Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
September, 2003
Regional Report

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Angelica gigas makes an outstanding statement in the garden.

Stumbling Upon Plant Gems

I suppose I'm not much of an adventurer in the garden. I like stability and predictability. I do, however, sometimes acquire plants that are just a bit off the beaten path of traditional garden plants. And I'm often pleasantly surprised at what comes about.

A friend gave me a small plant early one spring. He'd started it from seed in his greenhouse, called it Korean angelica, and told me to plant it in partial shade. Since he was famous for giving me the "newest, most exotic" plants, which usually turned out to be complete duds, I put this one in behind some other plants as I did with most plants from him. I promptly forgot about it.

One day several weeks later while weeding that particular bed, I was struck dumb by an odd-looking huge, purple unfolding leaf bud. It was only about six inches high, but at least two inches in diameter. It was hooded, like some bizarre fungus coming out of the center of a rosette of leaves. I watched it for days as it unfolded, still not remembering that this was the angelica plant.

The purple bud gave way to large clasping compound leaves with a purplish tinge to them. The stem remained purple, and I mean grape jelly purple. It seemed to grow several inches a day, and by the time the plant was fully unfolded, it was about three feet tall. I liked the leaves for their striking boldness, but throughout the summer the plant did nothing else.

So, in fall, I again forgot about it. The next spring, however, the plant sent up several leaf stalks, spreading nicely, and then in midsummer, there came another huge stalk, unfolding like a pair of socks. The stalk grew and grew, topping out at about six feet. Soon it produced enormous purple buds that opened to reveal umbels of dark purple flowers. Each umbel was about ten inches across. I've never seen such a statement in the garden!

Now, I love boldness and this plant was magnificent, making everything around it pale in comparison. It was one of my best experiments and it wasn't even my idea.

Korean angelica is a short-lived perennial that readily self-sows. My plant exhausted itself with blooming and was nothing but a small rosette the following year. But the angelica had strewn seeds about and was happily surrounded by a family of tiny seedlings. I rogued out many of them, leaving only a few specimens to add lush leaves to this shady garden. I moved from that house that fall so I can only imagine the plant's demise. I assume that the planting is still there, however, renewing itself yearly by spreading seeds.

This purple angelica, Angelica gigas, is but one species of a group of many types of angelicas, all members of the carrot family. Angelica archangelica, a common angelica called wild parsnip that is native to our area, was supposedly given to man by an archangel to prevent the plague. This true biennial has green stems and white flowers, and has been used for centuries as a home remedy against disease and spells; as a digestive aid; and for colds, coughs, pleurisy, colic, arthritis, and diseases of the urinary organs. The stalks are often candied for confections and cakes or for adding to fruits and desserts for sweetness, and the plant's oils are used as a vanilla-like flavoring in liqueurs and perfumes.

I now have angelica in my garden again. I have the perfect spot for it, near a bench tucked into my woods. It is visible from the house, and it's a magnificent accent for the landscape.

Note: Wild angelica requires careful identification since it resembles other members of the carrot family that are poisonous.

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