Dill, also known as bastard fennel, is an aromatic and medicinal plant used since ancient times. It’s becoming rarer in the wild, but fortunately, it can be reproduced from seeds, allowing it to be sown in the garden or grown in a balcony pot. Both the green parts and the seeds of dill are consumed. It’s used in cuisine as an aromatic herb and, due to its medicinal properties, finds various uses in herbal and phytotherapeutic fields.
Let’s explore dill, its characteristics, plant properties, and the right organic cultivation technique, along with its diverse uses.
Botanical Identification and History of Dill
Dill (Anethum graveolens) belongs to the botanical family of Apiaceae (Umbelliferae). The nomenclature of this species, through the Greek anethon, comes from the Egyptian aniemi, meaning ward off illness. This signifies its early recognition in folk medicine. The other term, graveolens, comes from the Latin gravis et olens, meaning intense odor. Its common name, bastard fennel, arises from its strong resemblance to wild fennel. Dill originates from a region between ancient Persia and India, where it grows naturally. It’s a plant naturalized in the Mediterranean area, though its wild growth here is increasingly rare. In Italy, it’s found in the wild on the Adriatic side, in uncultivated fields on hills up to 1000 meters.
Botanical Characteristics of the Dill Plant
Dill is an herbaceous plant with an annual (sometimes biennial) cycle. Its height varies from 20 cm to a meter. It has a thin, fibrous root that doesn’t extend more than 30 cm into the soil. From the base of the plant, erect, simple, hollow stems emerge, with faint longitudinal striations. The surface is smooth, and each stem branches at the apex, with few axillary branches. Dill leaves are dark green, alternating on the stems in a spiral arrangement. They are pinnately compound, appearing as filamentous segments. They possess a sheath embracing the stem itself and a midrib. Dill flowers are one of the plant’s distinctive features. They are gathered in typical compound umbrella-shaped inflorescences, also known as umbels of umbels. Consisting of 20-30 rays of varying lengths, they lack the involucre or involucres typical of umbellifers. These flowers are small, yellowish-green, hermaphroditic, and actinomorphic. Flowering occurs between June and July. It’s pollinated by insects, especially bees, given its nectar-rich nature. Between August and September (October), dill’s fruits, namely its seeds, mature. These are diachenes (two achenes fused along the central axis) and are also called dry schizocarpic fruits. They are very small, oval-shaped, flattened on the back, brown in color, with a smooth and glabrous surface. Upon maturity, they split into two parts. The seeds have excellent germination capacity, lasting for 2-3 years.
Dill requires a mild climate to develop properly. It prefers a warm and sunny environment, with spring temperatures that don’t drop too low. Therefore, when cultivating dill, choose a sunny area in your soil. However, ensure it’s sheltered from strong winds and not excessively humid. The plant can be grown in open fields or in pots. In the latter case, more attention is needed regarding irrigation, especially during the summer flowering months. In open fields, watering isn’t necessary unless it’s an excessively hot and dry season. In such cases, emergency irrigation is necessary. Another difference between field cultivation and potted cultivation is the plant’s size. Dill in fields grows vigorously, with rich and intense vegetation, easily reaching a meter in height. In pots, however, its size is limited and doesn’t attain significant heights.
Soil Preparation and Sowing
Dill prefers a sandy soil structure, with a good supply of organic matter and a neutral or slightly basic pH. Reproduction occurs through direct sowing, so the soil must be finely worked during the preparation phase. A light bottom dressing is recommended, using home compost or worm humus. The ideal period for sowing is late winter to early spring, between March and April. Sow the seeds in a scattered manner, burying them (if you don’t have preserved seeds from previous work, found here) with a rake to a depth of about 2-3 cm. Upon seed emergence, thin the plants, leaving about 15-20 plants per square meter. To prevent hybridization, it’s not advisable to sow dill near wild fennel. These two species are interfertile.
Among the cultivation care, the main focus is on weed defense, especially in the initial growth stages. To avoid competition issues between dill and weeds, it’s beneficial to use natural mulching with straw. Place this between the young plants when they reach 15-20 cm in height.
Harvesting and Storage
Both the green parts and the seeds of dill can be harvested. The harvest period varies according to use. Green parts are harvested pre-flowering, around June. Seeds, however, are collected towards the end of summer, when the plant starts yellowing and the flower umbels dry out. The seeds are obtained after threshing the inflorescences and can be stored in containers with airtight seals, such as a glass jar. The green parts can be dried in the shade and stored in paper bags. Fresh parts can also be preserved in the freezer.
Dill Properties and Medicinal Uses
Dill has been used since ancient times, not only for its distinct aroma but also for its medicinal properties. The ancient Egyptians valued it as a sedative while attributing magical significance to it. Proof of this is the discovery of dill seeds in the pharaohs’ tombs, symbolizing divinity. Today, dill’s use is confirmed in natural medicine, owing to the presence of anethole, a substance employed in pharmacies as an anthelmintic and carminative. Other properties of this plant include antispasmodic, antacid, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, stomachic, and antifermentative. These properties are exploited in herbal medicine to prepare infusions, fluid extracts, and tinctures. Dill infusion is excellent as a digestive aid and to combat insomnia. In Eastern European countries, it’s used to recover from heavy drinking. Another curious use of dill is chewing the seeds to combat bad breath. Dill also yields an essential oil, which comes in two types. The first is derived from immature fruits and flower tops, extensively used in the food industry to flavor pickles, dressings, potato chips, candies, and chewing gum. The second is dill seed essential oil, primarily used in soap and perfume industries. If you lack the means to cultivate it in your home garden, here you can find an excellent products based on dill.
Uses of Dill in Cuisine
The most common and straightforward use of dill is in the kitchen. As mentioned, dill’s aroma resembles that of fennel but is much more intense and penetrating. In cooking, it flavors various dishes using both fresh or dried green parts and mature seeds. Young plants can be consumed as they are, seasoned with lemon and Italian organic extra-virgin olive oil (like this one). Chopped fresh dill is instead ideal for flavoring soups, stews, and main courses based on meat and fish. The green parts also shine in accompanying boiled potatoes, fresh cheeses, and for preparing special sauces.
Mature seeds (whole or ground) are widely used in preserves, for example, in olive oil-crushed olives or in vinegar-pickled cucumbers. Dill’s delicate aroma is also exploited in pastry and for making liqueurs.