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Fennel, the Roman Candle of Autumn

by Barbara Payne(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 103 - September 2004

Around September to October a transformation takes place in my garden and the wholesome beauty of it never ceases to give me delight. Along with the brash reds and oranges of Acers and Virginia creeper there is a plant which displays a charm of its own with delicate tiny bright yellow flowers which are just turning into seeds. This is the common garden fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Fennel is a beautiful, delicate, fernlike plant that is really a hardy perennial. It looks somewhat like a firework the way the slim branches shoot up and out, topped by the yellow flowers on umbrella-like stalks which carry the delicious name of umbels. Fennel is beautiful from early spring to late autumn. The dried seeds and the essential oil from them can be used all year round.

The Plant

Fennel is a member of the Apiacaea family but some still prefer the previous name of Umbelliferae, which describes its morphology very well. This family of plants is vast and contains some of our most popular herbs such as, dill, coriander, parsley and angelica as well as some common pot herbs, for example carrot, parsnips and celery. All the family are highly aromatic; fennel, like many others in this family, has an aniseed-like smell. The plant will grow in full sun or light shade and can reach a height of over six feet. Commercially, fennel is grown in Egypt, China, India, Bulgaria, France and Turkey.[1]

There is different coloured foliage available too from cool, bright green to red/brown, known as bronze. For this reason, fennel will fit in with 'cool' or 'hot' planting schemes. My bronze fennel has been in the border for 20 years. The tiny yellow flowers have a prominent stylopodium, which is rich in nectar and acts as a magnet to bees, butterflies and the harmless hoverfly, all of which help to pollinate other plants. The botanical name for fennel – Foeniculum vulgare comes from the Latin word foenum meaning hay. The Old English name is Fenkel.

The plant has a long history of medicinal uses going back into antiquity, indeed the sister plants dill (Anethum graveolens) and cumin (Cumin cyminum) held their value so well they are recorded in the Bible at Matthew 23:23 as being used to pay taxes. One of the conditions fennel is purported to cure is eye problems. This is attested to by the 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote –

"Above the lower plants it towers,
The Fennel with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore."

Other conditions managed by remedies made from fennel seeds, (vitae), were, coughs, obesity and digestive problems, especially 'windy' babies which in time gave rise to 'gripe water' with fennel seed as one of its constituents along with bicarbonate of soda and a sweet syrup. Dispelling wind and treating coughs with fennel seed tea still works today. Obesity problems can be assisted nowadays by chewing six or seven fennel seeds half an hour before eating a meal as part of a calorie controlled diet. This will aid digestion as fennel is carminative and a mild appetite suppressant. This was the reason for Roman soldiers carrying a pouch of fennel seeds on their belts as, on many occasions, there was not time to stop their march for food. Be careful though not to overdo it as it will result in a sore mouth.

Fennel tea for upset stomachs

1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
Boiling water
1 teaspoon of honey.

Place the fennel seeds in a small teapot and pour on boiling water. Cover and leave the liquid to infuse for about five minutes. Serve with the honey if preferred. Alternatively, fennel tea bags are available in chemists and health food stores.

The Oil

Fennel essential oil contains ketones and anethol, chemical constituents which are not suitable for all of us. I would recommend therefore that fennel essential oil is not used for children, pregnant women or people with epilepsy unless they are receiving treatment mixes from a qualified aromatherapist.

That aside, fennel oil diluted in low doses is very useful. The essential oil is obtained by steam distillation of the crushed vitae. It has a dominant aroma and this is another reason for low dilution rates because the smell can overpower other oils in the blend. Its actions are anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, carminative and a circulatory stimulant.

Fennel and Geranium (Pelargonium graviolens) skin cleanser

5 drops geranium
5 drops fennel
100 ml unscented base lotion.

Drop the essential oils into the lotion and blend together by shaking well.

Apply the lotion evenly over the face before removing with clear warm water or damp cotton pads.

Fennel and Lavender (Lavandular angustifolia) cream for joints

5 drops fennel
10 drops lavender
50 ml of unscented base cream.

Stir the essential oils into the cream making sure they are mixed in really well.

Gently massage the affected joints in the morning after applying warm compresses to the area. Like fennel, lavender is also anti inflammatory and analgesic and this will give much comfort for around two hours.

The next time you are contemplating buying a new plant for the border, consider the common garden fennel because this statuesque plant is beautiful to look at as well as easy to care for and will give the spectacular appearance of a firework all autumn long.


1. BMHA. British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. 1996. British Herbal Medicine Association. Guildford. ISBN 0 903032 10 4. 1996.


Price S and L. Aromatherapy for Health Professionals. Churchill Livingstone. London. ISBN 0 443 06210 2. 1999.
Ingram T. Umbellifers. The Hardy Plant Society. Great Comberton, Worcs. ISBN 0 901687 07 3. 2002.
Grieve MA. Modern Herbal. Tiger Books International. London. ISBN 1 85501 249 9. 1994.
Lawless J. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Element Books. Dorset. ISBN 1-85-230-721-8. 1995.


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About Barbara Payne

Barbara Payne taught clinical aromatherapy in various hospitals in the North of England, for School of Health, University of Hull, and was principal of an IFA and IFPA accredited college of clinical aromatherapy, for many years. She served as an inspector and examiner and was Chair of Education for the ISPA, (now IFPA). Barbara had regular interviews with BBC radio and appeared on national television occasionally and lectured annually for the RHS. Having contributed to Positive Health over many years, Barbara has now decided to retire from her PH Expert Regular Column after Issue 154 in Jan 2009. She can be reached on Tel: 01482 835358;

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