Fennel is a flowering Mediterranean plant (also known as Florence fennel) with an anise-like flavoring often found in Italian classics like finocchio sausage and delicious spiced cookies. Find out the health benefits of the fennel flower here, plus learn how easy it is to grow your own at home.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is part of the Apiaceae or carrot family of plants. It is a perennial herb with feathery leaves and small yellow flower heads, and while it's native to the Mediterranean, it can now be found all over the world from Asia and Australia to southern Europe, Canada, and the United States.
Wild fennel is a rather invasive species you may have seen growing along highways and in drainage ditches. Its leaves are natural plant food for the larval stages of certain Lepidoptera species like the mouse moth and the Old-World swallowtail butterfly.
A culinary herb for humans as well, fennel plants can be eaten from seed to bulb, and carry a licorice-like flavor that provides a soothing essential oil aroma. Whether you enjoy the spice of fennel seeds or fennel tea made by steeping fennel leaves, there are certain health benefits that have been scientifically linked to the fennel flower plant. And you don't want to miss out on them!
The nutritional aspects of fennel can be found in every part of the plant, from roots to bulbs to stem bases to seeds to flowers and even to the fennel pollen contained within them. Here's the comparative profile between 1 raw fennel bulb and 1 tablespoon of dried fennel seeds to show you the similarities and subtle differences throughout the plant.
The vitamin C in fennel is a natural antioxidant that fights free radicals in the body, boosts the immune system's performance, and aids in collagen health and tissue repair. The manganese is an essential mineral needed for blood sugar regulation, metabolism function and more. Plentiful in other minerals like calcium and potassium for bone health, plant foods such as fennel provide boons to your health. How exactly? Read on for the scientifically proven impact fennel's nutritional profile provides.
The Health Benefits of Fennel Flower Plants
Here are the details on how fennel flower foods impact your health.
1. Heart Health
The fiber in fennel bulbs and seeds can help reduce risk factors for heart disease like high cholesterol and high blood pressure. With 3 grams of fiber in a 1-cup serving of the bulb, you get 11% of the daily recommended value of fiber for adults, which has been proven to aid heart health over and over again. This 2013 study shows that the risk for heart disease goes down as fiber intake increases, a 9% reduction for every 7 grams of fiber consumed.
Additionally, the calcium, potassium, and magnesium in fennel products are vital to the everyday workings of a healthy heart, with evidence showing that potassium in particular helps reduce high blood pressure.
2. Appetite Suppression
Fiber has a known filling effect, specifically soluble fiber that swells with water and slows down your digestion, and insoluble fiber that bulks up your food, feeds your good gut bacteria as a prebiotic, and adds comfortable density to your stools. Studies have proven that those who consume fennel seeds just before eating feel less hunger and reduce their calorie intake during a meal.
3. Breastfeeding Aid and Menopausal Relief
For women, there are some extra beneficial properties of fennel. The first helps breastfeeding mothers: the galactogenic aspect of fennel helps increase breastmilk production. Specifically, anethole (also found in anise) may help increase prolactin, a hormone that promotes lactation and breast milk production. Just be sure to ask your doctor first before taking anything that may impact your infant's nutrition.
For menopausal women, fennel may help again. According to this 2018 meta-analysis, fennel may relieve the most uncomfortable symptoms of menopause (including hot flashes, disturbed sleep, vaginal dryness and itching, and pain during sexual intimacy), while also improving the sexual desire and function of women going through "the change" in their hormones.
For whatever phase of life adult women are in, fennel may help them with these unique health concerns.
4. Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants
Fennel contains polyphenols like quercetin, chlorogenic acid, apigenin, and rosmarinic acid, all of which are antioxidants found in the essential oil made from fennel flower plants.
Antioxidants are compounds that fight free radical damage in the body, lowering inflammation and thereby decreasing the likelihood that you'll suffer unnecessary discomfort and reducing the exacerbation of conditions as diverse as type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
Fenchone, limonene, methyl chavicol, and anethole in fennel products have shown antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-cancer properties that also benefit human health and combat the worst symptoms of chronic diseases.
5. Anti-Cancer Abilities
More specifics regarding the cancer-fighting properties of the fennel flower plant come from anethole again, which may suppress cancer cell growth and even induce cell death (apoptosis) in breast cancer cells.
To be clear, these are results from test tube and animal studies of cancer cells (including liver cancer in mice), so while these effects have not been seen directly in living human patients, they are nevertheless indicative of the anti-cancer potential of fennel products.
While fennel plant consumption is largely natural and safe, concentrated fennel compounds in supplements could cause unforeseen reactions, particularly in those who are already on prescribed medication. Fennel may have an estrogen-like effect on some, which on one hand helps relieve menopausal symptoms, but may disrupt the normal functions of women on birth control or who are pregnant.
Essentially, eating fennel is considered safe, but taking any supplement should be done with caution if you are on any other medications or are in a state in which you need to be on high alert, such as if you are pregnant.
Grow Your Own Fennel
Flowering Florence fennel plants (F. vulgare var. azoricum) are not only beautiful, but they also serve as a culinary flavor and a natural health food, just like coriander and caraway plants. Fennel plants are best grown in cool seasons, ideal for those who miss their summer garden, though with long taproots under those bulbs, they do better outside than when potted indoors.
For planting, soak the seeds for a few days so they'll sprout, place your fennel seeds in a spot where they'll get full sun, with about a foot of space in between them. Keep the ground moist, and in about 90 days they should begin to grow, providing you with your very own herb garden.
For harvesting, there are a few methods to know:
- Fennel pollen: Snip the blooming heads of fennel blossoms, put them in a fresh paper bag, and leave them to dry in a warm, safe place in your home. After a week or so, shake up that bag to effortlessly separate pollen from petals.
- Seeds: If you're after fennel seeds, clip the flowers and allow them to dry for about two weeks in a bowl or tray. Once the flowers turn brown, the ones that haven't fallen out naturally will be easy to dust off by hand, collect, and use in baking recipes and healthy smoothies.
- Fennel leaves: The leaves can be harvested from fennel as soon as they appear, just be sure not to take too many (so that the plant can continue to grow). These can be used to make tea, as can boiling/steeping the roots and other parts of the plant that remain after you take the seeds and pollen from the flowers.
- Edible bulbs: These can be harvested when they're about the size of a small tennis ball, late summer or early autumn, with no panic needed if a frost comes in too soon—these plants are sturdy.
Fennel can be decorative, tasty, and healthy. In one plant you can eat, drink, and be merry by consuming the bulbs, steeping the leaves, and enjoying the aroma of this herb. The health benefits include anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and heart-healthy properties, and women especially may find fennel to be particularly beneficial when they need it during their most important transitions.