By Dr. Mercola
Not everyone is familiar with the plant known as fenugreek but, like many herbs, it has both medicinal and nutritional value. This annual herb, though, is also a legume from the Fabaceae family from the genus Trigonella. Its East Indian name is “methi;” other areas of the world may refer to it as greek clover, greek hay, goat’s horn or bird’s foot.
The Trigonella foenum-graecum, fenugreek’s botanical name, grows 1 or 2 feet high and bears white or yellow flower clusters and small, rounded rhomboid or slightly elongated triangle-shaped leaves, depending on the variety.
The seeds have an interesting shape, as well, as they’re rather multifaceted. Tiny and bitterly pungent due to the compound sotolon, 10 or 20 seeds grow inside long seed pods, harvested somewhat like peas or beans. Fenugreek seeds can be toasted to give them a milder, aromatic quality or ground into a powder to make pastes or sauces for savory Middle Eastern, Indian, Mediterranean or Central Asian cuisine.
Many Middle Eastern cultures use ground fenugreek seeds in cakes and confectionaries. They’re also either soaked whole or ground to make a strong, unique-tasting coffee with a flavor faintly reminiscent of maple (and in fact eating a lot of fenugreek may affect the odor of your urine). Both the seeds and greens make an array of bean dishes, vegetable dishes, stir-fries, soups, salads, Indian curries and masala.
The greens are mild-tasting, rather like spinach, when they’re cooked or steamed, but they can also be dried for a subtle flavor. Referenced in the earliest Egyptian papyrus writings circa 1500 B.C., fenugreek is originally from the Himalayan regions, although today it’s routinely grown in areas of Europe, Asia, South America and northern Africa. Extremely versatile, it also has a long history as a medicine, one of the most important reasons it’s been grown for so long.
Although young fenugreek plants can tolerate a bit of frost, the small-leafed variety is hardier, as it will keep growing throughout the winter while the larger one may not survive deeply dipping temperatures. As previously mentioned, some fenugreek flowers are yellow and others are white. According to Garden Organic:
“There are two distinct forms. The more common large seeded variety has slightly larger leaves and white flowers. This variety can only be cut once so [it] needs successional sowing. The smaller seeded variety has slightly smaller leaves, yellow flowers and will regrow after cutting.”1
As stated, the larger variety with white flowers stops growing after it flowers, so successional sowing — sowing a small amount of new seed every two or three weeks for continuous harvest — is necessary. The smaller yellow variety can be cut as often as you need it, and in fact should be cut regularly to prevent it from going to seed.
Microgreens, or sprouts of new fenugreek, have a uniquely spicy flavor. To grow sprouts, soak your seeds for six to eight hours, rinse them well (rinsing twice daily) and place them in an open jar on its side, or use a bean sprouter. They only need a few days and should be eaten while they’re 3 to 4 centimeters (1 to 1 1/2 inches) long; otherwise, they start turning bitter.
Grow Fenugreek for Its Health Benefits
One tablespoon of fenugreek has 2.5 grams of protein. It’s loaded with vitamins such as thiamin, folic acid, riboflavin, pyridoxine (vitamin B6), niacin, vitamins A and C, and minerals such as iron. Fenugreek also contains potassium, calcium, selenium, copper, manganese, magnesium and zinc;2 all contribute to an array of healing properties. Traditional uses for fenugreek across the ages involved treatments for:
- Soothing digestive problems, including ulcers3
- Improving breast milk production for breastfeeding mothers,4 thanks to a compound called diosgenin
- Lowering your colon cancer risk by both inhibiting cell growth and inducing apoptosis5
- Chelating cadmium and aluminum toxicity6
- Slowing mental aging and augmenting your thinking processes due to the choline content7
The seeds contain high amounts of soluble fiber, and a significant amount of it is non-starch polysaccharides, or NSP. Prominent NSPs include mucilage, saponins, tannins, hemicellulose and pectin, which help optimize your LDL cholesterol by helping to prevent bile salts from reabsorbing into your colon. NSPs further increase bulk in your colon to promote digestion as well as bowel action so waste doesn’t build up in your colon.
