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Angelica: From Ancient Remedy to Modern Herbal Ally

Last week I wrote about blue cohosh and the foraging trip I took with my mom. This week, I'd like to write about another plant we saw - angelica (Angelica archangelica). This plant has always stood out to me as one of those really special plants in the landscape. I remember taking a stellar photo of one in bloom in Milwaukee's Whitnal Park when I was in high school: the pompom-like flowerhead in chartreuse green, perched on maroon stalks, standing out against a backdrop of a steel-blue stormy sky. This image is forever etched in my memory, and when I think of Angelica, I always see her in that way.


This week, angelica came up again while I was talking to a fellow boarder at the horse barn. She told me that her land has loads of it and we talked for a bit about the herb and its actions.


Angelica flower head

Introduction to Angelica

Angelica, scientifically known as Angelica archangelica, is a biennial plant that thrives in the temperate and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Known by names such as "archangel root," "wild celery," and "Norwegian angelica," this herb stands out with its tall stature, large umbels of greenish-white flowers, and aromatic roots.


Historically, angelica has been celebrated across various cultures for its extensive medicinal properties. It has been used in European folk medicine as a remedy for digestive disorders, respiratory ailments, and as a general tonic. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, a related species, Angelica sinensis, known as "dong quai," is revered for its benefits in women's health. The plant's holistic therapeutic uses range from supporting digestive health to balancing hormones, making it a versatile and cherished herb in traditional herbal practices. Today, angelica continues to be valued for its multifaceted health benefits, particularly in digestive and respiratory support, as well as its role in promoting women's wellness.

Blue cohosh full plant with blooms

Botanical Description

Angelica is a robust biennial plant in the Apiaceae family that thrives in damp soils and is commonly found in the wilds of Europe, Asia, and North America. This impressive herb typically reaches a height of 4 to 6 feet, though it can grow taller under optimal conditions. It is notable for its large, hollow stems and broad, deeply divided leaves that can span up to 2 feet across. The leaves are bright green, serrated, and resemble the foliage of celery, a close relative.


In its second year of growth, angelica produces towering umbels of small, greenish-white flowers, which bloom in mid to late summer. These flowers form large, umbrella-like clusters that can measure up to a foot in diameter, making them a striking feature of the plant. The flowers give way to aromatic seeds in the late summer to early fall, which are used in various culinary and medicinal applications. Angelica's presence is marked by its sturdy, architectural form and the distinctive, sweet, and musky fragrance of its roots and stems.



It's crucial to note that angelica can be easily confused with other members of the Apiaceae family, particularly hemlock (Conium maculatum) and water hemlock (Cicuta spp.), which are highly toxic. Both hemlock and water hemlock have similar-looking umbels of small white flowers and finely divided leaves. These plants can be especially difficult to distinguish from each other in the spring before the flower heads emerge. Key distinguishing features include the purple-spotted stems of hemlock and the distinct, unpleasant odor of water hemlock roots. Proper identification is essential when foraging angelica to avoid accidental poisoning. Always consult with an experienced herbalist or botanist if there is any doubt about the plant's identity.


Colored plate from Franz Eugen Köhler's, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen - List of Koehler Images, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=255106
Colored plate from Franz Eugen Köhler's, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen - List of Koehler Images, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=255106

Historical Uses of Angelica

Angelica has a storied history of use across various cultures, revered for its medicinal properties and its spiritual significance. In Europe, particularly in the Nordic countries, angelica was considered a powerful protective herb. Its roots, stems, and seeds were used to ward off evil spirits and to protect against contagious diseases like the plague.


One of the most notable historical references to angelica comes from Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine abbess, writer, and herbalist. Hildegard highly esteemed angelica for its healing properties and included it in her extensive herbal compendium. She recommended angelica for its ability to strengthen the heart, purify the blood, and protect against poisons and infections. Her writings emphasized the herb's capacity to warm and stimulate the body, making it beneficial for a variety of ailments.


In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a related species known as Angelica sinensis, or "dong quai," has been used for centuries, especially in supporting women's health. Dong quai is often referred to as the "female ginseng" due to its reputed ability to balance hormones and alleviate menstrual discomfort. It is commonly used to regulate menstrual cycles, reduce menstrual cramps, and address symptoms of menopause. Angelica's warming and tonic properties make it a staple in TCM for nourishing the blood and promoting overall vitality. Although not at potent, we can substitute Angelica archangelica for similar purposes.


Throughout medieval Europe, angelica was used as a digestive aid and a remedy for various respiratory conditions. Herbalists of the time prescribed it to relieve indigestion, gas, and bloating, as well as to alleviate coughs and colds. The herb's expectorant qualities were particularly valued for clearing mucus from the lungs and easing bronchial congestion.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, angelica had become a well-known remedy among European apothecaries and was included in many traditional preparations. It was often used in combination with other herbs to create restorative tonics and digestive elixirs. Additionally, angelica's aromatic seeds were utilized in liqueurs and culinary dishes, blending medicinal benefits with culinary enjoyment.


