrhea, i.e. painful periods. In one study, fennel was shown to be as effective as mefenamic acid, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug NSAID (Modaress, Nejad, V and Asadipour, M. Comparison of the effectiveness of fennel and mefenamic acid on pain intensity in dysmenorrhoea. East Mediterr.Health J 2006;12(3-4):423-427) Improvements in fatigue have also been noted in patients with dysmenorrhea treated with fennel (Zahrani SH, Amjady MA, Mojab F, and et al. Clinical effects of foeniculum vulgare extract on systemic symptoms of primary dysmenorrhea in students of Shaheed Beheshti University in Tehran [Farsi]. SBMU Faculty of Nursing & Midwifery Quarterly (SBMU FAC NURS MIDWIFERY Q) 2005;15(49):14)

~ Due to its estrogenic effects, Fennel extract has been studied and shown to be beneficial in women with hirsutism, i.e. excess hair-growth (Javidnia, K., Dastgheib, L., Mohammadi, Samani S., and Nasiri, A. Antihirsutism activity of Fennel (fruits of Foeniculum vulgare) extract. A double-blind placebo controlled study. Phytomedicine. 2003;10(6-7):455-458)

Patients with chronic non-specific colitis were treated with a combination containing Dandelion root, St John's wort, Lemon Balm, Calendula and Fennel. By the end of two weeks of treatment, spontaneous and palpable pains along the large intestine had disappeared in 96% of the patients and defecation was normalised in patients with diarrhoea syndrome (Chakurski I, Matev M, Koichev A et al. Vutr Boles 1981; 20(6)51-54)

~ In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial patients with marked and chronic digestive problems such as flatulence or bloating were treated either with a herbal formula containing Caraway seed, Peppermint, Gentian and Fennel in tablet form or an identical looking placebo over a 14 day period. Significant improvement was achieved in the herbal group compared to placebo and ultrasound results evaluating the amount of gas present also demonstrated a significant benefit from the herbal formula (Silberhorn H, Landgrebe N, Wohlinh D et al. 6th Phytotherapy Conference, Berlin, October 5-7, 1995)

~ A liquid herbal formula containing Caraway, Wormwood, Peppermint and Fennel was found to be superior to the spasmolytic drug Metoclopramide in relieving pain, nausea, belching and heartburn in a randomised double-blind, clinical trial used to assess effective treatments for patients with chronic indigestion (Westphal J, Horning M, Leonhardt K. Phytomedicine 1996; 2(4):285-291)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of around 250 further studies and articles on Fennel are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Fennel

No adverse effects are expected (or have ever been reported) from taking Fennel in tea or tincture, even in high or frequent doses. It may certainly be confidently taken during pregnancy or whilst breastfeeding and used by the young or old with safety.

General comment on herbal safety

All medicinal herbs that have the power to do good have the potential to do harm. The old maxim 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us. The ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. Not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs, but equally we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities that, not so long ago, decried herbal medicines as ineffectual, have now taken up a different adversarial position; that they are dangerous substances that should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. Such cautions are absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver that has long been proven to be effective at manipulating people.

Unfortunately, the same unnecessary fear and worry has crept into many natural health websites and popular publications on herbs. Herbs that we have safely used for thousands of years, that have no reports of adverse reactions in the medical literature despite widespread use by millions of people, are suddenly described as contraindicated because of something that should have been seen as completely unimportant, or at the utmost a merely theoretical concern, such as a laboratory study on one of the herb's constituents to use an all too common example.

I wonder sometimes if the writers of such articles feel that the herb will be more deserving of respect if it is thought to be a little bit dangerous, in other words more like a drug than something that has simply come out of the earth and been used by ordinary people for generations beyond count.

There is just so much misinformation about herbal medicine on the internet now. Ludicrous claims and cautions abound in equal measure; it seems like one group are trying to make money out of the public whilst the other are busily trying to scare them off.

