Habitat: Fennel is typical of Italy, although it grows also in warm countries. Wild fennel likes hills exposed to the sun, dry places, coastal and sub-mountainous regions in Central and Southern Italy. It is rarer in Northern Italy.
The fennel that grows wild around Northern California is Foeniculum vulgare. There is a bronze colored variety, Foeniculum vulgare rubrum, which can be found at nurseries. The leaves look their best in early spring. A third variety, Foeniculum v. dulce, or F. v. azoricum, also known as Sweet Fennel, Florence Fennel, or Finocchio, is the one that produces the "bulb" used in cooking (it is technically not a bulb at all, but a swelling at the base of the stalk). All of these varieties are members of the Umbelliferae family, which includes coriander/cilantro.
It was chosen as an ingredient of Wonderup because: It contains natural estrogenic substances - flavonoids - also called "phytoestrogens". These compounds exert estrogenic effects, although the activity compared to estrogen is quite mild - only 1/400th as potent. Because of this they are absolutely harmless and non toxic, though highly effective (their low potency is in fact an advantage because they work not directly on estrogen receptors but by gently influencing the production of hormones).
Researchers indeed believe phytoestrogens exert a balancing effect on female hormone levels. For example if estrogen levels are low they will cause an increase in overall estrogen effect. And, if estrogen levels are high, phytoestrogens can bind to estrogen receptor sites, thereby competing with estrogen and decreasing its effects.
Because of this balancing action, plants containing phytoestrogens may be recommended for conditions of estrogen excess (like the premenstrual syndrome) as well as conditions of estrogen deficiency (like menopause and menstrual abnormalities). In addition, several of these herbs exert an effect of the vascular system. This is extremely useful in reducing both the frequency and intensity of hot flashes and night sweats and thus helping alleviate menopausal symptoms.
The traditional use of fennel for increasing mother's milk is due to its galactogogue property, which derives from its high content in flavonoids, natural regulators of hormone balance.
Because of this, plants with phytoestrogens, of which fennel is a very popular example, are optimal for breast enhancement, since the female breast naturally benefits from this balancing effect on female hormones, which are in fact 'caught' by the receptor sites in the mammary glands. The breast thus naturally develops and grows fuller and firmer. Phytoestrogens also protect the breast from the attack of an excess of estrogens which can also be carcinogenic.
Other characteristics and
Constituents: The whole complex of primary plant constituents and a characteristic array of secondary plant constituents are present. Pharmacologically important constituents include volatile oil, major components of which are anethole and fenchone, flavonoids, coumarins (phytoestrogens).
Properties: Fennel, a plant largely used in the Mediterranean area to flavour meat and dishes, contains not only minerals and vitamins, but also an essence, anethole, which is particulalry concentrated in the seeds and stimulates digestion. It is also:
* uterine tonic - used primarily to lessen symptoms of menopause, although it has also been used in improving menstrual function.
* galactogogue - affects endocrine system and hormone function due to its ability to promote the flow of milk or lacteal secretion. Fennel will increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers.
* emmenagogue - stimulates the flow of mentstrual blood
* eases menstrual cramps and pains and nausea
* helpful in menopausal problems such as hot flashes and mood swings
* diuretic - detoxifies the organism by stimulating the production of urine and the elimination of toxins through the urine - helps to dissolve kidney stones
* depurative - cleanses the blood
* carminative - stimulates the production of gastric juices and aids digestion - affects digestive system and nutrition due to its ability to relieve gases from the gastrointestinal tract and relieves colic - an excellent stomach and intestinal remedy which relieves flatulence and colic whilst also stimulating the digestion and appetite
* aromatic - affects digestive system and nutrition due to its ability to stimulate the appetite and gastric secretion based on the action of the volatile oil or other aromatic principle. Aromatics are also used to relieve flatulence, open nasal passages, improve palatability of medicines or give a psychological boost.
* anti-spasmodic - affects nervous system and nerve function due to its ability to prevent or relieve spasms of muscles
* anti-inflammatory - affects immune system and reactivity due to its ability to counteract inflammation. The infusion may be used as an eye wash or compress to treat conjunctivitis and inflammation of the eyelids (blepharitis). Externally the oil eases muscular and rheumatic pains
* hepatic - affects liver and detoxification systems due to its ability to tone, strengthen, detoxify and heal the liver.
* similar to Aniseed in its calming effect on bronchitis and coughs. It may be used to flavor cough remedies
Culinary uses: Very used in the kitchen or out on the barbecue. Its licorice flavor makes it a cool and refreshing addition to a wide variety of dishes.
You can use all parts of fennel. Chop the leaves and add it at the last moment to add flavor to potato salad, dressing, dips, or cream sauce. Add fennel leaves to bouquet garni for a lively taste. The bulb can be eaten raw in salads, giving it both flavor and crunch. It can also be added as a vegetable to stews or sauteed like an onion to add flavor to pasta or meat sauce. Eat it the way the Italians do: lightly sauteed in olive oil, seasoned only with a bit of fresh cracked pepper and salt making it a light and savory foil for roasted meats.
The seeds should be used when you want to get the most pungent flavor. The seeds are most commonly found being used in sausages, pickles, lamb, duck, or pork dishes and as an important ingredient in curries and in and on breads. Try the seeds combined with chopped calamata olives and sun dried tomatoes the next time you bake a rustic style loaf of bread. Fennel is also great for a picnic with lamb and a bottle of Zinfandel.
The flavor of fennel blends well with fish, both fresh and pickled. Use the leaves and root in court bouillon for mild flavored fishes, or use the sauteed and chopped seed in a barbecue seasoning rub for salmon.
History and curiosities:
Fennel is mostly known for its galactogogue property, ie. for stimulating mother's milk, and to this end it was largely used in France in the 19th century, and was also widely used at the School of Medicine in Salerno, in Soutern Italy. Its culinary and aromatic use is also very popular.
Besides savrouring dishes, particularly meat, fennel also gives an excellent liquor, with carminative and diuretic properties. The fennel fruits, bruised and ground and mixed with green clay are useful to prepare a toothpaste which refreshes and reinforces gums. (You may have seen it at the Body Shop).
The Romans were very fond of the young shoots, eating them both for the flavor as well as in the belief that it would control obesity. Even the original Greek name for fennel was derived from the word "maraino," meaning to grow thin. This belief was held even as late as the herbalist Culpepper's time when he wrote of fennel that "all parts of the plant are much used in drink or broth to make people lean that are too fat." There may be some backing to that belief since the seeds are known to be a slight appetite suppressant. The Puritans would chew the seeds during periods of holiday fasting to stave off hunger.
Fennel was considered on of the nine sacred herbs to treat disease during Medieval times. It was also thought to fight off evil spirits, which is why it was jammed into keyholes and hung on doorways, especially on Midsummer's Eve.
Charlemagne was a great believer in the healing properties of fennel , which even today is used a colic suppressant, a breath freshener, and a mild digestive aid. In 812 A.D. he declared that fennel was essential in every imperial garden.
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