The other day as I was leaving from the lunch buffet at the Indian restaurant in downtown Ithaca, I noticed a beautiful frilly plant growing sandwiched between the building and the sidewalk. It looked out of place, but familiar- almost like dill- of course, it was fennel! As soon as I realized what it was I put together the seeds that are traditionally waiting at the exit of an Indian restaurant, and the couple small plants growing next to me. Fennel seeds are a comfort to me after eating at an Indian buffet, as I have at that point generally stuffed myself to or just past the point of comfort. And fennel seeds are amazing digestive enhancers. That is why they are there by the door to greet you as you exit the restaurant. The seeds are commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient Indian system, for digestion, implicated by problems such as too much mucous/ phlegm, gas, constipation, and heartburn. In addition to aiding digestion and digestion related issues, fennel is also an expectorant, helping to clear the lungs. As such fennel can be useful for asthma sufferers; tea of fennel was used by the Greeks for asthma as well as other respiratory problems. Interestingly I’ve just learned that these fennel “seeds” are actually fruits.
Fennel plants contain compounds that mimic estrogens, which make it useful for women to take for amenorrhea (lack of normal menstrual periods), increased milk production while breastfeeding, and inhibited sexual desire. Fennel can be beneficial to the circulatory system, lowering blood pressure without also causing a reduction in heart or respiratory rate (boiled water extract of fennel leaves). Fennel as well as other herbs in the Carrot/ Parsley family (especially Angelica- Angelica archangelica) contain compounds that are similar to the calcium channel blockers which are used to moderate angina, a form of heart disease (juice of the fresh plant is recommended).
Note that while fennel seed oil may also be useful, it is much stronger than a preparation of the unaltered plant, and a small amount of the oil taken internally can be toxic. The oil should not be used during pregnancy. Also, in rare cases a person may have an allergic reaction to touching the plant or oil of the plant.
Sources for the above information are Eastern/ Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, a Peterson Field Guide, by Steven Foster and James A. Duke; and The Green Pharmacy, by James A. Duke, Ph. D.