Garden Angelica

Garden angelica (Angelica archangelica), a robust umbelliferus plant, grows wild in Northern Europe, including the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland, in littoral and mountainous habitats. Named after the archangel, archangelos in ancient Greek, the appellation probably reflects its reputation as a medicinal herb. The name “angelica” is used in English, herbe d’angelique in French, angelica in Italian, Engelwurz in German, and engelwortel in Dutch. The Saami reindeer herders in northern Scandinavia have used and still harvest the wild-growing angelica in the mountains for food. Its use among the Saami is known from written sources from the mid-17th century, although it is probably an ancient practice among them. The Saami people have always used wild-growing specimens. Reindeer milk mixed with angelica and sorrel was an important dish that could also be preserved for the winter.

However, among their neighboring Norse people, angelica was cultivated in gardens as a vegetable already during the Viking. Ever since the first settlement of the Faroe Islands and Iceland in the north Atlantic, garden angelica was grown for human consumption. Garden angelica must be categorized as one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in the North. It was probably also used and introduced in the Norse settlements in Greenland. Garden angelica is still known as kuannit among the Greenlandic Inuits, a borrowing from Norse settlers. In the Scandinavian languages, it is known as hvann in Faroese, hvonn in Icelandic, kvann in Norwegian, and kvanne in Swedish, which all derive from the ancient Germanic hwanno. It is still a well-known cultivated plant in certain parts of Europe, although nowadays it is more used as a condiment for beverages and in herbal medicine rather than a vegetable.

Garden angelica is a thick and tall aromatic fragrant herb that grows only leaves during its first year. The plant is biennial, and during its second year its fluted stem can reach a height of six feet. Its leaves are composed of numerous small leaflets, divided into three principal groups. The flowers, which blossom in July and August, are small and numerous, yellowish or greenish in color. These are grouped into large, globular umbels, which bear pale yellow, oblong fruits.

Although many authors regard its importance as a source of vitamin C as the primary explanation for the popularity of the plant in the northern regions of the hemisphere, this must be disputed. In a study by Hans Debes Joensen, it is pointed out that at least the Faroese angelica is very poor in vitamin C and could therefore not have been of any importance as a prophylactic or a therapeutic remedy against scurvy.

History as a Cultivated Plant

When the Vikings began trading expeditions to southwestern Europe in the ninth century, angelica was an important commodity. The Saga of Olafr Tryggvason from 1190 recorded that Norse king Olafr “took a large stick of angelica in his hand and went home therewith to the lodging of Queen Tyri” and gave it as a gift to her. Wild harvested angelica is still sold in local markets in southern Greenland. Toponyms from Iceland, Norway, and the Faroes indicate the earlier significance of this plant as a wild-harvested plant.

However, angelica gardens have been known in Norse areas since the 10th century. In Iceland, there are many swathes of angelica, and special angelica gardens were known to exist in the old days. Right from the landnam, the time when the first settlers were taking land in the north Atlantic, angelica has been used for human consumption and is also one of the most important medicinal herbs in the history of Iceland. There are a few medieval sources dealing with herbs in Iceland; there are several mentions of angelica in the texts of those times. The ancient Icelandic law book, Grcigcis, for instance, refers to penalties incurred for the theft of angelica, some as serious as being outlawed or fined heavily if the plant was stolen from someone else’s garden. These laws imply that garden angelica was cultivated in Iceland.

Garden angelica continued to be popular as a cultivated plant and vegetable in the Faroes, Iceland, and parts of Norway until the early 20th century, sometime up to World War II. Only the stem was eaten, and it had to be harvested before it became too big and too hard. The use of angelica is described in almost every travelogue and book about the rural life of the Faroes and Iceland before World War II. “The tender shoots of this plant, particularly the Flowering stalks, when stripped of the outer skin, are eaten by the inhabitants,” wrote English traveler James Wright in his diary from the Faroe Islands in 1789. Another writer, Jens Christian Svabo, a Faroese-born scientist, wrote in 1783 that the angelica plant was grown in fenced gardens close to the houses. In spring, ashes and seashells were poured on the plants so that they would grow better. The Danish physician Peter Ludvig Panum mentions in 1846 the use of garden angelica in the Faroes. He reported that more-prosperous people consumed it with cream and sugar. Served together with creamy thick sour milk, it was still being offered as a treat to visitors up until the early 20th century. Angelica was also eaten fresh, especially by children. “Most of the children chew pieces of dried saithe or stalks of angelica as they play,” wrote the Scottish ethnographer and zoologist Nelson Annandale in 1905. However, one can get skin eruptions, vesicles, and small ulcers on the lips and the skin around the mouth from eating fresh angelica. Well-kept angelica gardens were a source of pride for many households. Although its use as a food is now reduced to a minimum by Faroese and Icelandic households, some magnificent angelica gardens, fenced with stones, still survive as relicts of a garden culture tracing back to the Viking era. Although wild plants have been brought from the mountains and planted in the gardens, also old cultivars obviously exist, for instance in Norway. They are usually sweeter than the plants originating from the wild.