I have to believe that the kind of reader who takes the time to read pages on herbs that are as extensive as this one is much less likely to be swayed by marketers or misinformers. I hope that you will keep your wits about you if you get conflicting opinions from people who have never really got to know these herbs, who have never worked with them, or learned how to use them safely and effectively.

I want to remind you that the reason that herbs can never be patented and owned by any individual or corporation is because they are, and always will be, the People's medicine. They belong to all of us and it is my great hope in sharing this work that you will learn how to use them wisely for yourself, and the people you care for. Be safe, but do not be afraid.


Personal experiences

I use a great deal of Fennel in my herbal formulae and strongly rely on it to ease poor digestion and help the medicine be better absorbed into the body to where it needs to go. Fennel is truly one of our most important digestive tonics and it is a medicine that I have personally seen give relief to a great deal of suffering and discomfort.

Paul Bergner recommends using Fennel with Cinnamon for 'interior cold'. Many of the people I work with are constitutionally ‘cold’. This means, amongst other things, that they do not digest food well, feel the cold acutely, and get stuck with health problems that can be slow to heal. Fennel can be tremendously helpful to such people as it gently warms from within.

Fennel is not a herb that we need to have any concern about taking too much of; like Garlic it is just as much a food as it is a medicine. That said I usually find that just 10 drops or so of the tincture combined with other herbs in a dose of medicine is ample to convey its benefits.

For anyone who is studying herbal medicine or perhaps just simply wants to get to know this great herbal ally in much more depth I highly recommend the old practice of taking a little Fennel tincture or tea and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, observing for yourself what you feel. I am sure that if you do this then you will experience for yourself the kind and certain 'action' of this herb. It goes directly to the gut, soothing and warming along the way.

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

More Milk Tea

Mostly Fennel works its charms perfectly well in small to moderate doses, repeated as often as needed, but there is a time when it can be most beneficial to use a lot of Fennel and this is during breastfeeding when we are concerned the baby is not getting enough milk...

Breastfeeding mothers who feel they are not making enough milk should definitely try this recipe and they can certainly trust that you will not do them or their baby any harm by having such large amounts of it for any length of time.

Instructions: Take as many Fennel seeds as you can hold in the palm of your hand and place into a saucepan with about two to three large cups of water. Briefly bring the seeds to the boil then cover well and leave to cool. Strain and drink the entire amount over the course of a day and watch what happens, it should be noticeable and most gratifying to all concerned!

Fennel combines perfectly with Chamomile and Caraway for indigestion and disturbed bowel function and it blends with Licorice to make other herbal medicines 'warmer' and easier to absorb.


Heinerman's Fennel & Barley water tea

"First cook some Barley in plenty of water. Strain the water and save. Reheat 600mls of the Barley water until boiling and then add 2 tsps Fennel seeds. Reduce heat to simmer for 5 minutes then steep for an extra 20 minutes.

One cup taken by nursing mothers will soon stimulate milk flow. 1/2 cup before meals stimulates the appetite. The eyes washed with the same strained liquid will get rid of irritation and eye-strain and the same tea made with an equal amount of Peppermint and given in small cupfuls when cool will help to calm hyperactive children".
John Heinerman from Miracle Healing Herbs.

Fennel folklore

The history of fennel goes back to ancient times as it was easily accessible throughout the Mediterranean Basin. Roman warriors are said to have consumed fennel to make them strong. It was also thought to have the power to help people keep thin.

Its Greek name marathon, which means "grow thin", reflects the belief in its ability to suppress appetite. The town of Marathon, site of the famous battle between the Athenians and the Persians, means "place of fennel". After the battle, the Athenians used woven fennel stalks as a symbol of victory

Pliny, a Roman writer and philosopher, said of fennel, "Fennel has a wonderful property to mundify (cleanse) our sight and take away the film that overcasts and dims our eyes."

The Anglo-Saxons held it sacred, and the Emperor Charlemagne declared in 812 AD that fennel was essential in every garden because of its healing properties

Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Fennel is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition. In this light, Fennel can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd