Fragrant Plants in Legend, Lore and Myth-Fennel by Caroline Catharine Wilkinson

Fennel by Caroline Catharine Wilkinson



Foeniculum vulgare.
(Anethum foeniculum of LINN.)

Welsh, Ffenigl. French, Fenouil. German, Fenchel.
Spanish, Hinojo. Italian, Finocchio, or Finocchino.
Dutch, Fenekell.


Pentandria, Umbettiferce.


" MIRIE it is, in time of June,
"When fenil hangith abrode in toun ;"

Thus says the old English romance, as given by Ellis ;
and though doubtless the custom of hanging it in
the streets was partly observed on account of the
fresh and pretty green of the fennel-leaves, yet, as I
have already shewn, in speaking of the plant last de-
scribed, it possessed a greater charm from the sup-
posed power of the plant to keep off evil spirits, and
other such "bugges." In the south of France it
is usual, in addition to placing it over the doors, to
strew it around the bed, and to lay it under the
pillow, especially on the eve of St. John.*

The fennel is a British plant, growing plentifully
on chalky cliffs near the sea, more especially in the
south-east counties of England. It is the true fen-
nel of the garden, such as is used as sauce or garnish
to fish, and which, as such, is too well known to
need description. But there are several other species
known under the generic name of Anethum (or
dill), taken from the Greek word signifying to burn
(from the warm and aromatic qualities of the tribe),
while the specific name is said to be derived from
the Latin foenum, hay, from some fancied resem-
blance to that substance in the smell. Large quan-
tities of fennel-seed are imported into this country,
where they are employed in the manufacture of gin,
and also in medicine as a harmless carminative, very
much resembling anise-seed in its qualities, the two
plants being nearly allied. The infusion of fennel-
seed, in all its species, is generally known as dill-
water, and is greatly prized by nurses as a " baby-
medicine," though apparently, if there be any truth
in expression of countenance, not so fully appreci-
ated by the poor little babies themselves. It is also
much given to sickly lambs in rainy and cold sea-
sons. Gerarde recommends a decoction of the green
leaves, or seed, to nursing mothers ; and he attri-
butes to the boiled roots an efficacy in dropsy, being,
as he says, " equall in virtues with armisse-seede,"
and good for the liver and lungs. He also recom-
mends that the powdered seed be drunk " for cer-
taine daies together fasting/' in order to preserve
the eyesight, quoting the old monkish couplet :

" Fceniculum, rosa, verbena, chelidonia, ruta,
Ex his fit aqua quce lumina reddit acuta :"

which he thus translates :

" Of fennell, roses, veruain, rue, and celandine,
Is made a water good to cleere the eine."

This was a very prevalent belief of old, when it
was even supposed that the knowledge of its efficacy
in cases of blindness extended to the serpent tribe,
who were said to eat it in order to restore their
sight ; as is asserted in the following list of the vir-
tues of the fennel, extracted from the "Stockholm
Manuscript :"

" As sayth Mayster Macrobius,
Fenel is erbe precyows,
In somer he growyth hey [high] et grene,
And beryth his sed, semly to sene,
It is no nede hym to dis-crye [describe]
Iche man hy knowyth at eye,
Good is his sed, so is his rote
And to many thyngys bote ; [useful*]
Ye sed is good fastende to ete,
And ek in dragef after mete

Ageyn wyckid huores [? humours] et bolyng [swellings]
Ageyn wyckid wynd et many oyer thyng ;
Water of fenel to a plyth [apply]
Is wonder holsu [wholesome] for he syth ; [sight]
Medeled [mingled] wt. water of roset
Half in aporcin [in equal quantities] nothyng bet. [better]
Fenel in pottage et in mete
Is good to done, whane yu schalt ete
All grene, loke it be corwy [cut, e.g., "cow," Scotch] small
In what mete yu usyn schall,
In what drynk yu use it sekyrly
It is good for ye pose et sucke.

