Herb to Know: Angelica
• Angelica archangelica
• Family Umbelliferae
Big, bold, and useful, angelica seems to be a natural choice for the large herb garden. But although the use of this herb and its relatives has been interwoven into the tapestry of many cultures for millennia, few herb gardeners in North America know and grow these imposing plants.
In Europe, peasant children wore angelica-leaf necklaces to protect them from illness and witchcraft. One legend dates the name angelica to 1665, when an angel appeared to a monk in a dream and showed him an herb that could cure the plague then raging in Europe; the monk named the herb angelica in honor of the angel. “Angelica water” was subsequently incorporated into an official English plague remedy. This legend aside, angelica would have been an obvious choice for a plague remedy as it had long been reputed to cure any illness. from toothache to the bites of “all venomous beasts”. According to another theory, the name angelica comes from the plant’s habit of blooming on May 8, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, and this connection is also reflected in the species name.
The Several Angelicas
The genus Angelica comprises more than 50 species. The European species A. archangelica, with which western herb gardeners are most familiar, apparently originated in the mountains of Scandinavia and in Greenland, the Baltic coast, and Siberia, and was grown as a medicinal plant in European convent and monastery gardens during the Middle Ages.
In the United States, A. archangelica is hardy to Zone 3 but is difficult to grow in the South. The plant, which may reach 7 feet in height at maturity, has bright green foliage like that of celery, hence the alternative common name wild celery. The first-year plant has no stem at all; it’s just a clump of triply divided leaves about 40 inches long growing from a sturdy root (the herb is also known as wild parsnip). The following summer, a hollow, thick stalk shoots upward bearing divided leaves sprouting from bulbous sheaths and topped by 10-inch compound umbels of tiny greenish white flowers. Bees love them. Half-inch ribbed green fruits turn beige when mature.
Korean angelica (A. gigas) is another biennial or short-lived perennial which is gaining popularity in this country as an ornamental. It grows 5 to 7 feet tall and has deep red stems and purplish green foliage. Dense clusters of stunning burgundy flower buds open into whitish flowers.
North America has its own native angelica, A. atropurpurea, which is found in abundance in swampy areas from Newfoundland south to Delaware and west to Minnesota. Early colonists in North America found several Indian tribes utilizing the American species, mainly in the treatment of respiratory ailments. It is similar in appearance to the European species but has dark purple stems and large umbels of white flowers.
In Asia, Chinese angelica, or dang-gui (A. sinensis), has been cultivated since A.D. 650. It is grown from seed in shaded, moist locations at high elevations. When brought to Europe in the late 1800s, it was classified as a variety of A. polymorpha. Both are smaller than A. archangelica, growing no more than 4 feet tall. Leaves develop in three oval, sharp-toothed segments on a long, sheathed leaf stalk. As with other angelicas, dang-gui flowers develop in umbels on long, hollow stalks.
In Asia, dang-gui has long been revered for its ability to regulate menstruation, relieve blood-related problems surrounding childbirth, and alleviate constipation. Today, Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic physicians include it in treatments for arthritis and respiratory problems related to colds and flu.
American and European herbalists also consider A. archangelica to be an effective menstrual regulator. The plant also acts as a warming expectorant and digestive tonic and a mild diuretic. It is prescribed for lung and bronchial ailments, constipation, and as a part of treatments for kidney and urinary infections. It is also recommended for reducing fever.
Angelica may be started from root divisions but is usually started from seed. If there is a secret to growing angelica, it’s to harvest fresh seed as soon as it ripens, usually in mid- to late summer, refrigerate or freeze it for a week or so, then plant it immediately. If you must purchase seed or can’t plant the seed until spring, place the packet in a screw-top jar and keep it refrigerated until planting time. Many herb nurseries offer first-year plants for those who don’t care to fuss with seeds (see Sources).
