Sandy’s Garden ... Fennel

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

February is not a month which inspires me to spend long hours in my garden.

This is despite the fact that the long-term average rainfall statistics for the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) show that February is the second-driest month of the year, coming only a whisker behind April’s claim to the top spot. Sadly, although a typical February day will be dry, it will also be somewhat chilly, for sunshine is in short supply in the year’s second month. And, in common with its winter neighbours, February tends to be rather windy, so it’s not likely to be a month to tempt the average gardener to spend long hours cultivating the soil.

There are, of course, tasks which the enthusiastic gardener will undertake; and I turned to my trusty copy of The Gardener’s Monthly Directions, first published in 1688, to find out what advice was proffered to such an enthusiast and, indeed, to the professional gardener of the late seventeenth century. Here is that advice, with the original spellings and capital letters. “Now the Weather begins to alter, although sometimes January can be open and temperate, and this Month severely cold, yet for the most part the inclining of the Sun to the Vernal Equinox, doth produce a moderation od the past colds, and encourage the ingenious Gardener to trim his Trees, and stir his Ground, mixing his rotten Dung in the digging thereof, for the setting and sowing of Beans, Pease, Parsnips, Onions, Parsley, Spinage, Asparagus, Anniseeds, Corn-sallet, Fennel. Which, being sown early in a fair and open season, will come early, and prosper well.” (We would call Corn-sallet either corn salad or, more commonly, lamb’s lettuce.)

Of that list of vegetables the one which caught my eye was fennel, which I did try to grow some years ago with, I have to report, no great success. Wikipedia gives a usefully succinct description of fennel in these words: “Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a flowering plant species in the carrot family. It is a hardy, perennial herb with yellow flowers and feathery leaves. It is indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean but has become widely naturalized in many parts of the world.” Fennel is harvested from the wild and, more often nowadays, cultivated for its strongly-flavoured foliage and for its seeds. Its flavour is similar to that of aniseed, which is not surprising since it comes from an aromatic compound called anethole which is also found in aniseed and star anise. The leaves are most commonly used as a garnish in salads, in soups and fish sauce and to flavour sauces to be served with puddings; and fennel seed is widely used as a spice in the cuisine of Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East as well as many parts of India, where roasted fennel seeds are used much as we might use after-dinner mints to aid the digestion and to freshen the breath after a meal.

Fennel also has a long history of being used in many parts of the world to treat a wide variety of common ailments from gout and snakebite to coughs and even depression. I must point out, gentle reader, that I am neither advocating nor endorsing the use of fennel as a medicinal herb but merely reporting uses to which it has been put. The health properties of fennel are, I read, “warming, carminative, antispasmodic, antidepressant, stomachic, pectoral, diuretic, diaphoretic, aromatic, anti-microbial, pain reducing, fever reducing, and promote milk-flow in nursing mothers.” With such a catalogue of virtues, one might wonder that it is regarded as a weed in both Australia and the United States of America: but the originally-Mediterranean fennel has found conditions so much to its liking in much of northern Europe and great tracts of Asia as well as in the US and Oz that it has become invasive and difficult to eradicate from ground where it is unwelcome. But it didn’t seem to like my garden!