Name: Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
Otherwise known as: Angel’s Food
Habitat: A biennial member of the Umbelliferae family growing up to 2m in river valleys and damp meadows in Europe. The plant has hairy, hollow-ridged stems and broad leaves which look similar to celery with umbels of white/green flowers in the third year that produce seed and then the plant dies. The fresh root is very poisonous and the stem juice can cause photosensitivity.
What does it do: According to legend, the archangel appeared in a dream to the Abbot of a medieval monastery and revealed that the plant could cure plague. It is also said to bloom on May 8, the feast day of St Michael and is therefore regarded as offering protection against evil spirits and witchcraft. Angelica was highly regarded by medieval herbalists that believed it would cure every conceivable malady: plague, poisoning, ague and all contagious diseases.
Angelica is one of the many plants known as ‘friend of the elderly’, being able to increase the circulation of blood and therefore oxygen to the brain, heart, liver and intestines. The coumarins have a proven ability to dilate the coronary vessels and relieve spasms and are also calcium channel blockers, which are now coming to prominence as treatments for hypertension, angina and arrhythmia. The plant is considered specific against Buerger’s disease which leads to a narrowing of the veins in the extremities.
Recent research suggests that Angelica has immune-enhancing activities and will prove important in offering protection against the growth and spread of tumours. However, the fresh root contains psoralens that are known to promote tumours. The root toxin is neutralised when dried.
The plant is greatly valued as a fragrance in soaps, creams and perfumes, especially colognes. It is a flavouring agent for Chartreuse and Benedictine, which is interesting as infusions of the root were given to recovering alcoholics. Crushed seeds spread in car interiors reduce travel sickness; however it must be avoided when pregnant.
Care must be exercised when gathering Angelica as it closely resembles the deadly Water Hemlock (Cicuta virosa) and shares the same habitat.