Synonyms: Garden angelica, Archangelica officinalis, Root of the Holy Ghost, archangel, wild parsnip
Scientific Name: Angelica archangelica L.
Family: Apiaceae (Umbelliferae)
Northern European and North Asia.
Roots: essential oil, bitter principles, tannins, furocoumarins, resins, pectin
Angelica is striking for its height: this biennial or occasionally triennial herbaceous plant sometimes reaches an imposing two metres in its second year. Related to carrot, celery, lovage and caraway, angelica has a hollow, distinctly striate or furrowed stem which takes on a purple hue at the top. The flowers and two- to three-pinnate leaves grow from dilated clasping bases. The leaves are bluish-green on the lower surface. The globular umbels are made up of numerous small blossoms and open in July and August of the second year. The individual blossoms appear greenish-white due to the ring of small white petals that frame the green pistil – the female organ of the flower. The male anthers rise from the blossom like antennae. The whole plant is extremely aromatic. Angelica loves river banks and damp meadows and is found widely in mountainous regions.
The dried root is the part used for medicinal purposes. The preparation is very aromatic and stimulates secretion of gastric and pancreatic juice and therefore stimulates the appetite and aids digestion. It disinfects the bowels, relieves flatulence, indigestion and gastrointestinal disorders and stimulates bile secretion. It soothes coughs due to its antispasmodic properties. Folk medicine recommends ointments and baths with angelica as a supplementary treatment for rheumatism and gout. Anthroposophic Medicine has also successfully used angelica to treat swollen lymph glands.
The name angelica originates from the Middle Ages, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a hermit in a dream and revealed the plant as a particularly effective remedy for the plague. This vision fits in with the idea that healing properties are located in the metaphysical world, in the realm of the angels. The scientific name angelica translates as angel (Lat. angelicus = angelic), archangelica means archangel. Since angelica is native to northern regions the oldest written records of its medicinal properties are found in Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland, where it is known by the name kvan. In Iceland it was forbidden by law to dig up angelica plants unless they were growing on the digger’s own property. Vikings brought the potent medicinal plant to Central Europe in the 10th century, where it rapidly became very popular and was cultivated in monastery gardens, whence it spread and became wild. As with so many healing plants, in Europe angelica, too, was thought to protect against the plague, and the root was chewed to stop people contracting the disease. As late as 1771 the French physician, botanist and lawyer Pierre Joseph Buchoz (1731–1807) advised sprinkling one’s clothes with powdered angelica root during a plague epidemic. Since the Middle Ages angelica has also been an ingredient of theriac (Greek therion = wild animal), a medicinal concoction originally developed as an antidote and used since antiquity as a panacea for all kinds of diseases and ailments and still manufactured today, although with a modified recipe and other indications.
In mediaeval times the involucral leaves from which the new shoots grow and which envelope the flower buds were regarded as symbolising protection. In folklore, therefore, angelica was regarded as protecting against black magic and evil spirits.
All parts of the angelica plant are edible. The Norwegians, Icelanders and inhabitants of the Faeroe Islands still eat its stems and roots, either cooked as vegetables or raw in salads. The powdered root can be used as a condiment; candied root is used in baking in a similar way to candied orange peel; and candied angelica stems are regarded as a tasty treat in Southern Germany and Switzerland. Angelica is a stomachic and much favoured as a component of different herbal liqueurs. It fixes the fragrance in potpourris.
The plant from another perspective
Angelica bridges the gap between the watery and earthy on the one hand and the airy and light on the other. In its first year it bundles all its strength for root growth: the only sign of its presence above ground is a profuse crown of leaves. The leaf surfaces collect the sunlight and direct it – bound in energy stores such as sugar and starch – to the roots. In the second year the strong, water-rich root releases all this energy into the light, allowing the shrub to stretch into the air and blossom, then to die. Its preference for damp sites reveals its attachment to the watery. Lack of balance between the watery and airy forces in the region of the head and neck can lead to colds, with swelling of the mucous membranes and a dry, tickly cough. Angelica redresses this imbalance.