Whanne the neddere [adder] is hurt in eye
Ye rede [ready] fenel is hys prey
And zif he mo we [mouth] it fynde
Wonderly he doth hys kynde,
He schall it chowe [chew] wonderly

And leyn [lays] it to hys eye kindlely
Ye jows [juice] schall sawg [? save] and helyn ye eye,
Yat be forn [before] was sick et feye [feeble]
A medicyne is yet for eyere bote
To take jows of fenkel rote
And droppg i ye eyne bothe ewe et morwe [at eve and on the
Ye peyne xal [shall] slake et ye sorwe [sorrow]."

Pomet in his "History of Druggs" assures us that
confectioners "take clusters of the green fennel,
which, when covered with sugar they sell to make
the breath sweet, for the green is reckoned to be of
the greatest virtue/' while the seed, he adds, is laid
between olives, in order to give the oil a fine taste."
And the Arabs of the present day employ it as an
article of food rather than as a mere condiment,
rolling up and stewing minced meat in its leaves,
and using the stalks as a vegetable.

Over a great part of Southern Europe the anethum
is an object of culture and commercial value, a fact
which may be faintly traced in the idiomatic ex-
pression of the Italians ; " voglio la mia parte fino
al finocchio/' for " I will have every farthing of the
money/' Both in Italy and in Spain it is added to
various beverages, and is considered agreeable and
wholesome; just as the ancients believed that its
constant presence in their food not only imparted
bodily health, and longevity, but gave strength and
courage to those who partook of it ; an idea which
has been embellished by Longfellow, who deduces
from it a moral.

" Filled is life's goblet to the brim,
And though my eyes with tears are dim,
I see its sparkling bubbles swim,
And chant a melancholy hymn,
With solemn voice and slow.

No purple flowers no garlands green,
Conceal the goblet's shade or sheen,
Nor maddening draughts of Hyppocrene
Like gleams of sunshine, flash between
Thick leaves of misletoe.

The goblet wrought with curious art,
Is filled with waters that upstart
From the deep fountains of the heart
By strong convulsions rent apart,
And running all to waste.

And as it mantling passes round,
With fennel is it wreathed and crowned,
Whose seed and foliage sun-embrowned
Are in its waters steeped and drowned,
And give a bitter taste.

Above the lowly 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.

It gave men strength, and fearless mood,
And gladiators fierce and rude
Mingled it with their daily food,
And he who battled and subdued,
A wreath of fennel wore.

Then in life's goblet freely press
The leaves that give it bitterness,
Nor prize the coloured water less,
For in thy darkness and distress

New light and strength they give.

And he who has not learned to know
How false its sparkling bubbles shew,
How bitter are the drops of woe
With which its brim may overflow,
He has not learned to live.

The prayer of Ajax was for light
Through all that dark and desperate fight,
The blackness of that noonday night,
He asked but the return of sight
To see his foeman's face.

Let our increasing, earnest prayer
Be too for light -for strength to bear
Our portion of the weight of care
That crushes into dumb despair

One half the human race.

Oh suffering, sad humanity ;
Oh ye afflicted ones, who lie
Steeped to the lips in misery,
Longing, and yet afraid to die,

Patient, tho' sorely tried !

I pledge you in this cup of grief
Where floats the fennel's bitter leaf,
The battle of our life is brief
The alarm the struggle the relief,
Then sleep we side by side."

The fennel is widely distributed as a native plant ;
while its dissemination is increased by its pertinacity
in following human migrations. This is remarkably
exemplified in Brazil, to which it has been imported
from Europe, and in which it now appears, as we are
told by Darwin,* as a constant weed in the vicinity
of the towns. Mr. Ainsworth mentions a curious
fact with regard to its occurrence in Chaldsea, where
above Umrah, on the Kuriki mountain, two species
occur, each of which is respectively confined to a
single side of the mountain. The plant is of immense
importance to the Kurdish inhabitants of the dis-
trict, growing, as it does, in the utmost abundance
almost at the snow time, and constituting, when
dried, the principal winter provender of their cattle ;
while its stems, gathered just as they issue from the
ground, form a large proportion of the food of the
villagers, or, when chopped and steeped in sour
milk, furnish them with a wholesome drink which
they highly value for its fine aromatic flavour. On
the borders of the Siberian steppes it occurs very
plentifully, attaining (according to Mr. Atkinson)
to a height of ten or twelve feet, in favourable