This helps prevent constipation and may help prevent colon cancer, as food is encouraged to move smoothly through without hanging around too long. Studies indicate that the amino acid 4-hydroxyisoleucine in fenugreek seeds helps facilitate insulin secretion, which makes them good for people with diabetes. The fiber helps slow down the rate of glucose absorption in your gut, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. According to Nutrition and You:
“Fenugreek (seeds) may help … [optimize] cholesterol, triglyceride as well as high blood sugar (glycemic) levels in people with diabetes … (and) are therefore one of the recommended food ingredients in the diabetic diet.”8
In addition, fenugreek contains high amounts of powerful antioxidants and choline, which studies show may not only help slow mental aging9 but also may be useful for upper respiratory therapies,10 coinciding with present-day clinical studies. In some areas of the world, fenugreek is used to restore hair growth and as an aphrodisiac.
Preparing Your Soil and Seeds
Fenugreek seeds can be purchased in larger nurseries or horticultural centers, in Indian grocery stores or online. You can sow the seeds directly in the ground or in flat trays or pots of nearly any size indoors, which doesn’t take up a lot of space. Grow lights are another option, although some gardeners suggest it’s a little finicky about being transplanted, so make sure your seedlings are vigorous before moving outside; biodegradable pots will help.
According to Heirloom Organics,11 fenugreek should be grown in full sun to part shade or filtered sunlight. Also, when you transplant your fenugreek seedlings outdoors, do it on an overcast day and wait until after the final frost of the season. Make sure your pot or soil bed drains easily. Pots with good drainage are perfect for a single-drip irrigation system. In three or four weeks, your fenugreek greens are ready to harvest.
Some gardeners are very specific about soil depth and spacing when sowing; others are much more free in their seed casting but suggest casting them evenly. Fenugreek grows easily, either way. Cover the seeds with a half-inch of soil or so, then moisten it well so the seeds can begin the germinating process. This can be tricky to determine, but if you move your seedlings outside and frost is imminent, simply cover them with seedling cloches overnight and remove them in the morning.
To perpetuate the seeds, wait for the plants to flower, after which they produce thin seed pods. When these ripen and turn yellow, that’s when the seeds are ready to harvest — before the pods pop open. According to The Spruce,12 nitrogen-fixing plants are identified as those with roots colonized by nitrogen-bearing bacteria, or which extract nitrogen from the air and convert or “fix” it so that it perpetuates the plant’s growth. Garden Organic explains:
“Although fenugreek is a legume, it doesn’t always fix nitrogen. For this to happen, the right bacteria (Rhizobium meliloti) need to be present in the soil. These are more likely to be present, if fenugreek has been grown on the site before. To see if the plants are fixing nitrogen, carefully dig (don’t pull!) up a plant and look for pink (colored) nodules (2 [millimeters] diameter) on the roots.
Plants that are fixing nitrogen should be able to produce lush green growth on a low fertility soil with few problems, whereas those that can’t tend to develop pale (colored) leaves and smaller plants. Poor soil nutrient status can affect the (flavor) of the crop.”13
You’ll notice newly sown fenugreek seeds beginning to sprout as early as five days out, and the young fenugreek seedlings grow rapidly. Tender young fenugreek leaves are ready for harvest in about six weeks after sowing, depending on the weather, and the younger the plants, the more nutritional value they have. At the same time, after four weeks fenugreek plants may begin yellowing or be attacked by diseases, so vigilance is wise.
As is true with many herbs, once flower buds emerge, the leaves become smaller and the stems “leggier,” so it’s best to harvest at regular intervals before then. If you’re growing fenugreek in pots and need some to use in the kitchen, cut the stem above the base when the plants are around 10 inches tall. You can also pull whole plants along with the roots when what you see above ground is around 4 inches high.
A bunch gathered in your fist should make a nice addition to salads. Washing the greens well, you can cut off the roots where dirt may remain. Mother Earth News14 lists several reasons why heirloom seeds are better than hybrid seeds, which are created by crossing two seed varieties:
- Heirloom seeds are more flavorful
- They’re more nutritious, because high-yield seeds and farming techniques weaken amino acids, proteins, minerals and other phytonutrients15
- Because heirloom seeds are seed saving, as opposed to open-pollinated, you can save your seeds to replant every year
- Being less “uniform,” heirloom varieties may not ripen all at once, which promotes use of the plant-based food over a longer period
- Seed shopping in seed racks or from garden catalogues is often less expensive than hybrid seeds
One final note: When buying fenugreek seeds (or any other kind) for sprouting or culinary use, be sure to look for packets of seeds that haven’t been treated with fungicide or any other types of chemicals.