Angelica: Adding the Angels to the Garden

Angelica archangelica in shade

Last August, a fellow member of the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America had fresh angelica seeds to give away (Angelica archangelica). She warned that the seeds had to be sown immediately–fresh seed is best for successful germination. I quickly sowed several seeds and ended up with 10 plants! I transplanted them in several places in my Virginia garden, some in part shade and some in full sun. They overwintered well here in Zone 7 and emerged in the spring. Today, at the end of July they are all doing well except one that is a little chlorotic (yellow leaves).

From what I have read they need well-drained soil and part shade. However, of my 10 plants, the largest, healthiest plants are in full sun. Nestled in with tomatoes, peppers, and basil, they get plenty of water while the others rely on rainwater. Angelica likes damp soil so this might be why these two are larger than the others. They are about 3 feet tall and wide with large, celery like leaves. The remaining plants are in shade and are healthy, just half the size of the two in full sun.

Angelica archangelica in full sun

Mine have not flowered and I do not expect them to this year. This plant is unusual in that it is not a true annual, biennial, or perennial: it is monocarpic. The plant will flower and set seed once and then it will die. But it could happen the second or third year (rarely the fourth).  When it does flower, the flower stalk grows above the foliage, thus increasing the total height to 6 to 7 feet. However, I can prolong the life of the plant if I prevent it from flowering by cutting off the flower stalks. Then it will continue to grow like a perennial for a few years. This is not a long-lived plant.

Angelica is a member of the Umbelliferae family, home to other herbs such as dill, chervil, and parsley.  These plants have the umbel flowering structure and angelica has umbels of umbels – a compound umbel flower structure.

Hardy to zone 3, there are about 50 species. Angelica archangelica comes from northern Europe – places like Lapland, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. This is the species preferred for culinary use. All parts are edible. I have only eaten the stems and leaves raw. The stem is like celery, but not as sweet, and the leaves are bitter. The stems can be eaten raw; cooked and eaten like a vegetable; candied; or used in jams, jellies, and baked goods (much like rhubarb stems).  The leaves can be used fresh in a green salad or to make tea. The seeds and roots are used for gin; Chartreuse and Benedictine (French liqueurs); and Vermouth and Dubonnet (fortified wine made with botanicals). The root also is used for making yeast breads, muffins, cakes, and cookies.

This is not an easy plant to find and if you search on the Internet you will probably only find small plants for sale. There is another more common native species called Angelica atropurpurea which is edible but not as flavorful.  It is found in swampy areas in the northeastern area of the United States and was used by colonists and Native American for both culinary and medicinal qualities. It grows to about 6 feet with purple stems–hence its nickname purplestem angelica. The flower head is an umbel of umbels but with an overall round shape and the actual flowers are creamy white. This is a striking plant to have in the garden because of its height and purple stems and technically yes you could use it for culinary purposes but why bother. This one is easier to find on the Internet.

Angelica gigas at Chanticleer

Another even more striking species is the Korean angelica. Korean angelica (Angelica gigas) is from several Asian countries. It is very popular as an ornamental plant in this country, not for culinary purposes. The flowers are red/purple and bloom high above the green foliage. This species is a true biennial:  it will flower, set seed, and die in the second year. It does self-seed, but it is not invasive. This species is easier to find online, both seed and plant. It is easier to grow from seed as the seeds do not have to be as fresh as A. archangelica.

I first saw this at Chanticleer in Pennsylvania in the summer. The plant was in several places but because of its height, the flowers were almost eye-level along a boardwalk.

Angelica gigas along boardwalk at Chanticleer

Consider growing all of these in your garden. Not only do angelica plants add drama, their flowers attract and support beneficial insects and pollinators.

Leave a Reply