This plant is now at its most abundant in the Midi, filling the roadsides and fallow fields with clouds of yellow umbels at my head height, and filling the air with its aroma. The name in English, French (fenouil) and Occitan (fenolh) comes from the Latin faeniculum, or little hay (faena), perhaps from the shape of the leaves. I assumed that Le Fenouillèdes, the region of the Pyrenees just inland from Perpignan, was named for this pant which is abundant there in the hilly garrigue, but the website of the Roussillon area insists it comes from the Latin name pagus fenolletensis, meaning ‘haymaking area’.
All parts of the plant have a strong, sharp tang of aniseed and all can be eaten. I love using the leaves and seeds to stuff fish such as sea bass or bream, or to flavour mussel or potato dishes. I use the seeds a lot with pork dishes too. The swollen white bulb used as a vegetable comes from a cultivated variety of the same species, F.vulgare var. azoricum or var. dulce (Florence fennel) – some favourite recipes of mine are fennel risotto (I decorated a recent one with the flowers) and fennel fritters.
It is a plant with which mankind has kept close company for a very long time. In the first reference of this post to the Olympics, Greek athletes tried to keep slim and allay hunger by eating fennel shoots and seeds – its Greek name, máratho, comes from maraínome, to grow thinner. Looking at the slender stems, you can see why. It was associated with longevity, courage, strength and clear sight.
Fennel is also associated with some of the oldest elements in Greek myth and religion. The worship of Dionysus or Bacchus came originally as a fertility cult from Thrace at the dawn of Greek recorded history, but rapidly became associated with the vine and winemaking. I quote a fascinating little book called Herbs, trees and traditions of Cephalonia by Anna-Maria Simpson:
During the Dionysian festivals the attendants of Dionysus, the god of wine, each carried a wand made out of a large fennel stalk topped with a pine cone called a thyrsus. Fennel was used instead of wood because if, under the influence of wine, they had a quarrel they were unlikely to injure themselves.
Here’s a picture of a relief of Dionysus bearing a thyrsus. The fennel bulb, stalk and cone tip clearly also have phallic overtones (compensating for what the sculptor has given him elsewhere in this picture), not surprising in a fertility cult, and were often entwined with ivy and vine shoots – both fast-growing green shoots. The staff was thrown in the air during Bacchic dances.
The Dionysian ceremonies seemed to have two aspects – the ecstatic revelries with wine, and the later, more sober and spiritual Orphic rituals which had great influence on Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato. The latter is paraphrased by Bertrand Russell thus: ‘For many are the thyrsus-bearers, but few are the mystics… meaning the true philosophers who will dwell with the gods’.
Reading Richard Mabey’s quotation from The Englishman’s Doctor (1608), I wonder if fennel was carried as a kind of hangover cure:
Of Fennel vertues foure they do recite,
First it hath power some poysons to expell,
Next burning Agues will it put to flight,
The stomack it doth cleanse, and comfort well:
And fourthly, it doth keepe, and cleanse the sight.
When fennel is mentioned, the plant which may be referred to could sometimes be the giant fennel, or Ferula communis (shown above), a similar but larger plant from the same family, and one I’ve seen more often in the Aude. It can grow to 3 metres or more, and has stouter stems which become hard and woody, and which were used in Greece for furniture-making, and also as canes by schoolmasters (Shorter Oxford: ‘Ferula (2) rod, cane or instrument of punishment’) . Apparently the pith inside can burn while leaving the stem untouched – some say this is the origin of the Olympic torch (second and last mention). Legend also has it that when Prometheus stole the divine fire from the gods he hid the ember inside a giant fennel stalk.
This leads me to the strange story of an extinct and semi-mythical plant: Silphium, once so much the dominant product in pre-Roman times of what is now eastern Libya that the stem was featured on most coins from the port of Cyrene, such as this silver coin:
The exact identity of the plant is now unclear but it seems most likely that it was a species of giant fennel of the genus Ferula. It had been known to the Egyptians and most ancient cultures as a strong seasoning, and as a medicine – it stimulated abortions. This was before the days of food labelling. However, don’t worry now – the plant was harvested to extinction during the Roman era (and this contributed to the decline of Cyrene).
And this is what we did with what Prometheus brought in that fennel stalk – a sort of Dionysian revelry for you with the Ohio Players from 1975.