As I write this article ahead of time, it is currently the week of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show — the extravaganza that gives horticulture headlines for a short time every year.
Featured highly among many of the show gardens are the on-trend umbellifers, such as the lacy white Cenolophium denudatum, used so ubiquitously it has been dubbed the Chelsea cow parsley, or the lovely frothy annual Ammi majus, adding a delicate and architectural form to the displays. It is a highly attractive and versatile family, and at the other end of the size spectrum are the angelicas, of which many are giant statement plants that can grow to great heights in one season.
There are 50 species of angelica that are either biennial or perennial. Some are monocarpic so die after flowering but proliferous seed means their progeny live on. They form a basal rosette of large leaves, usually three-sectioned, and sturdy stems arise topped with umbels of flowers that are either white, green/white or tinged with pink.
The common species is the culinary herb A. archangelica, a tall biennial that dies after flowering. A native of Northern and Eastern Europe, it has now escaped gardens and naturalised along Britain’s streams and rivers. As well as being an architectural marvel, it is a highly useful herb and a valuable nectar source for bees. Its leaf stalks and stems can be used to make candied angelica for decorating cakes and it can be eaten as a vegetable in spring.
The wild angelica, A. sylvestris, is a similar size but has densely flowered umbels and stems that are flushed pink. It suits a wild garden or a flower border. A. gigas is increasingly popular, offering a similar form to
A. archangelica, but it has beetroot red/purple stems and dome-shaped flower heads above green foliage.
Less common perennial types are being championed by Bleddyn and Sue Wynn Jones of Crug Farm Plants, who have collected several choice species new to the UK in recent years. These include the dramatic A. ursina, which produces a 2m-tall, reddish, ribbed stem and very wide inflorescences, and the even taller A. cyclocarpa, which can reach up to 3.5m in the wild and features even wider umbels.
All angelica species are naturally found in damp habitats so they need to be grown in deep, moist and fertile soil. They do best in dappled shade, but if in a sunny position the soil needs to compensate by remaining moist during the summer.
Species such as A. archangelica will self-seed. If you want to prevent this from happening, then obviously you need to remove the flower heads before they set seed. This can help to prolong the life of biennial types. If propagating, collect ripe seed because it is viable for only a short time and sow it fresh. Place the large seeds on their edge to prevent them from rotting and place the pots outside in a cold frame, where they should germinate by the following spring. Be aware that angelica do not cope with division.
What the specialists say
Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, owner, Crug Farm Plants, Gwynedd"
This genus is a variable and indispensable group of plants. There are a few well-known commercialised species seen about. Undoubtedly A. gigas is the best of them, especially if dark purple fits into your colour scheme. They also provide a mass of nectar for insects.
"As for the other monocarpic/short-lived species, I am not that enamoured with A. archangelica and the coloured forms of A. sylvestris, but that could be because of our acidic soil. Whereas some of the dramatic or architectural large species are great fun to play about with in a garden, adding plenty of drama.
"A. pubescens is good and tough with sometimes dark-purple blotching on the robust upright bristly stems, up to a lofty 3m tall. A. dahurica also performed well for us before it suddenly disappeared. That too was of a similar size.
"Leaving the short-lived species behind, there are so many marvellous perennial species coming onto the market of late. We appear to be responsible for some of them, so my opinion is biased. The mass market has not cottoned on to them yet, hence they will have to be looked for in specialist nurseries.
"A. anomala from Japan is very long-lived for us, arising from half-buried tuberous roots, with bolt-upright stems to 2-3m tall that age dark purple. This is topped in the summer by flat-topped umbels of white flowers.
"Of a similar ilk is A. edulis, with larger, less divided foliage and glossy beetroot stems. The name implies that it is edible — not something that I have dared try until the identity is confirmed. Both preceding species are slender in comparison to the following pair of species.
"We were passed a seedling of A. ursina from a friend in Ireland that we duly planted out in a trial area of the garden. It took several years to build up a patch of divided foliage before erupting to a substantial ribbed reddish stem/trunk to 2m tall with a very wide terminal inflorescence 60cm or so across.
"You could be forgiven for assuming that such a remarkable show would wear the plant out and die, but there you would be mistaken. It comes back year upon year — if anything it is becoming stronger.
