Angelica archangelica (Linn.) (Apiaceae/Umbelliferae) is also known as Angelica officinalis and is differentiated from other popular species in use as the European Angelica. The other two most commonly used species are called Angelica atropurpurea (American) and Angelica sinensis (Chinese), known as dong quai. In English it is simply called Angelica. In
Its name was derived from a monks dream in which St. Michael the Archangel appeared telling the monk what herb to use to help victims of the bubonic plague that was decimating Europe in 1665. (Grieve 36) When it was discovered that this herb was helpful in protecting and healing those that had the plague the country side was very nearly stripped of the plant by peasants and nobility alike. Old chronicles report that anyone who kept a piece of angelica root in their mouth all through the day would be preserved from the plague. This herb blooms about May 8th, (old calender) St. Michael's feast day and is so named in his honor. Even though this herb is named in honor of a Christian angel many angelica festivals are held in Livonia, East Prussia and Pomerania and celebrated in the pagan manner with dance and chanting of ancient ditties in languages no longer understood. European angelica has been viewed as a magical herb for more than 1000 years. Peasants made angelica leaf necklaces to protect their children from illness and witchcraft. Witches were reported never to use angelica and if it was in woman's garden or home it was her defense against witchcraft charges.
There are more than 60 species of medicinal plants belonging to the genus Angelica world-wide and thirty some species in the British Isles. Many have long been used in ancient traditional medicine systems, especially in the far east. Chinese Angelica (Dong quai) has a history of more than 4000 years of use and is referred to as the 'female ginseng' even though it is used for both genders and for all sorts of body ailments. Many herbal preparations are sold over-the-counter in far eastern countries, but also in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and France.
"When European colonists arrived in North America, they found many Indian tribes using American angelica in the same way as their own healers used the European species; to treat respiratory ailments, in particular tuberculosis." (Castleman 46) Eventually the colonists realized that using larger doses would induce abortion.
The German Government's Commission E which approves of herbs and drugs for human use includes Anglica archangelica on its list. The root is the only part in the official Austrian, German and Swiss Pharmacopceias.
Angelica Archangelica is a biennial or perennial herb. "It is biennial only in the botanical sense of that term, that is to say, it is neither annual, nor naturally perennial; the seedlings make little advance towards maturity within twelve months, while old plants die off after seeding once [...] (Grieve 36). Angelica seems to not have much problems with attracting insect pests with the exception of the small two-winged fly whose eggs are leaf miners.
The stem is round, grooved, hollow, branched near the top, tinged with blue. The plant grows 3 to 8 feet tall. The leaves grow from dilated sheaths that surround the stem on long, stout, hollow footstalks that are as much as three feet in length. They are reddish purple at the much dilated, clasping bases. The blades are bright green in color, deeply cut into and composed of numerous small leaflets that are divided into three principal groups which are subdivided into three lesser groups. The edges of the leaflets are finely serrated. The yellow to greenish to white flowers appear from May to August in large, globular umbels. The blossom is followed by pale yellow elliptic-oblong fruit that it composed of two yellow winged seeds being 1/6 to 1/4 inch in length when ripe. The seed will have membraneous edges, be flattened on one side, convex on the other side and have three prominent ribs. If angelica is going to be propagated from the seed it should be done as soon as the seed is ripe in August or early September. The seeds tend to lose their vitality for germination rapidly. The root is long and spindle-like, thick and fleshy.
Some specimen can weight as much as three pounds and may have many long descending rootlets. Propagation can sometimes be done from the division of old roots and from the off-shoots of two-year old plants that have been harvested for the use of the stems.
Young seedlings are amenable to transplanting but not older mature plants. They should be planted about 18 inches apart for the first years growth then moved to about three feet apart in the autumn for the permanent site. In some areas of India and China the plants are raised in large pots and considered decorative as well as healthy to have in and around the home. The odor and taste are pleasantly aromatic. Angelica is a unique member of Umbelliferae as it has a pervading aromatic odor entirely different from the other members such as Fennel, Parsley, Anise, Caraway or Chervil. Various old herbalists compare the odor to the Musk or Juniper. The root is the most aromatic with the other parts containing the same flavor but the active ingredients being more perishable. A wild variety called Wild Angelica (Angelica sylvestris, Linn) will yield a yellow dye from the stalk and roots.
Angelica archangelica is edible when the root is peeled and boiled but most other species are strongly medicinal. The tender leaflets of the blades of the leaves can be used in place of spinach if the bitter taste does not offend you. The lightly steamed and blanched mid-ribs of the leaf can be used as celery and is quite delicious. Icelanders are said to eat both the stem and roots raw, with butter. In Lapland the stalks are regarded as a great delicacy when the leaves are stripped off before flowering and the peel is removed. The Finlanders eat the young stems baked in hot ashes. They also have a hot or cold infusion of the dried herb that is drank. The flavor is rather bitter and is the color of pale to greenish-grey. It resembles Green Tea. It has also been a practice in the past 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, leaves and seeds are for medicinal purposes. Dried leaves because of their aroma are used in the preparation of hops bitters. The roots should be harvested in the autumn of the first year and thinly sliced longitudinally to hasten the drying process. The dried root should then be placed in air-tight containers.
When preserved in this manner they will retain the medicinal quality for many years.
A fresh root has a yellowish to grey epidermis and when bruised yields a honey colored juice that has all the aromatic properties of the plant. If incised in the bark of the stem and upper root in the beginning of spring the same resinous sap/gum will exude. It has a flavor of musk benzoin, which both the sap/gum and the juice can be substituted. A dried root, as it appears commercially, is greyish brown and very wrinkled externally, whitish and spongy internally. It will break with a starchy fracture, exhibiting shiney resinous spots. 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 by water. Usually the plant develops a tall flowering stem after the third or fourth year; this is used for culinary or confectionery use and actually prolongs the life of the plant for many seasons. The stem should then be cut at the base thus practically insuring that the plants become perennial.
Unless seeds are desired, the tops should be cut at or before flowering time. This prolongs the life of the plant for several years because of the side shoots around the root head.
If the whole plant is to be used for medicinal use it should be collected in June and cut just above the root. The roots, young stems, leaf petioles and mid-ribs are steeped in syrups of increasing strength to produce candied angelica. Seeds are used for flavoring in beverages, cakes and candies. Oil steam distilled from the seeds and roots is used in flavorings and alcoholic liquors such as benedictine and chartreuse. It is also combined with Juniper berries for the flavoring of gin and vermouth. The fruits of angelica contain a higher percentage of oil than the rest of the plant althought the root oil is considered superior to the oils obtained from the other parts of the plant. The root of the American angelica is quite acrid and considered poisonous in the fresh state. When the root is thoroughly dried it loses its acridity and is safe to use. Home gardeners should be very careful that the root is thoroughly dried before using them as herbs. In the wild it is very easy to confuse angelica with water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) which is an extremely poisonous plant. If wildcrafting would be best to do it with an experienced botanist.