Angelicas are biennials or short-lived perennials, and these giants of the parsley family are related to carrots and aromatic seed plants like dill, caraway, cumin, anise and fennel. There are about 60 species of Angelica, and some botanists believe it to be a native of Syria, from where it spread too many cool European climates and naturalized there. It can be found in purple moor and rush pastures, rich thickets, bottom-lands, moist cool woodlands, stream banks and shady roadsides. Angelica archangelica, also known as Archangelica officinalis (European angelica), is the most commonly used garden variety; other varieties include: Angelica atropurpurea (American angelica, Purple angelica, Alexanders); Angelica polymorpha var. sinensis (Chinese angelica, dong quai); and Angelica gigas (Korean angelica).
Angelica archangelica now grows wild in Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Lapland. It is cultivated for its sweet, edible stems and roots, which can be candied, and is grown commercially in moist fields outside London. It is also cultivated in marshy regions of France, certain regions of Germany and Romania, as well as the hilly and coastal regions of Poland and some South East Asian countries like Thailand. Commercially, angelica oil is used to produce a pleasant smelling and relaxing bath oil and in potpourri.
Angelica archangelica is a stately herb which grows very tall and stout. During its first year it produces a simple rosette of leaves with a small stalk, but in its second year the plant abandons the rosette form and grows larger three sectioned leaves and a fluted stem which can reach heights of 1.5 to 2.5 meters. Provide angelica with plenty of room in the garden as it can spread 60cm to 1.5m wide. Large umbels of small but abundant yellowish to greenish-white flowers are borne in mid to late summer, followed by pale yellow, oblong fruits which turn brown as they ripen. The flowers are particularly showy but only occur every two years, after which the plant often dies. The root is a thick fleshy piece of vegetation that reminds one of a huge pale carrot. All parts of the plant can be used, the roots are best in the fall of the first year, the stems and leaves are at their peak in the spring of the second year, and the seeds are ready for use when fully mature.
There are many different stories explaining how Angelica got such a holy name. One such story tells of a monk back in 1665 who met an angel in his dreams. The angel told him of a plant that could cure the plague, so the monk took his advice and boiled angelica, treacle and nutmeg together into a tea. However, no one documented how successful this treatment was. Another theory speculates that the plant derives its name from the fact that Angelica comes into bloom around May 8, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel. John Parkinson the last of the great English herbalists and botanists wrote his “Paradise in Sole” in 1629, putting angelica in the forefront of all medicinal plants; and it is still held in high esteem by herbalists today.
All parts of the plant have medicinal properties, and the main constituents of angelica are volatile oils, valeric acid, angelic acid, angelicin, safrole, scopoletin, and linoleic acid; making it useful in the treatment of fevers, colds, coughs, flatulent colic and other stomach disorders. The root and rhizome of Angelica archangelica are approved by the German Commission E for digestive disturbances, including flatulence and mild gastrointestinal spasms. Angelica root contains vitamin B12, Zinc, Thiamine, Sucrose, Riboflavin, Potassium, Magnesium, Iron, Fructose, Glucose, and many other trace minerals. Angelica is a very good tonic herb for women, children and the elderly, and is said to strengthen the heart. It is also used in the treatment of respiratory ailments; and its antibacterial action makes it an effective gargle for sore throats and mouth infections. A powder made from the dried root is used for athlete's foot, as well as an insecticide and pesticide.
Thankfully angelica is making its way back into our kitchens with its delicte, sweet flavour - reminiscent of celery. The roots, stalks, leaves and flowers are all edible. Perhaps the most familiar use of angelica is in its candied form, and it is angelica that was the original green candy in fruit cakes. The stems were sugared and coloured and used extensively in decorating cakes and desserts. The essential oil of the root and seeds is used as a vanilla-like flavouring in ice creams and candies and the leaves and chopped stems are great added to stewed fruits; rhubarb and plums in particular. When ground into a powder the root has a stronger earthy flavour, and is used in cookies, cakes, breads and muffins. The leaves and stems are also added to soups, stews, fish or poultry, and the young shoots are a refreshing addition to salads.
Many people in the cold northern regions such as Siberia and Finland consider angelica a vegetable, and eat the stems raw, sometimes spread with butter. Some people find them rather strong when eaten raw, so for a milder taste, try chopping the stems and roasting them with onions - this makes a wonderful caramelized side dish for pork. Because of its celery like flavour, angelica has a natural affinity with fish, and because of its antimicrobial properties, Laplanders wrap fish in the leaves to preserve them on long journeys. An added bonus is the wonderful flavour angelica imparts.
Often the leaves are minced and used as a part of what the French call a “court boullion”. Court bouillon means "short broth" and is a simple yet flavourful liquid made with various ingredients, prepared ahead of time and cooled and strained before using it to poach fish, seafood or chicken.
The liquid often contains water but can also include an acid such as such as wine, vinegar, or citrus. An acid, added to court-bouillon preserves the colour of salmon and turns shellfish bright red. Sea salt, an assortment of vegetables like leeks, onions and carrots; combined with herbs like angelica, celery, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, cloves and peppercorns, allow chefs to add seasonal flavours to their dishes.
With its height and spreading bright green leaves, angelica will add that “wow” factor to any garden. It is essential for all cottage gardens and loves woodland conditions, with plenty of moist shade, preferably near rivers or deposits of water. Try it as a background plant in the perennial flower border, or in large containers on shady patios. All parts of the plant are fragrant, and the flower nectar attracts bees.
Angelica is a very hardy herb and thrives in cool climates in a semi-shady to sunny location. In cold winter regions it will die back completely but comes back in spring. In the sub tropics it acts like an annual, completing its life cycle within a year. In hot regions it will require semi-shade, thorough watering, and protection from the hot midday sun. Although it will adapt to most well-drained garden soils, angelica thrives in fertile, neutral to slightly acidic soils, so prepare the planting holes well by digging them over deeply and adding lots of compost, or acid compost if your soil is alkaline. In order to thrive angelica requires regular watering and will quickly wilt if the soil is allowed to dry out completely. Also, keep the soil free of weeds, and cut back after flowering if you do not wish to collect the seeds, but rather encourage new leaf growth.
Angelica is propagated by seeds or division, but for the gardener it may be easier to purchase a small plant to start angelica. Seeds planted in autumn, either in seed trays or directly into the garden, will come up earlier and stronger than those sown in spring, as long as they do not dry out. It is best to plant the seeds right away because they do not remain viable for long periods, but they can be refrigerated for a short while in an airtight jar. In garden beds the seeds are sown in clumps and later thinned out. Because angelica seed needs light to germinate, cover with a very light layer of soil, or simply tamp them lightly into the top layer of soil. Germination can be slow and erratic, so sow extra seeds to avoid disappointment. Seedlings should be pricked out into individual pots when they are young. Once the young plant has filled the pot, angelica can be planted outside, but be careful not to break the tap root.
Watch out for slugs and snails, especially when young, as well as aphids, leaf miners and spider mites; if necessary control these pests with blasts of water or an insecticidal soap. Angelica may also succumb to powdery mildews.
Caution: Any of the angelicas may cause skin photosensitivity or dermatitis due to the presence of furanocoumarins. Do not use excessively while pregnant or breastfeeding without consulting your doctor.
Angelica arhangelica seed is available from www.livingseeds.co.za and www.theseedvault.co.za