Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
aka Garden Angelica, Archangel, Wild Celery, Norwegian Angelica, Root of the Holy Ghost
About This Plant
Angelica archangelica, with its mystical past and musky, juniper-like scent is a unique member of the Apiaceae, or Carrot, family. It is considered a biennial or short-lived perennial herb, depending on where it’s grown. It is hardy in USDA zones 4-9. In warmer climates, it’s likely to mature within two years. In cooler climates, Angelica makes little advancement toward maturity within the first year and older plants die off after three to four years once they’ve set seed.
Angelica archangelica is considered “European Angelica”. Its American counterpart is A. atropurpurea and its Chinese counterpart, known as Don Qui, is A. sinensis and is considered second in importance only to Ginseng. It has a slightly celery-like taste to the leaves and can be used as a substitute in recipes.
Angelica grows only in damp soil, preferably near rivers or other watery areas to an impressive height of up to eight feet tall with large, bright green, toothed leaves, and clusters of fragrant yellow-green or white flowers. The stem is round, grooved, hollow, branched near the top and tinged with blue. Flowers are particularly showy umbels but usually occur only once before the plant dies. Flowers occur from May to August. Each spoke of the flower bears a dangling pale yellow elliptic-oblong fruit that is composed of two yellow winged seeds after the flower is spent. It has bright green foliage, like that of celery, hence the alternative common name of ‘Wild Celery’. Edges of the leaflets are finely serrated. The root is long and spindle-like, thick and fleshy like a large pale carrot. Fresh roots have a yellowish to grey epidermis and when bruised yield a honey-colored juice that has all of the aromatic, musky, benzoin properties of the plant. Dried root, when found commercially, is greyish brown and very wrinkled externally, whitish and spongy internally. It will break with a starchy fracture, exhibiting shiny resinous spots. If the tall flowering stems are cut at the base prior to setting seed, the plant’s life span will be prolonged for several years. The cut sweet stems can be put to use in culinary or confectionery delights. Angelica does generally self-seed.
The story of the name, Angelica archangelica, is that St. Michael, the archangel, appeared to a monk, telling him this herb would help the victims of the bubonic plague that was decimating Europe at the time. When it turned out that it did, and people learned of its abilities the entire countryside was nearly stripped of the plant. Old chronicles report that anyone who kept a piece of Angelica root in their mouth all through the day would be spared from the plague. Angelica also begins blooming around May 8th, St. Michael’s feast day.
17th-century British herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper referred to Angelica as the “herb of the sun.” When Vikings started trading in Europe during the 9th century, Angelica was an important commodity. In early Icelandic law, a person could be fined for stealing the plant from someone else’s garden. Peasants made Angelica leaf necklaces to protect their children from illness and witchcraft. It was reported that witches never would use Angelica, and therefore, if a woman was growing it in her garden, it was her defense against witchcraft charges. Angelica was added to the liquor, Absinthe, probably to tame the taste of the acrid Wormwood. Candied Angelica stems and roots were popular in England by the 17th century. When European colonists arrived in North America, they found many Native American tribes using the American species of Angelica in many of the same ways as European healers did. In some locations in India and China, Angelica is grown in pots and is considered healthy to have around the home.
In the wild, it is very easy to confuse Angelica with Water Hemlock which is an extremely poisonous plant, so do identify carefully.
Angelica grows best from fresh, ripe seeds. If fresh seeds are not available, it can be propagated from dried seed, just keep in mind that germination rates will be lower. Fresh seeds can simply be pressed into the soil surface in a sunny location, preferably when temperatures are between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Seeds need light to germinate, so surface sow. Keep lightly moist until germination.
If planting dried seeds, refrigerate them for a few weeks prior to planting to cold stratify them. Since germination rates will be low, be liberal with the number of seeds planted per pot. Angelica seeds need alternative temperatures of cold and warm in order to germinate, so place seed trays outside where they can experience fluctuating temperatures. Be sure to bring them in if a freeze is expected. After 21 days of alternating temperatures, keep them in a warmer place. Germination should occur after 21-28 days.
Propagation can also be done from the division of old roots and from the off-shoots of 2-year old plants that have been harvested for the use of the stems, prior to going to seed.
