Above, from left to right: Fennel flourishing in Bonnefont Cloister Garden in July; green fennel fruits ripening in late summer; umbels of dry fennel fruits at the end of the season.
Let us not forget to honor fennel. It grows
On a strong stem and spreads its branches wide.
Its taste is sweet enough, sweet too its smell;
They say it is good for eyes whose sight is clouded,
That its seed, taken with milk from a pregnant goat,
Eases a swollen stomach and quickly loosens
Sluggish bowels. What is more, your rasping cough
Will go if you take fennel-root mixed with wine.
—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.
The ninth-century Benedictine abbot Walahfrid Strabo was a gardener as well as a scholar and a poet. He praises the stately and beautiful fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) growing in his monastery garden for its medicinal virtues, but fennel was also an ancient culinary herb, enjoyed both as a seasoning and a vegetable.
Indigenous to the Mediterranean, fennel was brought to England and Germany by the Romans, and to India and China by Arab traders. The Roman natural historian Pliny, writing in the first century, cites fennel in more than twenty remedies. All parts of the plant—roots, shoots, leaves, and seeds—have been used both as food and as medicine.
The abundant anise-flavored fennel fruits (commonly called seeds) are prized for their warm, sweet aroma, and can be used both fresh and dried. The finely divided leaves of fennel, described by Geoffrey Grigson as looking “like a tangle of green hair,” do not dry well, and are used fresh. Fennel leaves frequently appear in ancient and medieval cookbooks: the Roman cookbook writer Apicius gives a recipe for a sauce made with fresh fennel, and a fourteenth-century Italian recipe for chicken with fennel calls for the chopped “beards” of fennel and parsley (Odile Redon et al., The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, 1998).
Fennel has a venerable reputation as a diet herb and was known to the ancient Greeks as Marathron, from the verb maraino, “to grow thin.” In the Middle English allegorical poem Piers Plowman, mention is made of “a farthing-worth of fennel for fasting days.” Fennel allayed hunger, and its culinary use as an accompaniment to fish made it an important seasoning in the Lenten fare of the Middle Ages. Fennel is often included in modern herbal teas for dieting and weight loss. Its diuretic properties had already been recognized by the Greek herbalist Dioscorides, and Renaissance writers continued to praise fennel as an excellent remedy for those who had grown fat.
The six-foot plants that flourished all summer in Bonnefont Cloister Garden have now gone to seed, but are still impressive. You won’t find them in either the medicinal or the culinary beds, but in the bed devoted to plants used in medieval magic and witchcraft. Believed to be a powerful amulet, fennel is invoked in the famous Lacnunga, or Lay of the Nine Herbs, an eleventh-century poem that names nine sacred worts to be used against “flying venom,” the principal agent of disease in the Anglo-Saxon world view. These nine plants of power could also be used to free people or animals who had been “elf-shot” from their bewitchment.