Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Photo © Steven Foster


Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) in the parsley family (Apiaceae) is a tall perennial native to the Mediterranean region, now cultivated worldwide as an annual or perennial.1 Two varieties of fennel are often used, common or bitter fennel and sweet fennel.1 

History and Traditional Use

The modern uses of fennel in the United States and Germany stem from its traditional use in Greek medicine by Hippocrates and later by Dioscorides.2 Pliny the Elder recommended it for improving eyesight.3 Traditionally, fennel fruit and oil were used to relieve gas, to treat stomach trouble, and for inflammation of the upper respiratory tract.1 Traditional Chinese medicine also utilizes fennel to treat cholera, backache, bedwetting, and severe snakebites.1 The oil can prevent pathogenic fungi from infecting stored fruits and vegetables.3 Tea made from crushed fennel seeds has been used as an eyewash.3 

Modern Medicinal Use

The dried ripe fruit (or seed) and the oil that is obtained by steam distillation have similar medicinal applications. Both fennel seed and oil are approved by the German Commission E for stomach spasms, fullness, and gas, and for inflammation of the upper respiratory tract.4 In Europe, fennel syrup is approved for inflammation of the upper respiratory tract in children.5 The current Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia (plants used in traditional Indian medicine) recommends fennel for anorexia, gassy colic in children, and dyspepsia (painful digestion).6 The Chinese pharmacopoeia acknowledges the use of fennel in vomiting, diarrhea, and severe menstrual cramps.7 Fennel oil contains compounds with estrogenic effects such as stimulating lactation (milk flow) and menstruation..8 

Modern Consumer Use

Both the bitter and sweet fennel oils are used as fragrance components in creams, lotions, perfumes, soaps, and detergents.1 Fennel fruit can also be found in herbal teas or honey syrup. Sweet fennel is used in a variety of food and beverage products, including alcoholic drinks, meats, baked goods, processed vegetables,1 pickles, and candies.3 


1 Leung AY., Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley-Interscience; 1996.

2 Tanira MOM, Shah AH, Mohsin A, et al. Pharmacological and toxicological investigations on Foeniculum vulgare dried fruit extract in experimental animals. Phytother Res 1996;10:33&endash;6. Cited in: Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, editors. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.

3 DerMarderosian A, Beutler JA. The Review of Natural Products: The Most Complete Source of Natural Product Information. 3nd ed. St Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons; 2002.

4 Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, Gruenwald J, Hall T, Riggins CW, Rister RS, editors. Klein S, Rister RS, translators. The Complete German Commission E Monographs3Ž4Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Boston: Integrative Medicine Communication; 1998.

5 ESCOP. "Foeniculi aetheroleum" and "Foeniculi fructus." Monographs on the

Medicinal Uses of Plant Drugs. Exeter, U.K.: European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy 1997.

6 Karnick CR. Pharmacopoeial Standards of Herbal Plants. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications; 1994.

7 Tu G, editor. Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China (English Edition) Beijing: Guangdong Science and Technology Press; 1992.

8 Malini T, et al. Indian Journal Physiol Pharmacol 1985; 29:21.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 Disclaimer: These pages are presented solely as a source of INFORMATION and ENTERTAINMENT and to provide stern warnings against use where appropriate. No claims are made for the efficacy of any herb nor for any historical herbal treatment. In no way can the information provided here take the place of the standard, legal, medical practice of any country. Additionally, some of these plants are extremely toxic and should be used only by licensed professionals who have the means to process them properly into appropriate pharmaceuticals. One final note: many plants were used for a wide range of illnesses in the past, but be aware that many of the historical uses have proven to be ineffective for the problems to which they were applied.

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