Foeniculum vulgare, or fennel, is an herb that originated in the Mediterranean and has spread throughout the world. An ingredient in cuisine in locations as diverse as medieval Europe, early India, and 10th century Spain, the medicinal use of fennel is recorded as far back as ancient Rome. Today, fennel seed is used to add flavor to food; to improve digestion; to soothe colic in babies; and to reduce coughs. Fennel is considered generally safe for adults and children, though pregnant women should consult their doctors before using this or any herb.
Fennel is a common kitchen herb, used to add flavor to everything from sausage to bread to homemade cough syrup. The aromatic seeds work especially well in baked goods, keeping their shape and their bright flavor. Fennel is often combined either with orange, for a sophisticated taste in tea breads, or with caraway in rye and country-style breads.
Fennel seeds are used to aid digestion. In traditional herbalism, this herb is known as a carminative, meaning that it helps prevent and relieve abdominal gas. Fennel seeds can be chewed or made into a simple tea for this purpose. Perhaps fennel is a traditional ingredient in sausage recipes because the carminative effect makes digesting the meat a more comfortable process.
A tea made of fennel seeds has historically been used to treat infantile colic. A study published in "Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine" in 2003 compared fennel seed oil emulsion to placebo for treating infantile colic. Results showed the condition in 65% of the infants treated with fennel improved, compared to 23% in the placebo group. There were no significant side effects. Fennel is a promising treatment for this common problem.
Fennel seeds are a traditional cough remedy. The seed is prepared as a tea and taken hot or infused in honey or syrup and given by the spoonful. It can be combined with licorice, thyme, or other traditional cough remedies. Fennel has been thought to break up congestion in chronic coughs, though modern evidence on this point is lacking. Fennel is safe for children and has a pleasant taste.
Stephanie Draus is a naturopathic doctor and assistant professor of clinical sciences at National University of Health Sciences. She has practiced in Chicago as a health consultant since 2005. She is a graduate of the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon.