Herb to Know: Angelica

| August/September 1993

• Angelica archangelica
• Family Umbelliferae
• Biennial

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.

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