Angelica thrives in rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acid soil, but it can be grown with reasonable success in almost any soil. It grows well in full sun or dappled shade; plants grown in partial shade will be significantly larger. Because the seeds need light to germinate, just press them into prepared soil. Seed sown in midsummer may germinate before the end of the growing season; that sown in late summer or fall will germinate the following spring. Germination of spring-planted A. archangelica takes three to four weeks at 60° to 70°F; seeds of Chinese angelica may take as long as two months to germinate.
Thin seedlings to at least 3 feet apart. Thinnings may be transplanted with care, but older plants are difficult or impossible to move successfully. Established angelica plants are not picky about water; they develop large roots that hold water in reserve during dry periods. Although the plant grows quite tall, it generally does not require support, although long flower stalks may tend to fall over in heavy rains.
Harvest the leaves and stems when they are young and tender in spring of the plant’s second year. The roots are most tender in the fall of the plant’s first year, but digging them at that time eliminates the possibility that the plant will have a second year. You may wish to postpone digging until you have gathered the seeds, which develop in great numbers during the second year.
Angelica dies back to the ground in winter, but the roots can survive winter temperatures well below 0°F if water is withheld as winter approaches. Like other biennials, angelica plants die after they set seed, which is usually in the second year. Many gardeners, by cutting off the flower stalks before they set seed, defer the death of the plant until the third year; some claim that the plant often does not flower until the third year.
The main insect pests of angelica are aphids, which appear mostly on the flower and seed heads, but they don’t seem to cause much damage or be of great concern. When harvesting the seed from an aphid-infested plant, freeze the dry umbels for a few days to eliminate pests.
For safety’s sake, do not gather angelica in the wild. Wild angelica is easily confused with the deadly poisonous lookalike, water hemlock (Cicula maculata).
Angelica has a variety of culinary uses. Its unique flavor is difficult to describe except by listing its components: musky, bitter, celerylike, aniselike, slightly sweet, fresh. The hollow stems are jellied or candied (see recipe below) and either eaten alone or used to decorate desserts. About 1/4 cup fresh angelica stems, cut in short pieces, can be added to rhubarb to counteract its tartness and reduce the necessary sugar by as much as one-third. The stems and dried roots are sometimes boiled like celery and can be cooked with sugar like rhubarb. The slightly bitter leaves may be served with fish, and sometimes are candied with the stems.
Consuming large amounts of angelica can cause photosensitivity in some individuals, and pregnant women should avoid using any part of the plant.
Commercially, the seeds and seed oil flavor liqueurs and desserts, and scent cosmetics. The pungent, juniper-flavored roots are used with or instead of juniper berries to flavor gin. Arkansas or Quapaw Indians mixed the root of A. atropurpurea with tobacco for smoking. The robust angelica stalks are handsome in dried arrangements, and the coumarin-containing leaves sometimes serve as a potpourri fixative.
Candied Angelica Stems
• Broad green angelica stems
• Water, enough to cover the stems
• Sugar, same volume as water
1. The best stems for candying are the new growth in the second year. Cut them into manageable pieces, then blanch 1-2 minutes. Peel the blanched stems, then cut them into pieces 2 inches long by 1/2 inch wide.
2. Simmer 20 minutes in a syrup made of the sugar and water. Drain, reserving the syrup, and refrigerate stems and syrup, covered, for four days.
3. Reheat the angelica in the syrup and cook for 20 minutes, or until candied. The temperature of the syrup should reach 238°F. Drain the angelica and dry on racks set over waxed paper. Store in airtight containers.
• The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $2. Seeds of A. archangelica and A. gigas.
• Niche Gardens, 1111 Dawson Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27516. Catalog $3. Plants of A. gigas.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321-4598. Catalog free. Seeds of A. archangelica.
• Prairie Ridge Nursery, 9738 Overland Rd., Mt. Horeb, WI 53572-2832. Catalog $3. Seeds of A. atropurpurea.
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2. Plants of A. archangelica.
• Sharon Hagemann of Barryville, New York, is a naturopathic physician who writes part-time and serves as a nutrition and medicinal herb consultant to health food stores.
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