Fennel & Fenugreek

Fennel SeedsGrowing seeds for healthy, flavorful herbal teas.

When your culinary-conscious and sustainably minded Planet Natural blogger needs seed for cooking, he usually buys them, already dry, from one of our fine herb stores. They’re used to spice-up some homemade dishes, say flavoring some Middle Eastern cooking with the sharp, licorice flavor of anise or adding some zing to a curry with cilantro seed. When we want to save seeds from our garden, it’s usually for saving some particular heirloom favorite, and most often one of the more easily collected like tomato, cucumber, or winter squash.

This year, though, we’re planning to save some particular seeds for culinary use and for making delicious herbal teas. One is fennel, a plant we’ve previously grown for its blanched bulb and feathery leaves. The other, fenugreek, is one we’ve only recently tried growing (see full disclosure below). The decision to grow our own seed came the same way we’ve pretty much decided to grow all we can of other vegetables and herbs for ourselves. We want to control the growing conditions — in other words, we want to make sure they’re grown organically –and, well, homegrown, whether tomatoes or coriander, is always more flavorful (and certainly more fresh).

The other factor is that we’ve started to use fennel and fenugreek seed in preparing teas. Our local herb guru, a friend with a pretty impressive garden, recommended both seeds be added to licorice and sometimes ginger-based tea formulas to aid digestion. He began explaining other medicinal benefits as well. He suggested that fennel might also help against my family disposition to high blood pressure. He stated that my wife would be more prone to accepting a kiss after I indulged in fennel seeds or tea than she would after that other great blood pressure home remedy: garlic. Did I mention that he’s a funny guy? Must be all that herbal tea he drinks.

Fenugreek seed is also traditionally believed to aid the heart, ward off diabetes, and lower cholesterol. In India, it’s been used for centuries to stimulate lactation in nursing mothers (WARNING: do not drink fenugreek tea when pregnant… consult a doctor about drinking ANY herbal tea during pregnancy).

The medicinal claims for the teas are well and good, but true or not, we’ve found the seeds to make both a tasty and refreshing drink. And that’s reason enough for making it. So we wanted to grow our own seeds for making them.

We’ve grown fennel before. It’s not hard if you have a long enough growing season. A perennial plant in hardiness zones up to six, it needs as much as 100 days to reach maturity, at least that much if you’re growing it for seed. We’ve not had much luck starting it indoors and then trying to transplant. The best methods are to start them indoors in over-sized peat pots and then gently set them in the ground without disturbing the soil around the root.

One year, we started a couple plants in pots inside our mud room, rolling them outside on warm, sunny days. It was a lot of work. But we did get flowers well before the first fall frost. If you try some sort of variation on this method, be sure to use a deep pot. Fennel puts out a long tap root. You”ll also want to provide it with lots of compost no matter where you plant it. Undernourished fennel is scrawny and might even droop.

It doesn’t take long for those little yellow flowers to turn to seed pods. They’ll be green at first. After they’ve turned brown you can easily harvest the seed by cutting the stems and hanging them upside down in a well ventilated place. Put a small brown paper bag over the seed head and shake. The seeds will fall into the bag for collection. You’ll also need to use your fingers to get all the stray hanging seeds to fall into the bag. You”ll need to plant a lot of fennel to get a year’s supply of tea seed. But a little bit will make for special cups of tea.

Fenugreek is remarkably easy to grow (PDF). I’d used it as a sprouting seed for years before I tried planting some. Some people think that fenugreek sprouts are a bit bitter. We prefer to think of them as peppery. If you grow them with other microgreens — radish, alfalfa, maybe some lentil seeds. It’s great to grow in containers but you’ll need one at least 12 inches deep .

You can grow a lot of fenugreek in a one-foot-by-one-foot garden square. Make sure the soil is well-drained and has plenty of organic matter worked in. In two or three weeks, when the seedling are a couple inches high, thin them out. Use the thinning as greens in your salads or dry the leaves to use in leaf tea.

Surprisingly, fenugreek is relatively drought tolerant… must be its Mediterranean origins. Near the end of summer, it will start to grow long seed pods. Pay attention. Not long after they turn brown — the time to harvest — they’ll split and the seeds will fall to earth. Gather up the seed pods before that happens, split them open over a bowl, and use your thumbs to push the seeds out of the pods. Spread them out on a cookie sheet for further drying — this won’t take long if conditions are right — gently moving them around every day.

There are lots of ways to use fenugreek seeds in your cooking. It’s especially important for Indian dishes. Fennel seeds can be used in everything from scones to rubs for barbecuing meats.

Here’s the tea recipe my herbalist friend gave me, one designed to aid digestion, help lower blood pressure, cleanse the liver and be tasty to boot. (We can only guarantee the tasty part.) Variations are possible and you can always add more hot water in your cup if you find it too strong. This recipe will yield a very strong cup of tea.

Boil four to five cups water in a pan then add a teaspoon of dried ginger root and a tablespoon of dried fenugreek seed. Let it simmer lightly for three minutes. After turning off the heat, add a teaspoon of dried licorice root, a teaspoon of dried fennel seed, and, if you like (for flavor) a teaspoon of dried mint. Let steep for at least five minutes. Add honey to sweeten, but not too much. Leftover tea can be stored in the refrigerator for a day or two. Enjoy.

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