When I first began gardening 25 years ago, the variety of garden seeds was extremely limited. Heirloom vegetables were just beginning to make a come back and culinary herbs were seriously limited to a handful of the most popular types. Today, the number of seed varieties available to the average gardener is mind-boggling, which is wonderful if you love to garden. But for all the choices available to us, there is one small herb called fenugreek that is not only hard to come by, but one that has been almost entirely forgotten by gardeners, cooks, and herbalists in America.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is an ancient herb from the Legume or Fabaceae family. Depending on where you come from, it may also be referred to as bird’s foot, Greek hayseed, or goat’s horn. And while fenugreek is rarely seen in the modern garden, it’s versatility as an herb, spice, vegetable, and medicinal should bring it to the forefront of today’s modern homestead.
Unknown in most of the Western world, this diminutive herb is widely used in cooking in the Middle East, Germany, France, and the Mediterranean. It made it’s first appearance in the West during the early years of colonization, but has ever so slowly been forgotten by home gardeners and herbalists. The odd thing about this is that fenugreek is an incredibly useful and hardy plant. These days, fenugreek is grown primarily as an arid-land crop in India, Nepal, Argentina, France, and Spain. Because of it’s drought resistant properties and ability to grow in short- or long-season climates, fenugreek makes an excellent plant for xeriscaping in any part of the world. In addition, fenugreek’s tidy, upright habit and rounded, blue-green leaves make this herb quite attractive as an addition to perennial gardens and border plantings.
Fenugreek is a tender annual with lightly hairy, wiry, hollow stems and has a delicate, slender appearance. Plants may remain small if soil conditions aren’t just right, but more often plants reach up to 2 feet tall. Fenugreek’s ovate, trifoliate leaves (groups of three) are reminiscent of other members of the legume family, including clover, beans, and peas to which they are related. Their fragrant, cream-colored flowers are borne at the leaf axils and resemble those of common garden peas. The flowers produce thin, erect, 6″ (15 cm) pea-like pods that contain approximately sixteen angular – almost square – seeds. When ripe, the seeds are tan to yellow-brown and have a distinct, sweet maple smell and taste when crushed.
True fenugreek is sometimes confused with another related plant known as Blue Fenugreek, Sweet Trefoil, or Blue-white Clover (Trigonella caerulea). As its name implies, blue fenugreek has blue clover-like flowers, which makes it easy to differentiate from true fenugreek. Sometimes called the Curd Herb, many cultures have found blue fenugreek useful for curdling milk and it is often used in many of the same ways as true fenugreek.
While not many gardeners know about fenugreek, growing this delicious and flavorful herb is as easy as growing green beans. Select an area of the garden that gets full sun to light afternoon shade. Soil should be neutral to slightly acidic (5.3 to 8.2) and well-drained. Like other legumes, fenugreek does best when sown directly in the garden in mid-spring after all danger of frost has passed. If sown while the soil is too cold or too wet, growth will be slowed considerably. To speed germination, soak the seeds overnight and plant 1/4 inch deep and 2 to 4 inches apart. Allow 5-10 days for germination. Once seedlings are 2 inches tall, thin them to stand 5 to 6 inches (10 to 25 cm) apart.
Anyone who has ever shelled peas or dry beans already knows how to harvest fenugreek. Pick the pods after they turn from green to tan and the dry seeds can be heard rattling inside. Remove the seeds from the pod and spread them out in pans or on screens in the shade until they are very hard and completely dry. Never dry seeds in full sun, especially if you want to replant or sprout them. When seeds are completely dry, they will shatter when struck with a hammer. It is important to store dried seeds in a cool, dark place until ready to use or replant. Avoid storing seeds in glass jars to prevent mold from forming. Properly dried and stored seeds are viable for 2-3 years.
Many seeds and spices used to season food benefit from a brief heating technique called dry roasting, and fenugreek is no exception. Dried fenugreek seeds have a slightly bitter taste, but when quickly heated in a skillet the flavor becomes sweet and nutty. To dry-roast your fenugreek at home, simply preheat a heavy skillet over medium heat until a drop of water on its surface sizzles and evaporates quickly. Add whole or cracked fenugreek seeds all at once and stir continuously for about three to five minutes or until fragrant. Remove the seeds from the pan immediately. Once cooled, they can either be finely ground or soaked overnight and pulverized into a paste – much the way chickpeas are prepared. Keep in mind that any spice that has been dry-roasted will not store well for very long. It is better to roast small amounts as you need them.
