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The name "wild angelica" properly applies to Angelica sylvestris, a plant belonging to the family Umbelliferae, which includes many edible species, and herbs and spices, such as carrots, parsnips, celery, parsley, coriander, cumin and fennel. It is found throughout most of Europe, and in western Asia and Siberia. The plant is closely related to the larger Angelica, Angelica archangelica, which is native to Scandinavia and some arctic regions, and to American Angelica, Angelica atropurpurea, which occurs in Eastern North America and is distinguished by its purple stems. All three species have edible leaves, stems and fruits, and possess medicinal properties; the name "wild angelica" has been loosely applied to all of them. The edible and medicinal qualities are most pronounced in A. archangelica, which is often cultivated.
Angelica sylvestris is a little smaller than the cultivated angelica species, typically reaching 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 m) in height. It has hollow, ribbed stems, compound leaves with prominent inflated sheaths and a large, tuberous root. During the summer, it produces umbels of small whitish flowers followed by oval shaped fruits resembling seeds, which are known as meriocarps. The plant prefers damp, semi-shaded places and does not grow in acid soils.
The leaves and stems can be used in salads, and the root, if cooked, is also edible. Pieces of leaf stem preserved in sugar are used in cakes and confections. The plant is aromatic and rich in essential oils that can be extracted, usually by steam distillation. Aromatic oils extracted from angelica are used in perfumes and cosmetic products, as well as flavorings. A number of alcoholic drinks, including vermouth and chartreuse, are flavored with angelica.
In folklore, angelica was said to offer protection from evil spirits and was much used in pre-Christian ceremonies and rituals. After the coming of Christianity, it came to be associated with St Michael, and was sometimes referred to as the “Root of the Holy Ghost." During the Middle Ages, it was thought to protect against the “Black Death,” or bubonic plague.
While its effectiveness against the Black Death is doubtful, wild angelica does contain a number of compounds of medicinal interest, some of which have anti-microbial properties. Angelica is widely used in herbal medicine, acting as a carminative, diaphoretic and expectorant, and has been employed to relieve pain and to treat colds, coughs and fevers. The commercial culinary and medicinal uses of angelica are today largely confined to the cultivated A. archangelica.
Angelica can be grown quite easily from seed, though it should be sown quickly, as it soon loses its power to germinate. In the wild, it is normally biennial, flowering in the second year and dying after setting seed; however, it can be cultivated as a perennial by removing the flower heads before the fruits are produced. Wild angelica is not normally cultivated, but does possess some of the edible and medicinal properties of the cultivated plant.
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