Monday, June 20, 2016

Eating Angelica

In the Pacific Northwest, we have several ethnobotanically significant angelica species. Many are so aromatic that I have never thought of them as food, but this weekend while hiking in the Wenatchee Mountains in Central Washington, I encountered Sharptooth Angelica (Angelica arguta) that was in the perfect stage for eating and I was without my lunch, so I gave it a try. This post is an introduction to the plant and my recommendations for harvesting the excellent-tasting shoots.

Beginning foragers should note that I advise extra caution when eating hairless members of the carrot family. Be sure of your ID!   

Sharptooth Angelica is a hairless, multi-stemmed herbaceous perennial arising from a long taproot. Leaves are once to twice pinnately compound. One or more basal leaves emerge early in the spring, and when they are still young, the leaf petioles are purplish red with white streaks but the color fades to light green with dark green streaks as the plants age. Dark green leaflets have sharply serrated margins and veins that extend to the tip of each serration. Most leaflets are lance-shaped, but they sometimes have 2 or 3 lobes. By mid to late spring, a hollow flowering shoot emerges from the center of the plant. As the stem elongates between concealed nodes, it explodes out of the cloak-like petiole of the first cauline leaf, and telescopes upwards through successive leaf sheathes to a height of 3-6 feet. By early summer, several compound umbels of brilliant white flowers finally emerge at the end of the shoot. Winged seeds form by mid-summer and are dispersed by wind before the plant begins to prepare for winter by retreating back to its root. 

Sharptooth Angelica is found in forest clearings near streams, lakes, fens, and marshes throughout the forested parts of our region from the Cascades of Southern British Columbia to Klamath Mountains of Northern California.

In California and Alaska, other species of Angelica are traditionally eaten by several Indigenous groups, but I could only locate ethnobotanical records for the food use of Sharptooth Angelica among one group. The Shuswap traditionally eat the young stems in May and mix the shoots with Glacier Lily and Spring Beauty as a seasoning (Palmer 1975).

Like Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum), Sharptooth Angelica shoots are best eaten before the plants begin to flower. Work your way from the ground up the flowering shoot, flexing the stem until you find the point where it no longer kinks but snaps cleanly like asparagus. If several nodes are exposed, only the upper portions will be tender enough to eat. Using your fingernail or a knife to lift a corner of the skin, peel all of the skin from the shoot. The raw shoots have a very pleasant celery-like flavor that is milder than Cow Parsnip, with a texture that is more delicate. If you find the flavor too strong, check to make sure you have removed all of the skin, even little bits are noticeable.

I have not yet tried cooking with the shoots the way the Shuswap do. I sampled the raw leaf petioles and found them to be too strong to enjoy and impossible to peel, but I think they warrant experimentation as a potherb.

The name "Angelica" has possible origins in a myth about a monk who was taught the medicinal value of the plant by an angel, or possibly the coincidence of a European species that commonly flowers on May 8th, the same day as the feast of Michael the Archangel.  The species epithet arguta means "sharp toothed" in Latin.

CAUTION: Douglas Water Hemlock (Cicuta douglasii), which should also be known as “Death Angelica” looks very similar to Sharptooth Angelica. Ingesting even small amounts of Water Hemlock can be fatal.

Angelica species are best differentiated from Water Hemlock by the veins on their leaflets and the appearance of their roots in cross section. The lateral veins on the leaflets of Water Hemlock terminate in the valley of the serrations (as opposed to the tip of the serrations in Angelica) and the roots of Water Hemlock are chambered in cross section (as opposed to solid in Angelica).

Palmer, Gary 1975. Shuswap Indian Ethnobotany. Syesis Volume 8.
WTU Herbarium
Center for Pacific Northwest Herbaria

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