Angelica might be the first cultivated plant in the northern part of the Nordic countries, and it is considered to be the only native plant originating from this region that has been incorporated in international horticulture and trade of cultivated food and medicine plants.
Angelica (Angelica archangelica) has two subspecies; A.a. ssp. litoralis growing on shores and A.a. ssp. archangelica having its natural habitat in mountainous areas. It is the mountain form that has been cultivated and used and that is further described in this article under the name Norwegian angelica.
Angelica belongs to the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae plant family, together with many aromatic and edible plants like e.g. celery, carrots and parsley. In the mountain flora angelica appears as a rather strange and non-typical plant. As most mountain herbaceous plants are low, often growing in dense tufts and well adapted to harsh climates, suddenly a large, more than one meter high, plant emerge between stones or at the sheltered side of cliffs. In Norwegian mountains angelica has been found at 1600 m above sea level, far above the treeline.
Through more than a thousand years, the Norwegian angelica has been considered to be a powerful and holy plant. The holiness of the plant is also underlined by another English name that is frequently used; the Holy Ghost.
The name angelica itself originates from a legend from the 17th century, at times when Europe suffered from pests and plagues. In a dream, a monk was told from an angel that this plant could alleviate the suffering. As a result The College of Physicians in London some years later developed and issued “The Kings Majesty’s Excellent Recipe for the Plague”, that includes parts of the angelica plant, and was claimed to have positive effects towards a number of diseases. Due to this, large volumes of angelica roots were exported from Norway to other European countries.
Cultivation of angelica was started in more countries, based on plant material from the Nordic countries. Cultivation methods were described and several European selections and seed sources were developed and marketed.
The Norwegian angelica (A.a. ssp. archangelica) is found in the wild flora in Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. It is known that stems of angelica was harvested and traded through Europe in the Viking age around 900, and the story about the Norwegian King Olav Tryggvasson (ca 963-1000) trying to appease his wife Tyra with a delicious stem of angelica is a rather well known tale.
Supplies of angelica came both from cultivation and harvesting from wild plants. The cultivation of angelica is described in Norwegian and Icelandic law from the 12th century, setting strict penalties for theft or disturbing cultivated angelica fields. The Danish priest, botanist and medical author Henrik Harpestræng (dead 1244) recommended angelica as a medical plant in his Danish Book of Herbs.
Cultivation of angelica is in particular known from a region in the western part of Norway, an area and now municipality called Voss. During the centuries, local farmers discovered and improved a genotype with filled stems. Massive stems gave more edible yield and better taste. Cultivation, selection and breeding of certain favourable genotypes in designated angelica gardens resulted in a certain botanical unit named Vossakvann (A.a. ssp. archangelica var maiorum). Kvann is Norwegian for angelica.
Angelica is biennial, outbreeding and germination of seeds require cold treatment. Farmers in Voss became specialists in assessing small seedlings for the filled stem characteristic, and different farms developed their own angelica gardens. Over the timespan of several hundreds of years, maybe a thousand years, the different farms developed differentiated landraces and genotypes. The Norwegian Genetic Resource Centre has identified four different landraces related to remnants of angelica gardens and has collected material from these for long-term conservation.
The Nordic Genetic Resource Center has conducted collecting missions for wild growing samples of medicinal and aromatic plants in Greenland, Iceland and Faroe islands, and Norwegian angelica has been found in all these countries and territories. Having in mind the prominent position of angelica in the northern Nordic cuisine, it is quite likely that trade and exchange of living plants and seeds of angelica has taken place, already when these territories were settled around a thousand years ago.
A current indication of this being the case was found when the NordGen collecting expedition visited Greenland in 2007. At Brattalid near Narsarsuaq, which was the farm that the outlawed viking Erik the Red founded around the year 985, a quite vigorous field of Norwegian angelica was found.
Investigations and search for options for future use of Norwegian angelica have been on the agenda also in recent years. A small company called Vossakvann has marketed Englastilkar (angel stalkes) and Englarøra (angel mix). In Iceland you can buy VOXIS Hálstöflur (throat lozenges with angelica). Vossakvann is included in the Slow Food Arch of Taste as a traditional Norwegian food product.
The Norwegian scientist Steinar Dragland (2000) has made a survey of more than 70 studies and reports related to Norwegian angelica, e.g. about chemical analysis that has been carried out. The most important chemical compounds in angelica are angelicin and essential oils. The leaves are rich in Vitamin C. Angelicin is claimed to improve appetite and digestive functions. The nice angelica aroma originates from essential oils containing more than 60 chemical compounds.
A Nordic study of genetic relationship between six populations of angelica was carried out by Göransson et. al in 2011. Vossakvann was compared with populations of Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish origin. It was shown that Vossakvann had the closest relation to the Icelandic populations, which indicates that there has been exchange of plant material between western Norway and Iceland, and maybe even that explorers and settlers brought material of the cultivated Vossakvann to Iceland.
It should also be mentioned that, quite naturally, this important plant has given names to many places. Kvanndal, Kvannfjell, Kvannvik, Kvannli etc. in Norway, and in Iceland where the Icelandic name of angelica is Hvann we find names like Hvannalindar, Hvanndalir, Hvannfjell, Hvannavellir, Hvannhagi and Hvanneyri, which actually is the place where the Agricultrual University in Iceland is located.
Text by Åsmund Åsdal
Dragland S 2000. Kvann – botanikk, innholdsstoff, dirking, høsting og foredling. Grønn Forslkning Nr 08/2000
Fosså O 2004 Angelica: From the Norwegian Mountains to the English Trifle. Wild Food – Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Ed. Hosking, R Pp 131-142.
Göransson M, S. Solberg & A Kolodinska Brantestam 2011. Genetic diversity in angelica (Angelica archangelica L.) populations assessed by ISSR molecular markers. Frædathing Landbunadarins 8, 2011.
Norsk genressurssenter 2007. En av Norges kulturplanter – Kvann
Slow Food. Arch of Taste 2019. https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/ark-of-taste-slow-food/angelica-vossakvann/ Caption 23. January 2019.