Saturday, February 23, 2013

Legendary fennel

Fennel is a hardy perennial plant native to the Mediterranean that is now found growing in many parts of the world especially in countries that were colonised by the Romans. It prefers dry areas near the seacoast and riverbanks. In Malta it is very common especially along country roads and paths.

The flowers are small and yellow and grow at the tip of a stalk in the form of an umbrella-shaped floret. The plant often grows up to two and a half metres high.

The word fennel came from the Middle English word fenel which is derived from the Old English word fenol which came from Latin feniculum, the diminutive of fenum meaning ‘hay’.
The plant was recorded as one of the nine species that could be invoked in the 10th century Old English Nine Herbs Charm.

In Ancient Greek fennel was called marathon and is said to be the origin of the place name Marathon, the site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The marathon race, comes from the legend of a Greek soldier who ran all the way from Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in this battle. He ran the distance of 26 miles without stopping but collapsed of exhaustion immediately after delivering the message. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is said to have used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the Gods although in my opinion the Greeks were referring to another species, the giant fennel, that has a thicker stalk which is more likely to burn and smoulder. The giant fennel is known as the plant from which the Bacchanalian wands of the god Dionysus and his followers were made.

In Maltese fennel is known as busbies, a word of Semitic origin while in Italian it is known as finocchio. The Florence fennel has thick leaf bases and is cultivated as a vegetable to be eaten raw especially with salads.

This article was published in The Times on 22 July 2009.

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