Fenugreek is an erect annual herb, growing up to 60 centimeters in height, native to western Asia and the Mediterranean region. It has compound, clover-like leaves composed of three oblong, toothed leaflets, which are 2 to 5 centimeters long. Fenugreek flowers in midsummer, with white, pea-like blossoms, about 1.25 centimeters in length. The plant bears narrow, crescent-shaped pods, 5 to 8 centimeters in length, which contain 10 to 20 smooth brown seeds. Fenugreek seeds, which are commonly used as a spice, are slightly bitter, combining the flavors of celery and maple.
A rich source of dietary fiber, fenugreek seeds contain about 40 percent mucilage, a substance whose binding properties made the herb popular for making poltices and ointments. The seeds contain a number of other compounds with therapeutic potential, including nicotinic acid, coumarin, trigonelline, and steroidal saponins.
Fenugreek seeds are used widely as a spice and are not associated with any toxicity. Germany's Commission E recommends 6 grams of fenugreek seeds (or equivalent preparations) to stimulate appetite. As much as 100 grams per day of defatted fenugreek powder has been used to treat diabetes in clinical trials with no serious side-effects. Repeated external applications may cause undesirable skin reactions. People with diabetes who take fenugreek seeds should have their blood sugar levels monitored closely by a healthcare professional.