History of Fennel
Its origins date all the way back to the Mediterranean where it is called marathon in Greece, a name derived from the word ’maraino’, meaning to grow thin. Fennel was recommended as an herb for weight reduction, "to make people more lean that are too fat," according to the seventeenth century herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper. He considered fennel to be an herb of Mercury, under the sign of Virgo. In Chinese and Hindu cultures fennel was ingested to speed the elimination of poisons from the system, particularly after snakebite and scorpion stings.
As one of the ancient Saxon people's nine sacred herbs, fennel was credited with the power to cure what were then believed to be the nine causes of disease. Fennel was also valued as a magic herb. In the middle ages it was draped over doorways on Midsummer's Eve to protect the household from evil spirits. As an added measure of protection, the tiny seeds were stuffed into keyholes to keep ghosts from entering the room.
Fennel was first introduced to North America by Spanish missionaries for cultivation in their medicinal gardens. Fennel escaped cultivation from the mission gardens, and is now known in California as wild anise. English settlers brought the herb with them to the New England colonies where it became part of their kitchen gardens. In Puritan folk medicine fennel was taken as a digestive aid. The herb is still found growing on the sites of these early English settlements. This attractive, aromatic and sun-loving herb thrives on roadsides, embankments, sea cliffs, and in dry, stony fields.
The seeds, leaves, and roots of fennel are safe and edible. The essential oil, extracted from the seeds, is toxic even in small amounts. Fennel has been widely used in culinary and medicinal preparations for centuries.
The herb acts as a carminative, and was traditionally employed as a digestive aid and remedy for flatulence. An infusion or decoction of the dried seeds is anti-spasmodic and will ease stomach pains and speed up the digestion of fatty foods. Fennel is a proven remedy for colic in infants, and is safe when administered as a mild infusion of the leaf and seed. It is also used for coughs and colds. Fennel exerts a calming influence on the bronchial tissues.
The seeds contain large amounts of the phytochemical alpha-pinene, which acts as an expectorant and helps to loosen phlegm in the lungs. An eye-wash, prepared from a decoction of the crushed seeds, is said to improve eyesight and reduce irritation and eye-strain. The seed, when boiled in barley water, acts to increase the flow of breast milk in nursing mothers. A leaf and seed tea has been used to expel hookworm and kill intestinal bacteria. Fennel has also been used to promote appetite. The entire herb is used in culinary dishes, and the fleshy sheaths surrounding the base of the leaf stems are a staple in Italian cuisine. The foliage, known as fennel weed, is used to flavor eggs, fish, stews, and vegetables. The root is sometimes grated fresh and added to salads..
Health Benefits of Fennel
Vitamin C, the most active vitamin in fennel (17% of the daily value), has the strength to zap free radicals looking for a place to cause damage in the body, usually in the form of inflammation, which could lead to joint degeneration and arthritis. Other prominent vitamins and minerals in fennel include potassium, an electrolyte that fights high blood pressure, and folate, which helps convert potentially dangerous molecules called homocysteine into a benign form.
The dietary fibre in fennel limits cholesterol build-up, absorbs water in the digestive system, and helps eliminate carcinogens from the colon, possibly preventing colon cancer. Several other nutrients play supportive roles, namely manganese, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper.
The long, graceful fronds above the fennel bulbs contain a number of important vitamins, such as pantothenic acid, pyridoxine (vitamin B6), niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin. Phytonutrients in fennel seeds and bulbs include the flavonoids rutin, quercitin, and kaempferol, all antioxidants which resist infection, aging, and degenerative neurological diseases.
But the most important nutrient in this vegetable might be anethole, a component in the volatile oil of fennel and one of the most powerful agents against cancer occurrence, possibly due to a biological mechanism that shuts down or prevents the activation of NF-kappaB, a gene-altering, inflammation-triggering molecule.
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