Anyone who likes to spend time in nature comes to appreciate the amazing diversity of life on this planet. Although every living thing has its own unique beauty and purpose, sometimes we come across something that really jumps out at us and demands our attention. Maybe it’s the dazzling contrast of a red eft (the land stage of the common newt) walking slowly over the snow in early April, or the blazing gold of a field of goldenrod in the evening sun in September.
Sometimes a plant or animal stands out for some other reason than it’s brilliant color. A few years ago I was walking on a trail along a river where trees were sparse and the ground was moist and I had one of those experiences. There in front of me were a dozen huge plants that towered over me. They were about eight feet high, had deep purplish stems and were crowned with several spherical clusters of flowers about eight inches in diameter. Although I had never seen it before, I knew immediately that this was purple angelica. When face-to-face with angelica, not only is one impressed by the power and beauty of the plant, but one of its amazing attributes is that it’s a herbaceous plant, not a shrub. This means that angelica grows to that huge size in a single growing season! As the name of the plant implies, I’m not the only one who was impressed by angelica.
There are two species of angelica that grow in Ontario. Purple angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) is our native species and the one we are most likely to run into. It is recognized primarily by the purply maroon colour of its stalk. European angelica (Angelica archangelica) is rare. It has escaped out of gardens and established a small population in a few areas.
Angelica is not a common plant in Ontario. I have extensively explored the wild places in this province looking for herbs for the last 20 years, and I only came across it for the first time four years ago. Since that time I have found it growing in one other area. If we are careful not to over-pick it, it may be common enough to harvest in a few locations, but angelica should not be wild harvested in most parts of our region. This plant, however, is very easy to grow and seeds and seedlings of both species are readily available from better nurseries. If you decide to grow it, make sure that you give it lots of space.
Angelica is unusual in another way. It is a member of the carrot family. The majority of herbs from this family that grow in Ontario are biennials; they don’t flower until their second growing season and after they produce seed they die. What is unusual about angelica in this regard is that it “sort of” grows like a biennial; it usually doesn’t flower until its third year of growth, but like other biennials, once it goes to seed it dies. It usually requires an extra year of growth before it flowers because it needs to grow a large root system in order to be able to grow so large in a single season. Because of it’s unusual growth cycle, many gardening books refer to angelica as a short-lived perennial. This is incorrect because a true perennial, no matter how long it lives, should be able to flower for at least two seasons. Angelica cannot. It always dies after it flowers.
Although all parts of angelica are used medicinally, herbalists primarily use the roots. Like all root herbs, angelica is best harvested in the fall — usually some time in the last half of October. You cannot harvest the roots of angelica after it flowers because they will be dead or dying. Therefore they must be harvested at the end of its first or second growing season. The second year roots are preferred, but most people harvest the roots of the first year plant because sometimes it flowers in its second year, in which case it would be too late.
The medicinal properties of purple and European angelica are similar enough that these herbs tend to be used interchangeably and I will collectively refer to them as angelica.
MEDICINAL PROPERTIES OF ANGELICA
The properties of angelica are multi faceted. Like it’s cousin Chinese angelic (Angelica sinensis), better known as dong quai, angelica is an important herb for the female reproductive system. It can help to regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle if it is irregular, bring on her period if it is delayed or absent, and reduce menstrual cramping and PMS symptoms. It can help reduce the symptoms of menopause as well.
Angelica is also an important herb for the digestive system. It helps to improve digestion by increasing the secretion of digestive juices, especially of the stomach and small intestine. It is also beneficial for many digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, nausea and cramping. Angelica is also an excellent herb for people who have a poor appetite due to anorexia or other illnesses.
The influence of angelica on the digestive system is not limited to the digestive processes themselves. It is also beneficial for irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract such as colitis.
Angelica is also an excellent herb for respiratory conditions. It is used for unproductive coughs and to reduce lung and nasal congestion. It is also great for bronchitis. In respiratory infections angelica will also help to relieve low grade fevers, however, it is not recommended in high fevers (greater than 39 degrees Celsius).
Many people in our society suffer from poor circulation. The usual symptoms are coldness of the extremities, especially their hands and feet. In this situation, the most important thing is increase your level of aerobic exercise. However, angelica is one of a number of herbs that can be very useful to help improve peripheral circulation.
PREPARATION & DOSAGES
Most people like the taste of angelica. It is an important ingredient in a number of popular liqueurs. When used for medicinal purposes, angelica can be taken as a tea or tincture. As with most herbs, I prefer the tincture of the fresh root. To prepare angelica tea, steep about 2 teaspoons of the chopped, dried root in 1 to 1-1/2 cups of boiled water in a closed container for 15 to 20 minutes. It is best if you crush the root pieces first with a mortar and pestle (it’s always a good idea to have these on had if you like to make teas from roots and barks). The tincture can be taken straight or in an ounce or two of water. The usual dose for a 1:5 potency fresh root tincture is about 3 to 5 droppers (2 1/2 to 4 ml). For respiratory conditions, fevers and circulatory problems, angelica tincture is best added to hot water or the tea of another herb.
For chronic conditions, angelica should be taken 3 to 4 times per day. For acute respiratory conditions, 4 to 6 times per day. For female reproductive conditions, it should not be taken continuously throughout a woman’s cycle. It is best to begin about a week before you would expect to get your period until a couple of days after menstruation and then stop for the remainder of your cycle.
These dosages are for the use of angelica on its own, however, angelica is best taken in combination with other herbs appropriate for the condition. It generally makes up about 15 to 25% of a formulation.
There are some cautions to be considered when using angelica. It should not be taking during pregnancy or lactation and is not recommended for children under three years. In addition, angelica contains constituents called furanocoumarins, which can increase light sensitivity, especially in fair-skinned people. As a result, susceptible individuals can get sunburn more easily and should therefore use this herb with caution or not at all during the warmer months of the year. Anyone who experiences these symptoms while using angelica should discontinue the use of the herb immediately. The symptoms will completely disappear within a few days.
The photosensitizing properties of angelica are not as likely to occur when it is used in combination with other herbs as recommended above. However, because of this and it’s general warming properties, angelica is an herb that is best used during the fall and winter months (October to March).
Although angelica is an important medicinal herb, it also tastes great and is warming to the body and spirit. When you are out hiking in the coming months as the weather gets cooler, you might want to consider bringing along a thermos of angelica tea instead of coffee or hot chocolate. For the best flavour and effect add a bit of ginger and honey. Then when the nip in the air starts to get to you, have a drink. As you feel the warmth spreading through your body, don’t forget to thank our forest ‘angel.’