(First in a series)
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about angelica, a cold-hardy perennial plant used for centuries, if not thousands of years, for food and medicine.
Unfortunately, the most common native species of angelica in Alaska, seacoast angelica (Angelica lucida), looks a lot like poisonous northern water hemlock (Cicuta virosa) or western water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii), the deadliest plant in North America. Angelica and water hemlock both like wet areas – water hemlock likes it wetter – and some people say they have found them growing near each other in Alaska.
Pictured above, garden angelica (Angelica archangelica) is a subspecies cultivated for home gardens and commercial uses. Growing garden angelica for food and medicine in Alaska isn’t problematic. As a bonus, it’s very ornamental.
It’s been difficult for me to reconcile the warnings to avoid harvesting wild angelica with the significant amount of information about its traditional uses in Alaska and other northern regions – from chewing on dried root to placing a piece of boiled, mashed root on a wound or infected area.
Chew on a water hemlock root and you’ll likely be dead in a few hours. The stems are also poisonous.
A few herbalists I talked to in the Lower 48 told me there is no reliable method to tell our native species of angelica and water hemlock apart except by carefully studying and learning the different shapes of their seeds. While some sources advise that the root chambers and the leaf veining of angelica and water hemlock are different, that’s not always the case, I was told.
It’s even more complicated for A. lucida because unlike some other angelica species, A. lucida seeds do not have “wings” that would otherwise differentiate them from water hemlock seeds.
It makes me want to time travel back even just a century ago here in Alaska.
What knowledge was used to avoid collecting the wrong plant? Was it the size and shape of seeds? Patterns in the roots or leaves? Are there other traditional techniques that have been lost to time and memory?
Many books and websites that promote the traditional use of Alaska plants are very discouraging about the use of native angelica. Doing so safely seems to require a degree of knowledge and training that needs to be provided in person, in the field, and with repetition.
Note: The photo of garden angelica at the top of this page was taken at the Alaska Botanical Garden’s Herb Garden. Thank you to the Alaska Master Gardeners of Anchorage for allowing use of the photo.