The flavor of fenugreek blends wonderfully with all types of fruit, baked or stewed vegetables, meat, seafood, pastries, cookies, breads, pies, cream cheese, dressings, dips, spreads, and sauces. Widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine for thousands of years, fenugreek lends its unique flavor to curry powder blends, Bengali five-spice, and dishes such as chutney and halva. In North America and many other countries around the world, fenugreek is silently spicing up foods such as pickles and bread and is the flavoring of choice for maple-flavored foods, candies and syrups. Fenugreek is also used in imitation flavorings such as such as caramel, vanilla and butterscotch.
Aside from the seeds, the fresh or dried leaves of fenugreek are often used in dishes like curry, dahl, and chutney. In India, the greens are known as “methi”. The leaves also lend themselves to use in dishes of vegetables, rice, meats, soups, stews and eggs. Use untreated seed to grow sweet-spicy sprouts and micro-greens that are excellent in salads, slaws, and sandwiches. The young bean pods and stem tips can be eaten raw or lightly steamed. If the greens are over-mature, they can have a bitter taste. Soaking them in salted water for one hour helps reduce any bitterness.
Image by Thamizhpparithi Maari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
In addition to being edible, fenugreek is also medicinal and has been used by traditional healers the world over as an effective anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, digestive aid, emollient and hypotensive. It is often used today to stimulate lactation in nursing mothers and, ironically, to increase libido.
The seeds are very high (up to 40%) in mucilaginous fiber. This slippery substance acts as an emollient and anti-inflammatory and is used to soothe, soften, and protect irritated skin and mucous membranes. It is very useful for coughs, sore throats, and fever. A gargle made with fenugreek soothes a sore throat and is said to help ease the pain and inflammation of cold sores, canker sores and swollen taste buds, as well as reduce general pain and inflammation.
Fenugreek seed, approved by the German Commission E, is used in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease by reducing cholesterol absorption and triglyceride and blood sugar levels and by lowering high blood pressure. Crushed or powdered seeds are used to treat inflammations such as boils, cysts, bruises, sprains, and swollen glands, and they are often used as an emulsifier in food and drugs.
The chemical make-up of fenugreek is oddly similar to that of cod liver oil, and decoctions of fenugreek are used to treat constipation and other situations where cod liver oil might be used. The seed infusion is an excellent digestive aid.
Image by Takeaway – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54700071
The ground or powdered seeds of fenugreek can be encapsulated or taken directly by mouth with water in doses of 1 tsp. (5 g) with each meal, for a total of 4 tsp. (15 g) per day. Tincture seeds using the 1:5 ratio. The suggested dosage for tinctures is 1 to 2 ml, up to three times per day. To prepare a decoction, simmer up to 2 tsp. (7.4 g) of finely ground seed in 1 cup (237 ml) of water for twenty minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steep for an hour or more. Take 1 cup (237 ml) up to three times a day, adding anise seed or honey to improve the flavor. The crushed or ground seed is soaked in hot water or milk until soft and used as a poultice. (The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs: Growing & Using Nature’s Remedies, Jill Henderson, 2005)
Be aware that fenugreek seeds are a natural source of diosgenin, a bio-identical plant form of the female hormone progesterone. Traditional healers have used the herb to induce childbirth, therefore this herb should not be used by anyone who is, or may become, pregnant. In addition, insulin-dependent diabetics should consult their doctor before using fenugreek medicinally. Using more than 100 grams of fenugreek daily may cause mild intestinal upset, loose stools, and maple-scented urine or perspiration. There have been reports of incidences of mild skin irritation when used on the skin. Otherwise, fenugreek is considered to be an exceptionally safe medicinal herb.
With all of the wonderfully diverse properties that fenugreek brings to the table, it is amazing that more people don’t grow it. This simple little plant from the Legume family is a vegetable, herb, spice, and edible medicinal all rolled into one!
© 2017 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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