Angelica is one of the very few medicinal plants that has spread from the north to the south. It has actually been cultivated in the United Kingdom since the days of the Tudors. It was still being grown in reasonable large quantities near London for candying in the late 19th century. Angelica plants “are grown by the London gardeners in moist situations, and along the banks of ditches,” according to John Claudius Loudon’s An Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1839). Recipes of candied angelica are given in many British 19th- and 20th-century cookbooks. Nowadays, it is widely cultivated in Central and Western Europe. Candied angelica is still imported to the United Kingdom and the United States from France for professional confectioners, especially around Christmas.

Medicinal Herb

Angelica was considered to be a kind of cure-all as well as being an important way of eking out the household larder in the west Nordic areas. All parts of the plant could be used, the seeds, leaves, stalks, and roots. It has been widely used in Saami and Scandinavian folk medicine, but it was also sought after for scholarly medicinal purposes. The 17th-century physician Nicholas Culpeper wrote in 1653 that angelica stalks “are good preservatives in time of infection; and at other times to warm and comfort a cold stomach. The root also steeped in vinegar, and a little of that vinegar taken sometimes fasting, and the root smelled unto, is good for the same purpose.” Among many virtues he also mentions that the root made into powder and made up into a plaster could be laid on the bites of mad dogs, “or any other venomous creature.” The root, radix angelicae, has been available in the pharmacies. Angelica was described as “being stomachic, cordial, alexipharmic; of great use in malignant pestilential fevers, in all contagious distempers, and the plague itself: it causes perspiration, and drives out all noxious humours through the pores of the skin,” according to a British dictionary of trade from 1810. Compounds to be found in the plant are bittering agents, essential oils, flavonoids, tanning agents, resins, silica, coumarins, and terpenes.

In our time, garden angelica is cultivated on a large scale in the Harz Mountains in Germany, and also in Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Switzerland, and the Marais Poitevin in France for producing herbal medicine and for various alcohol products. Minor commercial production also exists on Iceland. It is cultivated because of its root, which is harvested from the end of September until the middle of October. The world yearly production of angelica essential oil is 2,200 pounds.

Flavoring Agent, Symbolism, and Magic

Nowadays, angelica besides serving as a medicinal herb is mainly used as flavoring in additives, honey, and various beverages. Various alcoholic beverages, like vermouth, Boonekamp, Benedictine, Chartreuse, and gin, are flavored with angelica. In Iceland nowadays, it has an economic importance in the production of the popular angelica vodka. Essential oil from angelica is used in aroma therapy.

Garden angelica was used as a fertility symbol by Old Icelandic chieftains. According to Norwegian botanist Ove Fossa, it was still being used as a fertility symbol among Norwegian peasants in Voss in the late 19th century. The front riders, including the bride, of a mounted wedding procession carried large angelica stems in their hands. It also had some reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Angelica has been used as a magic plant in the North. It was planted in graveyards to keep away septic viruses in corpses, and angelica plants can actually still be seen growing in Faroese cemeteries. The Saami made a primitive flute of the stem, and their children used the stem for making toys, for instance as smoking pipes. In Norway, the dried root was smoked or chewed by the peasants. Nowadays, it is grown in many gardens as a herb and a spice and also as an ornamental plant. Plants are available through commercial nurseries.

Ingvar Svanberg

Further Reading

Emsheimer, Ernst. “A Lapp Musical Instrument.” Ethnos 12 (1947): 86-97.

Fossa, Ove. “Angelica: From Norwegian Mountains to the English Trifle.” In Wild Food: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2004, edited by Richard Hosking, 131-42. Totnes, U.K.: Prospect Books, 2006.

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