Seedlings should be spaced 12-24 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart. Transplant seedlings outside in the Spring when they are 3-4 inches tall. Transplanting should occur when seedlings are no bigger than this, as they grow a long taproot that if damaged, can harm the plant. Divisions may also fail to thrive if the taproot is damaged.
Angelica thrives in moist, fertile soils rich in organic matter. It prefers to grow near rivers and watery areas, in cool climates in either a partial shade of sunny location. The plant is not drought tolerant and should not be allowed to dry out. If planted in zones with hot summers, a dappled shade location is preferred as the plant is heat sensitive. Watering from the base of the plant will help prevent fungal diseases. To help the plant self-seed, simply pull back any mulch in the autumn so the seeds will fall directly onto the soil below. Cutting the stalk at the end of the first year will help promote flowering in the second. Cutting the stalk in the second year, prior to setting seed, will prolong the plant’s life. Angelica can also be planted annually to ensure a continued supply. The plant can grow 3-8 feet high and can spread 2-4 feet.
If desiring roots for medicinal purposes, they can be harvested in the Autumn of the first year. Thinly slice them longitudinally to hasten the drying process. Dried root should be placed in air-tight containers. When processed properly, roots should maintain their medicinal quality for many years. If desiring the aerial portions for medicinal purposes, it can be collected in June or early July by cutting the entire plant off just above the root. For culinary preparations, the stems can be collected at this time as well.
Seeds are ripe in August or early September. Seeds can be collected by securing a paper bag over the mature flower head until the stalk dries. Cut the seed head off once dried and separate the seed into the bag. Seeds tend to lose their vitality rapidly and can be planted immediately, or stored in a cool dry place until ready to plant.
- Roots can be burned as incense
- The Sami people of Lapland used Angelica stems to make a traditional reed-like musical flute
- Can be used as a spice and for culinary creations
- A plant for beds, borders, woodlands, naturalized areas, water gardens, near streams or pond banks
Angelica leaves have a slight Celery flavor and can be used as a substitute in recipes. Leaves can be used to flavor fish, poultry, cooked fruits, soups, or stews. Its stems can be cut and prepared like asparagus, chopped and stewed with rhubarb and apples, minced in preserves and marmalade, or candied and cut up to serve as decoration on cakes and other confections. The mid-ribs of the leaves can be lightly steamed and blanched and used like celery. Roots are edible once peeled and boiled. Try the roots in omelets. Finlanders eat the young stems baked in hot ashes. Icelanders are said to eat both the stem and roots raw, with butter. It is a practice in the British Isles to place some fresh Angelica in a pot of boiling fish. Norwegians make a bread out of the roots. The roots, young stems, leaf petioles and mid-ribs are steeped in syrup to produce candied Angelica. Seeds are used for flavoring in beverages, cakes, and candies. Oil steam-distilled from the seeds and roots is used to flavor alcoholic liquors such as benedictine and chartreuse. It is also combined with Juniper berries for the flavoring of gin and vermouth.
Please note that the root of American Angelica (A. atropurpurea) is quite acrid and considered poisonous in its fresh state.
Angelica is a warming and aromatic bitter tonic. It is often used to help improve weak digestion function, including indigestion, poor fat absorption, and heartburn. Herbalists also recommend it for those with respiratory conditions such as chronic bronchitis and COPD, to relieve bladder infections and to bring on delayed menses. It also can play a role in treating alcoholism. The German Government’s Commission E, which approves herbs and drugs for human use, includes Angelica archangelica on its list.
Roots tend to be the main part used in medicine. It can be dried, made into a tincture, or ground into a powder. Tea from this plant is rather bitter and resembles green tea. Dried root is greyish brown and very wrinkled externally and whitish and spongy internally. The odor will be strong and fragrant with the taste at first being sweetish, then turning warm, aromatic, bitter, and musky. These properties are best extracted with alcohol, but can to a lesser degree be extracted with water.
Angelica is used in the shamanic medicine of the Saami or Laplanders. Burning the root as an incense is said to help relax the mind and body and open the imagination, allowing the mind to enter what shamanic herbalists refer to as “Dreamtime”.
Angelica archangelica is native to temperate and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. It is said to have originated in the mountains of Scandinavia and Greenland, the Baltic coast, and Siberia. Today, it grows wild in the northern climates of Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Greenland, and Iceland.