Fenugreek: sowing, effect & uses


I study landscape ecology and through my studies have discovered a love for plants. Plants are not only beautiful, but also have countless fascinating survival strategies. To bring a bit of nature into my home as well, I nurture my houseplants and herbs on every possible windowsill.

Favourite fruit: rhubarb and all kinds of berries
Favourite vegetables: onions and garlic

Fenugreek is selectively cultivated and sold as a remedy in many countries. In addition to its valuable ingredients, fenugreek also boasts an appealing taste.

Leaves and seeds of the feungreek
Fenugreek is not only a wonderful spice, but also an extremely versatile medicinal plant [Photo: Madeleine Steinbach/ Shutterstock.com]

The efficacy of fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) has been valued for thousands of years. Even in ancient times, the medicinal plant, also known as cow horn clover or Greek hay, was widely used. It is impossible to imagine Ayurvedic cuisine without it. Not only the nutty seeds, but also the fresh green can be used in the kitchen. At the same time, cultivating this health-promoting plant is really easy.

Fenugreek: properties and origin

Fenugreek’s relationship to other clover species is immediately apparent, as it, too, belongs to the butterfly family (Faboideae). Characteristically, unlike the other species, the herb exudes an intense odour of coumarin, very similar to that of dried hay. The plant is an annual and is supplied with water and nutrients through its strong taproot. It can therefore reach heights of up to 60 cm. Between April and July, fenugreek flowers appear in the leaf axils, ranging in colour from pale yellow to light bluish. These are butterfly flowers, through which the fenugreek attracts bees, bumblebees and other insects. You can recognise the plant by its leaves, whose triangular leaf shape has given the species its scientific name Trigonella.

Triangular leaves of the fenugreek
Characteristic of fenugreek are its leaves with a triangular shape [Photo: Unclescrooch/ Shutterstock.com]

The origin of the plant is probably in Western Asia and the Mediterranean region, where the wild form still occurs today. Fenugreek spread from there because it enjoyed great popularity among people well into the Middle Ages. Nowadays, its distribution area extends across the entire American continent to China and from North Africa to France and Greece. The clover itself was once grown on a large scale in Germany. For this reason, if you take a closer look, you can still find wild fenugreek now and then, especially in the south of Germany.

Growing fenugreek

Growing fenugreek is pretty straightforward. The plant also shows adaptation to local conditions. There is usually no need to fertilise and watering is only necessary for very dry summers. However, since the plant is only an annual, it is sown annually.

Fenugreek seedlings
Fenugreek should be sown directly into the open [Photo: yogesh_more/ Shutterstock.com]

The perfect location

Fenugreek comes from more Mediterranean areas, so it needs some sunlight. Full sun is optimal, partial shade leads to significantly reduced growth and seed yield. The perfect soil for this is loamy, but still sufficiently permeable to water. Fenugreek tolerates dry locations and does well even on salty soils. However, the soil should not be too sandy and rich in humus.

How to plant fenugreek

Sowing takes place between April and early June directly into the ground. Since sowing is done in the bed, the planting distance is important. Fenugreek grows quite large and herbaceous, so a distance between plants of about 20 cm is advisable. The seeds begins to germinate after just 4 days. After germination, the plants should not be moved anymore. It is not necessary to prick fenugreek.

Fenugreek can also be grown in a pot. Before you plant the herb, create a drainage layer at the bottom of the pot and then fill it with a layer of permeable and nutrient-poor substrate. Our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost is ideal for growing fenugreek. Our peat-free, organic soil holds its structure for a long time, ensuring that enough air gets to the roots. To further improve the conditions, mix in 2 tablespoons of clay powder per litre of soil. After planting or sowing, place the pot in a bright or semi-shaded place.

Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, 20L
Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, 20L
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Fenugreek is a dark germinator. Therefore, when sowing fenugreek, you should place the seeds about 1 to 2 cm deep in the soil and then cover them again with substrate. Because the plant prefers dryness to wetness, keep the seed moist but never too wet until germination.

Growing fenugreek sprouts

For fenugreek sprouts, you need germinable fenugreek seeds and a sprouting jar. Before you grow sprouts, the seeds are first soaked in water for 8 hours, preferably overnight. After that, put them in the sprouting jar. The sprouts need to be rinsed with fresh water twice a day. There should be no water in the sprouting jar itself to prevent mould from forming. At a temperature of around 20 °C, the sprouts will be ready for consumption after just 2 days. You should not wait much longer to enjoy them as they will become bitter.

Fenugreek seeds and sprouts
Fenugreek seeds are excellent to use as sprouts in the kitchen [Photo: Madeleine Steinbach/ Shutterstock.com]

The right care

As a representative of the papilionaceous plants (Faboideae), fenugreek lives in symbiosis with so-called nodule bacteria, also called rhizobia. These bacteria bind nitrogen from the air and make it available to the clover through conversion. In return, this supplies the bacteria with sugar, which it obtains from photosynthesis. Fenugreek should not be fertilised with nitrogen for this reason.

