Edible Plants: Angelica; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition

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Angelica is a tall, edible plant used in traditional medicine and also as food. It has an aniseed flavor and many gastronomical uses. It is also nutritious and contains antioxidant.

Angelica is a tall herbaceous plant native to Europe that grows abundantly in damp woodlands and especially along river banks. This plant, generally grown as a biennial, has an historical significance as a medicinal herb, although nowadays the plant’s essential oil is primarily used in the manufacture of toothpaste, shampoo and soap. The stems, leaves, seeds and roots of angelica are all edible.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica) is thought to have originated in the Lapland region of Northern Europe and was brought to Eastern Europe by the Vikings. The story of how angelica was named is somewhat ambivalent. There is a legend about a monk who was visited by St. Michael the Archangel, in a dream or vision, whilst he was praying for a cure to the plague. The monk was given angelica for the people to chew as a remedy. Another explanation is that the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel falls on May 8, according to the Julian calendar, which was the official calendar in use before the 20th century. The Angelica plant blooms in early May and so was named in honor of the religious festival.

The idea that angelica had protective powers prevailed in medieval times when people drunk Carmelite water (contains angelica) to ward of spells from witches. In 1665 an outbreak of the Black Death spread throughout London. Londoners were desperate for a cure so the College of Physicians, under the instruction of King Charles II, concocted a tonic which they called; the King’s Majesty’s excellent recipe for the plague. The brew which included treacle, nutmeg and angelica, was slowly stewed and prescribed twice daily to thousands of Londoners.

Varieties of Angelica: There are about sixty varieties of angelica, however it is definitely not a good idea to look for angelica in the wild unless you are in the company of an expert. Water hemlock, also known as poisonous hemlock (Conium maculatum) has often been mistaken for angelica and is known to have caused the death of foragers. Also angelica should not be eaten, especially the roots, until its second year, as before that it could be toxic.

Angelica archangelica is native to Europe and can grow up to eight feet in height by its second year. This plants sweet scented green flowers bloom in late spring and early summer. This species is sometimes bitter and has a liquorice flavor. Angelica atropurpurea is native to North America and was cooked and eaten by early American settlers. This tall species is also biennial and can grow to a height of nine feet. It has greenish-white flowers with purple stems and blooms from June to October. Angelica gigas, also known as Korean Angelica grows to a height of four feet and has crimson and green colored umbels with white flowers. This plant blooms in late summer and early fall. Another variety native to, or has been naturalized in Asia, is Angelica sinensi, also known as dong quai or Chinese angelica. In Chinese traditional medicine dong quai is sometimes regarded as ‘woman’s ginseng,’ because it is used to regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle and relieve symptoms of menopause.

The Culinary Uses of Angelica: The angelica plant has multiple culinary uses, with its musky aroma and a flavor comparable to juniper berries. Indeed, juniper berries can be substituted with angelica seeds in most recipes. The stems have an appearance and texture similar to celery. They are used, along with the leaves, in stir-fry’s and also for soups, stews and salads. Candied angelica stems are used by pastry chefs to decorate cakes and desserts. Angelica seeds feature in Moroccan dishes. Angelica essential oil is also used as a flavoring in the alcoholic drinks vermouth, Benedictine and Chartreuse. Angelica is also used to substitute for juniper berries in the production of gin.

The Nutrition and Medicinal Value of Angelica: This plant is a good source of vitamin C and also potassium. Angelica also contains coumarins. These are natural compounds which have antifungal and antibacterial properties that help protect plants. Its thought that coumarin has many health benefits including antioxidants, anti-hypotension and anti-inflammatory, yet coumarin also contains potentially harmful chemicals. Clearly more research needs to be done, however the consensus among experts is that naturally occurring coumarin, as opposed to synthetically produced, has heath benefits if consumed in moderation.

The type of coumarin found in angelica acts as a blood thinner, so people who are taking anticoagulant medications should avoid angelica. Other individuals who should avoid consuming this plant are pregnant, or woman who are nursing infants, and also those who suffer with diabetes.

In traditional folk medicine angelica was used as an expectorant to treat coughs and cold. A tonic was made from the roots and used to treat a variety of ailments, including indigestion, rheumatism, anemia, gout, headaches and backache.

Image, Angelica sylvestris or wild angelica; image credit fotopedia.com. Priamary image, Angelica archangelica; image credit fotopedia.com.  

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