Sunday, November 8, 2020

Plant Story--Dill, The Strong-Smelling Herb

Dill (Anethum graveolens, celery family Apiaceae) is one of the spices that is always in my kitchen. It is my go-to spice when the salad seems repetitious or the potatoes dull. (Generally, an herb is used fresh, while a spice is dried. Dill is both an herb and a spice.) This is a plant from southern Europe that has been cultivated since at least 400 BCE, the date of the archaeological site in Switzerland where it was found. 

Dill, Anethum graveolens
Dill in seed

Dill is usually described as an annual, but, in my garden, it often grows for two years before flowering and distributing seeds. I planted it years ago in the vegetable garden and, now and then, find plants showing up in other flower beds. The plants are pretty but not dramatic, with fine feathery leaves. The flowers are yellow but tiny, developing into umbels of round flat fruits, each of which contains two seeds.

From its origins in southern Europe, dill became a great favorite with the Romans. They thought it enhanced vitality, and encouraged gladiators to eat large quantities. The Romans carried dill north to England, where it naturalized. It reached Scandinavia about that time and, there, became an important part of the cuisine. It also went around the Old World, becoming part of Asian cuisines and medicines from India to China long ago.

dill Anethum graveolens

Our modern name, dill, is based on dilli of Old German, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (an entry not updated since 1896), a word whose meaning, if indicating something other than the plant, is unknown. Other sources, apparently quoting Prior (1870) derive the name from the Old Norse dilla, "to lull," and Prior says that refers to its carminative (flatulence-reducing) properties that cause children to sleep. Since Roman times, dill, especially the seed boiled in water, has been used to treat inflamations, calm the stomach, stop vomiting, and move urine. Chewing dill seeds cleans bad breath.

The genus name, Anethum, is from a Latin word meaning strong-smelling; the species epithet graveolens also means "strong-smelling". Clearly the odor of dill was its defining character. That is certainly true for me. I identify the plant, for example, when found in a flower bed where I didn't plant it, by crushing a leaf. The dill smell is very distinctive. (I like the smell, so not all my dill-leaf-sniffing is for identification.)

dill, Anethum graveolens
dill in flower
The USDA Plants data base shows dill as an introduced species across most of North America. However, it does not appear on invasive species lists. One reason is probably shown in the photo below; swallowtail butterfly caterpillars eat it! The photo was taken at a garden in Florida--I would love my dill to grow as luxuriantly. You can count eight striped caterpillars on the dill plant, devouring it. These are swallowtail butterfly, Papillio species, caterpillars. I do not know what species they are in Florida, but the western tiger swallowtail (Papillio rutulus), which flies through my Colorado garden, is one of my favorite butterflies, so I am happy if I see its larvae on my dill. 

swallowtail caterpillars on dill
Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars eating dill

As in my kitchen, dill is widely used as a spice, for fish, egg, or meat dishes, in yogurt, on salads or in salad dressing, lots of possibilities. It is the signature spice of dill pickles, though it is included in many other pickling recipes. The flavor fades when the leaves dry, so using the fresh leaves (called dill weed to distinguish them from dill, which usually means the dry fruits) is much better than using dried leaves, but it works dry, just be generous with it. 

Extracts from the seeds are included in a variety of cosmetics, some touted as anti-aging. It is an ingredient in liquers, such as aquavit and agavero orange. And you can find it as a minor component of a surprising number of foods. Beyond being a popular flaor, dill's oils have some anti-microbial action, and will protect products.

Dill is pretty, with an attractive smell, tasty in many different recipes, and feeds swallowtail butterflies. What a lovely plant!  

Comments and correctons welcome.


Dill, n 1. OED (Oxford English Dictionary)Online. September 2020. Oxford University Press. link  Accessed November 05, 2020.

Grieve, M. 1934. A Modern Herbal. Dover Publications, New York. online: link

Gunther, R. T. 1934. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England.

Jana, S. and G.S. Shekhawat. 2010. Anethum graveolens: an Indian traditional medicinal herb and spice. Pharmacognosy Review. 4 (8): 179-184. online Accessed Nov. 5, 2020. 

Prior, R. C.A. 1870. On the Popular Names of British Plants. online Accessed Nov. 5, 2020.

Toussaint-Sammat, M. 1992. History of Food. A. Bell, translator. Blackwell Publications, London. 

van Wyck, B-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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