"We thought that was the best there was, until we were in a deep valley in the Sikkim Himalaya. There we came across A. cyclocarpa, with an impressive stem well over 2m tall, topped by an even wider umbel — of ripe seed, luckily. This species is recorded to attain 3.5m in height, something I am looking forward to seeing in our garden as no doubt it will take a few years to build up to that sort of size."
Kevin Marsh, grower, Beeches Nursery, Essex"
Angelica are dramatic foliage plants, giving a lush tropical feel to the border, but completely hardy. They are probably, however, only likely to appeal to the real plants person as they don’t have the colourful wow factor for the occasional gardener.
"Species or varieties that stand out for me include A. sylvestris ‘Ebony’, which is popular as it has red-flushed flowers and deepest-burgundy/brown divided leaves. Our favourite is A. arguta.
It has very finely divided, intensely glossy leaves and bold umbels of white flowers.
A. archangelica is probably the best seller across the UK because it is usually sold in a nursery’s herb selection. A. gigas is the best seller as a perennial, with its huge beetroot red heads of flowers.
"They are generally easy to grow and trouble-free in the garden — and also easy to raise from seed, as long as the seed is fresh. Our biggest problem is that most are biennial and Joe Public doesn’t want the trouble of raising such large plants annually."
David Anderson, manager, Keston Garden Centre, Wyevale Garden Centres
"Here at Wyevale we stock only the commonly grown species, the amazing, architectural and versatile herb A. archangelica. But we promote it in two ways. Firstly in a 9cm pot among the herbs. This is simply merchandised, with its practical and functional purpose as a culinary herb in mind. We take care to make sure it stays moist and it needs a little more care than most of the other herbs.
"The other way we promote angelica is in a three-litre pot among the herbaceous plants. We have great delight in displaying this on a hex table, positioning them towards the back or in the middle. Their fantastic architectural foliage and cauliflower-like flowers look amazing as a centrepiece or as a backdrop.
"We then add to the display mid-height specimens, such as geum or crocosmia, then Nemisia or white geranium at the front. The white shades look fantastic with the odd splash of vibrant orange dancing in the breeze.
"We often get asked by our customers how to prolong the life span of angelica as they have in the past lost them. Being biennial it is likely to die if allowed to set seed. So to prolong its life and to prevent too much self-seeding, cut the flowers off before they set and/or cut the plant down to ground level in the autumn."
Species and varieties
A. archangelica is a biennial giant, with lime-green umbels in early summer and pretty, deeply cut leaves. Does best in moist shade. Self-seeds freely. Height: 2m. Spread: 1.2m.
A. atropurpurea is a North American perennial that has dark-purple/red stems and handsome, bipinnate foliage that emerges a rich claret before maturing a red-veined green. In late summer it bears dinner plate-sized umbels of white flowers. Height: 1.8m.
A. edulis is a hardy perennial producing tall white umbels. Height: up to 2.5m.
A. gigas is a short-lived perennial with tall, ribbed red/purple stems and large, domed red/purple flower heads from June to August. Very limey soils make the leaves an unattractive yellow/green. Height: 1.5m. Spread: 1.2m.
A. pachycarpa is a biennial or short-lived perennial that produces jade-green, glossy, bold leaves and large umbels of white flowers. Self-sows. Height: 1.2m. Spread: 90cm.
A. sylvestris, or wild angelica, is a British native that has tall stems carrying umbels of tiny white flowers, often tinged with pink, from June to September. It has much divided, slightly glossy pinnate leaves. Height: 1-2.5m.
A. sylvestris ‘Ebony’ has purple/black foliage, intricate purple/grey flower heads and decorative seed heads from May to July. Height: 75-90cm.
A. sylvestris ‘Purpurea’ produces a tall stem topped with a dense spherical head of pink flowers above glossy purple foliage. Height: 75cm.
A. sylvestris ‘Vicar’s Mead’ is a choice variety that has deep-purple leaves and stems. Its large, mound-shaped flowers are pink-tinged at first, becoming white, borne from June to September. Height: 2m. Spread: 1m.
A. taiwaniana is a hardy biennial to short-lived perennial native to Taiwan. It has purple stems topped with very large, rounded, scented, white flower heads between July and September, above deeply divided leaves. Needs sun to light shade in a moist soil. Height: 1-2m.
Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library