Angelica is a member of the Apiaceae, the parsley or celery family, all of which have hollow stems and tiny flowers that present themselves in circular bunches or umbels. From this they get the fine title of umbellifer, umbrella-bearers. In the same family are anise, dill, chervil, celery, caraway, cilantro, cumin, carrot, fennel, parsnip, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace. Many of the umbellifers are delicious, some are contraceptive, and at least one, hemlock, is deadly poison, best known as the cup of hemlock that killed Socrates.
Angelica can grow immensely tall, nine or ten feet. In Northern Europe, the stalks are candied; in Iceland, they are eaten raw with butter; in Norway, the roots are made into bread. The herb has long held pride of place in folk medicine. In Earthly Paradise (1629), Parkinson extols the virtues of angelica to ease the stomach and “to expel any windy or noysome vapours.” It was also supposed to inspire disgust for alcohol – doubtfully, since it also provides one of the key flavors in gin, vermouth, Chartreuse and absinthe. Chinese Angelica, or dong quai, has recently been touted as a supplement for menopausal women. It seems also to speed the healing of ulcers, so Parkinson may have been on to something. The plant takes its name from the angel who is supposed to have revealed its medicinal properties to a dozing monk. Or from St. Michael the Archangel, around whose feast-day, May 8, it blooms.
In Japan the plant is called ashitaba, tomorrow leaf. They say it grows so quickly that leaves picked in the evening will be replaced the next morning. Or it may bring more tomorrows. During the Edo period, many of the Izu Islands served as penal colonies. Sent to investigate why the prisoners were stubbornly refusing to starve to death, officials found them subsisting quite healthily on wild angelica. The islanders still attribute their long lives to a diet of ashitaba. On Miyakejima you will see old ladies, impossibly old ladies, creaking their way home from the gardens, heads in kerchiefs, feet in two-toed tabi socks, dirt packed under their fingernails, their baskets filled with angelica, covered in white cloth.
Crushed in the hands, the fresh leaves are sweet, slightly musky – not quite mint, not quite juniper. It is a clean, windswept smell, the smell of meadow, of England, of green, the smell of a road after rain. It is the smell of a world in which there is nothing rotten or putrid or sulfurous, a world in which all of those things have been rinsed away.