Angelica is a genus of plants in the parsley family used in both Western healing and traditional Chinese medicine. Usually the dried root is used medicinally. The most common angelica used in Western healing is the European species, Angelica archangelica. Occasionally the North American species, A. atropurpurea, is used in the same way as A. archangelica. Other names for Western Angelica are European angelica, garden angelica, purple angelica, Alexander's archangel, masterwort, wild angelica, and wild celery.
Western angelica grows to a height of about 4.5 ft (1.5 m) in dappled sun. It has white to yellow flowers, and very large three-part leaves. The root is long and fibrous and is poisonous if used fresh. The plant has a strong, tangy odor and taste.
There are at least 10 species of angelica used in traditional Chinese medicine. The most frequently used species is A. sinensis, which in Chinese is called dong quai (alternate spellings are dang gui, tang kwei, and tang gui). Other Chinese species include A. pubescens, called in Chinese du huo, and A. dahurica, called in Chinese bai zhi. The descriptions of the medicinal uses of Chinese angelica in this article refer only to A. sinensis or dong quai.
Chinese angelica is a perennial that grows to a height of 3 ft (1 m) in moist, fertile soil at high altitudes in China, Korea, and Japan. It has a purple stem and umbrella-like clusters of flowers. The root is used medicinally and as a spice.
The species of angelica used in Western healing have different properties than those used in Eastern medicine, so they will be treated separately here. The reader should not assume that any properties or benefits ascribed to Western angelica also apply to Chinese angelica or vice versa.
Western angelica, or A. archangelica, is said to have been named after an angel who revealed the herb to a European monk as a curative. It has a long history of folk use in Europe, Russia, and among Native American tribes.
The leaves of angelica are prepared as a tincture or tea and used to treat coughs, colds, bronchitis, and other respiratory complaints. They are considered gentler in action than preparations made from the root. The root is the most medically active part of the plant. It is used as an appetite stimulant and to treat problems of the digestive system and liver. It is said to relieve abdominal bloating and gas, indigestion, and heartburn.
Angelica will induce sweating and is also used to treat conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism. In addition, it is used as a diuretic. Externally, angelica is applied as an ointment to treat lice and some skin disorders.
In addition to medicinal use, an essential oil derived from the plant is used in making perfumes and as a food flavoring. Oil from the seeds imparts the distinctive flavor to the Benedictine liqueur. Sometimes candied leaves and stalks are used as sweets.
Despite its widespread folk use, angelica can present some serious health hazards. The root is poisonous when fresh and must be dried thoroughly before use. All members of the genus contain compounds called furocoumarins that can cause a person exposed to the sun or other source of ultraviolet
Despite these health concerns, the German Federal Health Agency's Commission E, established in 1978 to independently review and evaluate scientific literature and case studies pertaining to herb and plant medications, has approved preparations containing angelica root as a treatment for bloating and as an appetite stimulant.
Chinese angelica, or dong quai, is considered in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to have a warm nature and a sweet, acrid, and bitter taste. The main use of angelica in TCM is to regulate the female reproductive organs and treat irregularities of the menstrual cycle, especially deficient bleeding. Chinese herbalists also use this herb to treat irregular periods, menstrual cramps, and infertility. The root is one component of Four Things Soup, a widely used woman's tonic in China.
Dong quai is one of the best known herbs in China, and is one of the traditional Chinese herbs that is increasingly familiar in the West. In addition to treating women's complaints, Chinese angelica is used in general blood tonics to improve conditions such as anemia. Because angelica is considered to be a warming herb, it is also used to aid circulation and digestion. Other uses are to treat headache, constipation, rheumatism, high blood pressure, and ulcers.
Dong quai contains several active compounds called coumarins. These compounds are well documented as agents that dilate (open up) the blood vessels, stimulate the central nervous system, and help control spasms. It is likely that these compounds do act on the uterus, supporting the use of dong quai for some women's problems.
Animal and test-tube studies indicated that dong quai may combat allergies by altering the immune system response. Other animal studies suggest that the herb is a mild diuretic.
Unfortunately, dong quai, like Western angelica, contains compounds that can cause a person exposed to the sun or other source of ultraviolet rays to develop severe sunburn and/or rash. These problems become more severe when using the concentrated essential oil or purified
Angelica root is harvested in the fall, then dried for future use. The leaves of Western angelica can be made into a tea (1 teaspoon powdered leaves to one cup of boiling water steeped up to 20 minutes), a tincture, or a cream for external use. The root can be made into a tincture or a decoction. The essential oil can be combined with other oils for external use as a massage oil for arthritis.
Dong quai is used in many common Chinese formulas and as a component of many medicinal soups.
Children or pregnant women should not take angelica. In light of its potential for causing health problems, complete avoidance of the herb may be considered desirable.
In addition to increasing the risk of photodermis, angelica is considered to be a mild laxative and may cause mild diarrhea.
No studies exist on interactions between angelica and conventional pharmaceuticals. Given the history of its long use in traditional Chinese medicine, it appears unlikely that there are any significant interactions with other commonly used Chinese herbs.
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American Association of Oriental Medicine (AAOM). 433 Front Street, Catasauqua, PA 18032. (610) 266-2433.
Plants for the Future "Angelica archangelica." <www.metalab.unc.edu.>
Plants for the Future "Angelica sinensis." <www.metalab.unc.edu.>