Today, angelica continues to be appreciated for its diverse therapeutic applications. Its role in women's health, digestive support, and respiratory care remains significant, and it is often used in modern herbal practices to enhance overall wellness and vitality.



Current Applications of Angelica

Angelica remains a valued herb in contemporary herbal medicine, celebrated for its versatility and effectiveness across various health concerns. Its usage today is informed by both traditional practices and modern herbal insights, with a particular focus on its specific herbal actions and energetics.


Main Herbal Actions:

  • Digestive Aid: Angelica is widely used to stimulate digestion, relieve bloating, and reduce gas. It is particularly effective in treating indigestion and supporting overall digestive health.

  • Expectorant: This herb helps to clear mucus from the respiratory tract, making it beneficial for conditions like bronchitis, coughs, and colds.

  • Carminative: Angelica soothes the digestive tract and alleviates discomfort caused by indigestion and gas.

  • Emmenagogue: It stimulates menstrual flow and helps regulate the menstrual cycle, which can be particularly useful for women experiencing delayed or irregular periods.

  • Antispasmodic: Angelica relieves muscle spasms and cramping, which is beneficial for menstrual pain and digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome.


Additional Herbal Actions:

  • Circulatory Stimulant: Angelica improves blood flow and is used to address symptoms of poor circulation, such as cold extremities.

  • Anti-inflammatory: It has anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce inflammation and pain, particularly in conditions like arthritis.

  • Tonic: Angelica is considered a general tonic that strengthens and revitalizes the body, enhancing overall wellness.

  • Diaphoretic: It promotes sweating, which can help manage fevers and detoxify the body.

  • Antimicrobial: Angelica exhibits antimicrobial properties, making it useful in fighting infections and supporting the immune system.


Herbal Energetics:

  • Thermal: Angelica is generally considered to have a warming energy. This warming nature makes it particularly effective for conditions where there is a sense of internal cold. It can help to stimulate circulation and digestion, providing relief from symptoms like sluggish metabolism, cold extremities, and general feelings of chilliness (like at the onset of the flu or a cold).

  • Moisture: although it lives in wet conditions, angelica has a drying quality, which can be beneficial in conditions where there is excessive dampness in the body. This includes issues such as edema, excessive mucus, and overly moist skin conditions. By balancing the body's moisture levels, angelica helps to create a more harmonious internal environment.

  • Tension: Angelica is known for its relaxing properties, which help to ease muscle tension and spasms, making it valuable for relieving menstrual cramps, digestive discomfort, and general muscle aches. Angelica opens the circulation to the periphery and brings blood to the surface, aiding in relaxation and reducing headaches. Its relaxing and anti-inflammatory properties work in synergy to promote a state of calm and clarity.


Scientific Research on Angelica

While angelica has been revered in traditional medicine for centuries, scientific research into its efficacy and safety is an evolving field. Here are some key areas of study and findings that shed light on the medicinal potential and safety considerations of angelica:

  • Phytochemical Composition: Angelica is rich in bioactive compounds such as furanocoumarins, flavonoids, and essential oils. These compounds are believed to contribute to its wide range of therapeutic actions, including anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and digestive benefits. The presence of these phytochemicals underscores angelica’s potential in managing various health conditions, from digestive disorders to respiratory issues.

  • Women's Health: Angelica has been traditionally used to support women's health, particularly for regulating menstrual cycles and alleviating menopausal symptoms. Modern studies have begun to explore these uses, suggesting that angelica may help balance hormones and reduce symptoms such as hot flashes and mood swings. However, more comprehensive research is needed to fully validate these benefits and understand the underlying mechanisms.

  • Circulatory and Digestive Support: Angelica's ability to stimulate circulation and support digestive health is well-documented in traditional medicine. Scientific studies are investigating these claims, focusing on how angelica can enhance blood flow and improve digestive function. Early findings indicate that angelica can indeed be beneficial for individuals with sluggish digestion and poor circulation, making it a valuable herb for promoting overall vitality.

  • Safety and Toxicology: The safety profile of angelica, particularly concerning its potential side effects, is an important area of research. While generally safe when used appropriately, angelica can increase photosensitivity, leading to a higher risk of sunburn. Additionally, its uterine-stimulating effects necessitate caution during pregnancy. Proper identification of angelica is crucial to avoid confusion with toxic look-alike plants such as hemlock. Consulting with healthcare professionals before use is essential to ensure safety and appropriate dosing.

  • Comparative Research: Comparative studies with other herbs used for similar purposes, such as dong quai and black cohosh, are crucial for understanding the relative efficacy and safety of angelica. These studies help place angelica within the broader context of herbal medicine, providing insights into its unique benefits and potential risks.


