Dear Readers, I was going to wait until my angelica plant flowered before writing about it, but I was so excited by the size of it that I could not defer gratification any longer. This giant member of the carrot family is native to the UK and my Harrap’s Guide to Wildflowers describes it as ‘very common’. Hah! I am sure I have never tripped over it before. It seems to have grown about a foot in the last week and is starting to be covered in great bulbous flowerheads. It looks strangely edible to me, as indeed parts of it are, though those in the know say that garden angelica (which has the delightful Latin name Angelica archangelica) is rather more delicate.
I know angelica largely as the green candied ‘fruit’ that was plonked on top of a cake to provide a colour contrast to the glacé cherries or the candied orange peel, as in the picture below.
If you want to make your own, you can boil the stems, shoots or leaves in sugar syrup, and voila! You might be disappointed by the colour though, as the home-cooked examples that I’ve seen end up looking a kind of olive-yellow colour. The leaves can be eaten as a vegetable, or added to rhubarb. The seeds can also be used as a spice. However, be very careful not to confuse the plant with its close relatives hemlock and hemlock water-dropwort, or you could well end up deaded as my Dad used to say. The leaves of both these poisonous plants are very delicate and filmy compared to angelica, however, so that should help.
That doyen of the herb garden Jekka McVicar has a recipe for angelica jam, which you can find here. Don’t come asking me for any of mine, though, as my main reason for planting this whopper is, as usual, the pollinators that I’m hoping will wing a path to my door to feed on the mass of white flowers.
One in particular is the Norwegian wasp (Dolichovespula norwegica), a rather uncommon critter who can be distinguished from our usual wasps by a rusty band at the top of the abdomen. The adults apparently have a great fondness for the flowers of angelica and giant hogweed. How I would love to grow giant hogweed! But I fear I would be most unpopular with the neighbours, so angelica is a good substitute. The larvae of the wasp (who are fed on ground-up caterpillars, which is one reason why wasps of all kinds are the gardener’s friend) secrete a kind of honeydew to reward their hard-working aunties. The wasps generally make their nests in a tree, so let’s hope they’ve already settled somewhere else before coming to The County Roads to feed.
The plant is also the larval foodplant of the swallowtail butterfly, but I doubt that one will come all the way to North London just to oblige me. Lots of moths also feed on it, however, so fingers crossed.
Medicinally, chewing an angelica root before breakfast supposedly reduced heart palpitations and increased urination (though hopefully not at the same time). Irish folklore suggests that angelica could be used as a treatment for epilepsy, and that it could help with hydrophobia, the fear of water that usually accompanies rabies (from the Eatweeds website).
On the Plantlore website, it’s reported that if someone had a cut or graze, an angelica leaf was laid on the wound to heal it. It’s also said that in Devon, travelling people used to smoke angelica mixed with elm as a kind of tobacco.
It seems that angelica was also very much a London plant in days gone by: ‘A Modern Herbal’ by Mrs M.Grieve says of angelica:
“In several London squares and parks, Angelica has continued to grow, self-sown, for several generations as a garden escape; in some cases it is appreciated as a useful foliage plant, in others, it is treated rather as an intruding weed. Before the building of the London Law Courts and the clearing of much slum property between Holywell Street and Seven Dials, the foreign population of that district fully appreciated its value, and were always anxious to get it from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where it abounded and where it still grows. Until very recent years, it was exceedingly common on the slopes bordering the Tower of London on the north and west sides; there, also, the inhabitants held the plant in high repute, both for its culinary and medicinal use.”
When I can get back to Central London (in two week’s time, once my second vaccination kicks in) I shall have to see if the plant still grows in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I imagine that things are rather more manicured these days.
Now, I was trying to find you a lovely poem, but while my search has pulled up lots of poets named Angelica, there is not a single poem that actually mentions the plant. And so, instead, here is a song called ‘Angelica’. It’s been recorded by both Gene Pitney and Scott Walker, and there are links to both below (don’t say I’m not good to you :-)). Gene Pitney was really part of my childhood – when we listened to the radio on Saturday mornings, someone always seemed to be requesting ‘ 24 Hours from Tulsa’. which has got to be one of the most overheated ballads ever committed to vinyl (and, in retrospect, a rather strange choice for ‘Family Favourites’). My Mum used to get furious whenever she listened to it, and indeed it does paint a rather poor picture of the chap involved.
‘Your Dad would never do something like that’ , she said, and I am 100% sure she was right.
By the way, I like the way that the pronunciation has changed from the rather pedestrian ‘Anj-ell-ika’ to ‘Ang- ell- eeka’. Much more dramatic.
Photo One from https://www.bbcgoodfoodme.com/recipes/cassata-siciliana/
Photo Two by By S. Rae – https://www.flickr.com/photos/35142635@N05/9626119331/in/photolist-fECnUF-6QMCiR-6QRECw, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35577701
Photo Three by By Entomolo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48664965