Friday, May 24, 2013

Angelic by Name, Angelic by Nature

Angelica in Bonnefont Angelica Flower

Left: Angelica silhouetted against the blind arcade in Bonnefont cloister. Modern gardeners admire the bold, architectural qualities of angelica as an ornamental plant, but it has a long history as a useful herb. Right: The flower structure is typical of the carrot family to which it belongs. Photographs by Carly Still

Unknown to the Greeks and Romans, the beautifully named Angelica archangelica is a native of northern Europe. It can be difficult to determine whether it is this “garden angelica” or its close relative, A. sylvestris, that is under discussion in early sources, although Renaissance plantsmen like John Gerard distinguished between the two (see images of A. sylvestris in the wild).

A latecomer to the medieval pharmacopeia, angelica nevertheless had a reputation as a panacea and a sovereign remedy against plague. By the seventeenth century, the great English herbalist John Parkinson placed it above all other medicinal plants. It was also used as an amulet, protecting against witchcraft and demonic agency, and as an antidote to poison.

A stately plant bearing large umbels with greenish-white flowers, angelica can reach six feet or more in height, blooming in its second year. It is a member of a large and important family of aromatic plants, the Apiaceae, or carrot family, which includes toxic species, such as poison hemlock and hogweed, as well as many species that have long been used both in medicine and cooking, such as fennel, parsley, and asafoetida. A plant of great beauty and presence as a garden subject, angelica is a culinary as well as a medicinal herb: the hollow fluted stems are candied and used in cakes and confectionery, and the seeds and roots are used to flavor such famous liqueurs as Benedictine and Chartreuse. Although the proprietary recipes for these extant monastic cordials may not be traced directly to the Middle Ages, they have their origins in the medieval practice of compounding wines and beers with herbs.

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.

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