The ongoing research into angelica is important for validating traditional uses and ensuring safe practices in herbal medicine. As scientific studies progress, they will likely provide a deeper understanding of how and when to use angelica effectively and safely, reinforcing its role in modern herbal therapeutics.



Angelica root
Angelica root

Spiritual Properties of Angelica

The spiritual aspects of angelica are often intertwined with its physical healing properties, embodying a holistic approach to wellness that is characteristic of many traditional herbal practices. These include:


Connection to Protection and Purification: Angelica has long been associated with protection and sanctity. Named after the Archangel Michael, it was traditionally used to ward off evil spirits and protect against negative energies. This protective quality makes it a valued herb in spiritual rituals aimed at creating safe and sacred spaces. Its connection to Michael reinforces its role in providing protection against evil spirits, spells, and enchantments.


Imagination and Dreamtime: Angelica is often used to enhance imagination and facilitate entry into dreamtime. Its ability to open circulation to the periphery and bring blood to the surface is believed to help open the mind and enhance creative and spiritual visions. This makes it a powerful ally in practices involving dreams and visualization.


Spiritual Cleansing: Angelica is valued for its purifying properties. It is used in spiritual cleansing rituals to clear away negative energies and emotional blockages, making way for renewal and positive energy. This cleansing aspect aligns with its physical use in detoxifying and purifying the body.


Connection to Nature and Earth: Angelica’s strong, grounded presence connects individuals to the earth and nature. It is used to enhance one’s connection with natural elements and to foster a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. This grounding quality is beneficial in spiritual practices that emphasize harmony with the natural world.


Guidance and Intuition: Angelica is believed to enhance intuition and provide angelic guidance. Its spiritual properties are thought to help individuals tune into their inner wisdom and receive insights from higher sources. This makes it a valuable herb for meditation and other spiritual practices that seek to deepen one's intuitive abilities.



Safety and Precautions

While angelica is generally considered safe when used appropriately, it is important to be aware of certain safety considerations and precautions to ensure its safe and effective use. Here are key points to keep in mind:

  • Photosensitivity: Angelica contains furanocoumarins, compounds that can increase the skin's sensitivity to sunlight. This can lead to an increased risk of sunburn and other sun-related skin issues. It is advisable to avoid prolonged sun exposure and use sunscreen when using angelica, especially if applying it topically.

  • Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: Angelica has uterine-stimulating effects, which can potentially lead to complications during pregnancy. Therefore, it is recommended to avoid using angelica during pregnancy unless under the guidance of a qualified healthcare provider. Similarly, breastfeeding mothers should consult a healthcare professional before using angelica.

  • Interactions with Medications: Angelica may interact with certain medications, including anticoagulants (blood thinners) and medications that increase photosensitivity. It is important to consult with a healthcare provider before using angelica if you are taking any prescription medications to avoid potential interactions.

  • Allergic Reactions: As with any herb, there is a potential for allergic reactions. If you experience any signs of an allergic reaction, such as rash, itching, or swelling, discontinue use immediately and seek medical advice.

  • Medical Conditions: Individuals with certain medical conditions, such as bleeding disorders, diabetes, or those undergoing surgery, should use angelica with caution. Its effects on blood sugar and blood clotting can complicate these conditions.


By following these safety guidelines and precautions, you can use angelica effectively and responsibly. Always consult with a healthcare professional or qualified herbalist to ensure that angelica is appropriate for your individual health needs and circumstances.


References & Additional Reading

Batiha, Gaber El-Saber, et al. "Phytochemical Constituents, Folk Medicinal Uses, and Biological Activities of Genus Angelica: A Review" Molecules. 2023, Jan 28 (1): 267. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9822461/


Cunningfolk, Alexis. J. "To Ignite the Imagination: Angelica Plant Profile." Worts and Cunning Apothecary blog. Sept. 29, 2015. https://www.wortsandcunning.com/blog/to-ignite-the-imagination-angelica-plant-profile


Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products. European Medicines Agency. "Reflection paper on the risks associated with furocoumarins contained in preparations of Angelica archangelics L." Oct. 31, 2007. https://www.e-lactancia.org/media/papers/Angelica_archangelica-EMA2007.pdf


Kumar, Dinesh and Zulfigar Ali Bhat. "Anti-anxiety activity of methanolic extracts for different parts of Angelica archangelica Linn." J. Tradit Complement Medicine. 2012 Jul-Sept. 2(3): 235-241. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3942901/


Kylin, Madeleine. "Angelica archangelica L." Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. 2010. https://stud.epsilon.slu.se/818/4/Kylin_M_100128.pdf


 

Legal Disclaimer: Adhara Alchemy is not a licensed medical professional practice and I am not a licensed medical professional. The information provided in my consultations is intended to support your overall health and wellness and is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment. It is important to work with your primary healthcare provider and inform them of any herbs or supplements you are taking. Herbs may have side effects, cause individual sensitivities, or interact with medications, and it is important to discuss these risks with your healthcare provider.

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