How many times have I hiked the same route never to discover angelica? Probably more than a hundred. Of course, this is very much in keeping with what I have come to expect from wild plants—I almost always find something good when I’m out foraging, but it’s often not what I set out to find.
In his angelica entry in Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West (1997), Gregory L. Tilford generalizes the genus (Angelica spp.) instead of identifying specific species.
According to Growing Hermione’s Garden, Angelica archangelica, commonly known as garden angelica, Holy Ghost, wild celery and Norwegian angelica, has been cultivated both as a vegetable and a medicinal since the 10th century. The name of the biennial plant “comes from the Greek word ‘arkhangelos’ (arch-angel), due to the myth that it was the archangel Michael who told of its use as medicine,” the blogger writes.
I searched but did not find a USDA listing for angelica in Colorado, although Angelica atropurpurea L., aka purple-stemmed angelica, is listed as endangered in Maryland and Rhode Island and threatened in Tennessee—so these are not states in which to forage it. Angelica lucida L. is listed in Connecticut and New York as endangered and Rhode Island as threatened; Angelica triquinata Michx is listed as endangered in Kentucky and Maryland; and Angelica venenosa is listed as a species of concern in Connecticut. There are approximately 60 species of Angelica in total.
“Cow parsnip is related to angelica, no?” wrote commenter Ellen at the end of one of my cow parsnip rants a few months ago, where I plotted the candying of cow parsnip stalks. “And I believe candied angelica was a thing back in the day.”
Sure enough, a quick jaunt to Connie and Arnold Krockmal’s 1974 cookbook revealed a recipe for candied angelica (A. atropurpurea), although the plant labeled Angelica atropurpurea therein looks nothing like Tilford’s Angelica or the one I have been eating. Confusing matters further, an online search of A. atropurpurea images revealed some photos with clear Angelica species characteristics and others of cow parsnip and giant hogweed erroneously labeled A. atropurpurea.
Ellen also shared a link to some beautiful photos and writing about her bitters-making project, which inspired me to want to flavor alcohol too, especially since I read that angelica can be used as a botanical in gin.
Shortly thereafter, I was hiking in what I like to call “the secret meadow” at the end of a hidden footpath off one of our usual routes, when I spied what I thought was angelica.
Not an Identification to be Taken Lightly
Angelica and cow parsnip are indeed related, as both are members of the Umbelliferae family. The angelica plant is reminiscent of cow parsnip in its scale and in the large, thick flower stems emerging mightily from its leaves in summer. Umbelliferae family members produce umbels, “flower cluster(s) in which all of the flower stalks radiate from the same point,” according to Thayer (2010). Differentiating cow parsnip and angelica, however, Thayer (2010) writes that “each angelica leaf has dozens of leaflets as opposed to cow parsnip’s three.”
The Umbelliferae family includes many commercial vegetables—parsnip, carrots, parsley, dill, coriander, fennel and anise, to name a few—but it also has some poisonous family members too. Tilford (1997) says angelica (Angelica spp.) closely resembles water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii), which is not only poisonous but also deadly poisonous. Compounding matters, angelica enjoys moist habitats, as does water hemlock.
Suffice it to say that this is absolutely, definitely one plant to know before you try it—because mistaking water hemlock for angelica can be a deadly mistake. As Tilford puts it, water hemlock is “unquestionably the most poisonous plant in North America (one-quarter teaspoon of the root may be fatal within 15 minutes).”
Fortunately he gives a way to tell angelica from its poisonous cousins using leaf characteristics. “The leaf edges of angelica are serrate and pinnately divided into opposing pairs, like water hemlock, except that the leaf veins extend from the midribs to the outer tips of the serrations.” In contrast, water hemlock’s veins go to the valleys of the leaf serrations.
Still, I can’t stress enough how much sense it makes to positively identify both angelica and water hemlock before chowing down, and to take a look at poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) beforehand while you’re at it too.
Tilford also writes that angelica is a “hollow-stemmed perennial” with flowers that “consist of umbrella-shaped clusters of tiny white blossoms arranged in a concentric inflorescence like the pattern of a fireworks burst,” and that it has a scent of “spicy celery.”
Collecting Angelica in Late August
I started experimenting with angelica earlier this summer but figured I’d give it a few go-rounds before posting about it on account of the whole mistake = deadly poisoning thing.
Now that it’s late August some of flower-stalk-producing plants are starting to go the way of fall here at 11,000 feet in the Colorado high country, though I’m finding that the pattern recognition skills I’ve established with the leaves are coming in handy, as it’s become easy for me to spy what I presume must be the first-year plants—the ones without flower stalks or umbels—growing near the older ones. Just this past week I collected fresh green leaves and leaf stalks of these non-flowering plants in the shade of a conifer forest.
For a More Complex Bathtub Gin Try…
Since angelica is a botanical used in some gins, and since I am a new fan of the beverage now that I can make my own by flavoring vodka with wild ingredients, I decided to make a more complex batch than my original juniper (wild) and coriander (not wild) experiment. This time I added angelica leaves and leaf stalks along with the aforementioned ingredients, let it sit out of the sun for a week, and voila—more freshly-flavored gin for the imbibing. There’s not much else for me to say on this, as I am hardly a gin connoisseur. I like it, though, and so does Gregg.
Angelica Leaf Candy Clusters
I also tried making candied angelica leaf stalks using the Krockmals’ recipe, boiling them until slightly soft, covering them in sugar, and then letting it stand overnight before boiling off the sugar water. The angelica candy sticks are good; I like the taste better than cow parsnip leaf stalks for this particular usage.
The last time I made them, however, I had a few extra leaves left over from gin-making, so I threw them in the pot. “Are you supposed to do that?” Gregg asked. “Is it in the recipe?” It wasn’t, but I have to say—I like the resultant angelica leaf “candy clusters” even better than I do the stalks. I can’t get enough of them. Go figure.