Angelica archangelica (angelica)
Well-known as a decoration for cakes and puddings, angelica is a tall, aromatic herb that has been cultivated since ancient times.
About this species
Angelica was supposedly revealed to the 14th Century physician Mattheus Sylvaticus by the archangel as a medicinal plant, hence the common name of archangel and subsequent specific epithet archangelica given by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. In the 17th Century the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote “...some called this an herb of the Holy Ghost; others more moderate called it Angelica, because of its angelical virtues...”
Angelica has a long history of cultivation for use as a medicine, flavouring agent and vegetable. As an ornamental, angelica is a striking herb, providing height and structure. Its stems were the inspiration for the fluted, Doric columns of Ancient Greece.
Geography & Distribution
Angelica archangelica is native to north and northeast Europe, Russia, Iceland, Greenland and the Himalayas. It is also widely cultivated and frequently naturalised in northern temperate regions, including the UK.
Angelica archangelica (Image: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Overview: An aromatic, perennial herb that grows up to 2 m tall. It has a thick taproot and bright green, hollow stems, which are sometimes tinged with purple.
Leaves: Up to 70 cm long with broad sheaths at the base. Divided into leaflets (2 or 3 pinnate).
Flowers: Borne in large, globose umbels 10-14 cm across. Each flower is very small (4 mm across) with white or greenish petals.
Fruits: Small, dry, straw-coloured schizocarps (fruits that split into portions known as mericarps) up to 9 mm long with prominent ridges. Each fruit splits into two mericarps (seed-containing portions), a characteristic of this plant family (Apiaceae).
Angelica is a hapaxanthic perennial, in that each year’s growth dies back to ground level after flowering and fruiting, to be replaced by fresh growth the following year.
Two subspecies of this herb are sometimes recognised. Angelica archangelica subspecies archangelica has a pleasant, more aromatic odour and softer stems that are easily compressed, while A. archangelica subsp. litoralis has a sharper, more pungent odour and harder stems. A. archangelica subsp. litoralis has a more limited, mainly coastal distribution.
The most common commercial use of angelica today is for the candied stalks produced to create the familiar bright green confectionery used to decorate cakes and trifles. The art of candying is a speciality of the town of Niort in western France. Indeed, most of the angelica grown commercially for the confectionery trade comes from France.
The raw stems of angelica are eaten in Scandinavia as a traditional food. The cultivar Angelica archangelica ‘Vossakvann’, named after the Voss area in Norway where it is still grown today,was developed through selection for its sweet-tasting stalks. Leaf stalks can be blanched and eaten like celery, and the leaves can be candied.
Angelica is still eaten as a vegetable in Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. The stems and leaf stalks are often candied or cooked with rhubarb, while young flowerheads are eaten in omelettes or grilled.
All parts of this herb are useful. The root was believed to protect against plague and other infectious diseases as well as easing the symptoms of a range of ailments.
The roots and seeds of angelica are used to flavour liqueurs such as Bénédictine and Chartreuse.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Angelica archangelica seeds.
This species at Kew
Angelica archangelica herbarium specimen collected in Kent in 1910 (Image: RBG Kew)
Pressed and dried specimens of Angelica archangelica are held in Kew's Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these can be seen online in Kew's Herbarium Catalogue.
Kew's Economic Botany Collection contains samples of roots, seeds, fruits and oils from angelica.
Kew at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011
In 2011, Kew partnered with The Times to produce a show garden to showcase the significance of plants to science and society.
The garden, designed by Chelsea gold medallist Marcus Barnett, featured species chosen to demonstrate both beauty and utility, including medicinal, commercial, and industrial uses to underline the fact that plants are invaluable to our everyday lives – without them, none of us could live on this planet; they produce our food, clothing and the air that we breathe.
Angelica archangelica was one of the species that featured in the garden, which was awarded a Silver Medal.
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