On the other hand, an adequate supply of iron, molybdenum and sulphur is important, as these nutrients are essential for everything to work together. However, good garden soil usually contains enough of these nutrients, so you do not actually need to fertilise. Be careful not to add manure or compost to the soil before sowing.

Tip: You can easily discover how plants and bacteria work together for yourself. To do this, dig up a specimen and examine the roots for small, thick nodules. These nodules house the bacteria. If you open the nodules, you will see a red colouration: the rhizobia use a protein similar to the haemoglobin of our blood, which also appears red due to the central ion iron.

Fenugreek plants
Fenugreek is adapted to our climate and needs little care [Photo: akimov konstantin/ Shutterstock.com]

When it comes to watering, fenugreek is also not very demanding. It is important that it never stands in backwater. The conditions should therefore be rather dry because the plant can tolerate a little too much drought than too much water. However, if the leaves begin to go limp, you should reach for the watering can.

Harvest and storage

In this country, it is mainly the use of the seeds that are known. These ripen between July and September. When the pods have dried and begin to peel open, it is time to harvest the seeds. After harvesting, they should be carefully dried for a few days before being packed in an airtight container. In a cool and preferably dark place, the seeds will retain their full flavour for about a year.

The herb is harvested beforehand. It tastes best early in the year, when the herb is still young and fresh. You can then either use it directly in cooking or dry it and store it in an airtight container, just like the seeds.

Small blossoms of the fenugreek plant
Fenugreek develops flowers in pale yellow or pale blue [Photo: Rainbow_dazzle/ Shutterstock.com]

Fenugreek: effects and use

Fenugreek seeds are an important ingredient in curry mixes. Even in cheese, the addition of fenugreek is becoming increasingly popular. No wonder, because the list of health benefits of the plant is long. For this reason, we have summarised some applications for you:

  • As a cooking spice: Fenugreek not only tastes good in dishes but also has versatile health benefits. The seeds are suitable fresh as a seasoning for bread or cheese, for example. If the taste of the fresh seeds is too intense for you, you can tone it down a bit by roasting them. In Indian cuisine, the plant is used abundantly, for example in chapati or naan breads. The fresh herb is also used to refine savoury pancakes.
  • As a tea against gastrointestinal complaints or chronic cough: Fenugreek tea is easy to prepare. To do this, overbrew 2 – 3 g of seeds with 250 ml of hot water and enjoy up to 3 cups daily. The taste of fenugreek tea is somewhat peculiar and is slightly reminiscent of curry.
  • As an oil to prevent hair loss and for clear skin: The herb is also recommended to prevent hair loss, promote hair growth or maintain a clear complexion. You can infuse ground seeds in coconut oil. The oil is then massaged into the skin and left there for half an hour.

Caution: Plants can have strong effects. Therefore, do not use them in higher doses for more than 6 weeks, but alternate with other plants or take breaks in application. The average dose of fenugreek seeds per day is about 6 g.

Fenugreek oil and seeds
The fresh herb of fenugreek invites new experiments in the kitchen [Photo: Swapan Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

How healthy is fenugreek?

The many different ingredients give fenugreek its effects that make it such a popular, health-promoting plant. The following substances are contained in fenugreek:

  • Mucilage: The seeds of the medicinal plant contain about 30% mucilage. These substances are also found in flaxseed, for example, and have a calming effect on irritated mucous membranes. This has a very positive effect on the digestive system.
  • Protein: The seeds also contain around 25% protein, which perform many important functions in our body.
  • Foenugraecin: An active ingredient called foenugraecin contained in fenugreek is mainly responsible for its effect on human hormone balance. This is a precursor for the formation of steroid hormones such as testosterone and estrogen.
  • Trace elements: The seeds are rich in various important trace elements such as iron, calcium and magnesium.
  • Vitamins: Vitamin A, which is good for eyesight, and vitamin C are also present in fenugreek seeds.
Fenugreek tea and seeds
The seed of fenugreek can be used in a variety of ways – whether fresh, roasted or ground, in teas, oil extracts or as a spice [Photo: Alexander Pekour/ Shutterstock.com]

Due to its health-promoting ingredients, the herb has versatile positive effects on health, such as lowering blood sugar levels or aiding digestion. Last but not least, fenugreek is very interesting for athletes, as it affects the testosterone balance and promotes muscle building. Only in advanced pregnancy should you avoid too much fenugreek, as it can also induce labour. After birth, it can be used while breastfeeding to promote milk production. Excessive consumption may cause gastrointestinal problems. If fenugreek is repeatedly used externally, redness and itching may occur. People allergic to legumes and children should not use fenugreek as a medicinal plant.

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