Giant umbellifer stalks northern Japan

By Mark Brazil | Sep 20, 2001

Towering above the surrounding lush summer herb growth stands the hollow-stemmed monster known locally as Ezo nyuu and to botanists as Angelica ursina. These pearl-headed plants appear at the height of summer, a potent reminder that the longest days are past and that, despite the heat, autumn is not far around the corner.

Their flowers fade in a matter of weeks, but their weathered, dried stems are strong and persist even into winter, when they rattle and buzz as the wind vibrates them, scattering their tiny seeds.

This tall perennial can be found in damp, cool places, along roadsides, around marshland edges and in sunny woodlands, wherever there is plenty of moisture. It grows in central and northern Japan, in China, and in areas of Russia surrounding the Sea of Okhotsk.

Whereas many family members may only grow to heights of between 50 cm and a meter, the bear’s angelica is a monster, the largest in the family, reaching a height of 3 to 3.5 meters.

Humans have found many uses for the angelicas, but if you are not sure of the species, it is best not to touch them while they are still fresh. Ezo nyuu and its close relatives in the Angelica genus contain furocoumarins in their stems, chemicals that increase human skin sensitivity to sunlight and, in some people, may cause dermatitis.

This purple-stemmed plant with its clusters of creamy-white flowers belongs to the Umbelliferae, an enormous family of plants. The family contains about 300 genera (of which Angelica is just one) and more than 3,000 species, with representatives occurring in most parts of the world, although they are most common in the temperate regions. Several South American species are shrublike, but most species are herbaceous annuals, biennials or perennials.

With hollow, bright-purple stalks that rise to well over 3 meters in height, Angelica ursina is the tallest of the numerous umbellifer family.

The strong tubular stems of this family support a dome of tiny white flowers borne on fine, ray-like individual flower stalks of different lengths, all radiating from one point, like the ribs of a parasol. The result is a cluster of flowers closely arranged in a flat- or dome-topped umbel, giving the lacy effect characteristic of the group (one species is even known as Queen Anne’s lace). It is of course the parasol-shaped clusters of flowers that give the flowers their family name, which is derived from the Latin word umbellula, meaning a little shade.

The Umbelliferae are pollinated by a wide range of flies, bees, butterflies and moths, and the Ezo nyuu I saw seemed extremely attractive to ants.

The genus Angelica is a large one, containing many species of aromatic perennial herbs with cylindrical stems, from which branch off large alternate bi- or tripinnate leaves.

I remember angelica from my childhood with nostalgic excitement as a green-sugared confection that was commonly added, along with raisins, sultanas, candied peel and cherries, to give rich flavor and color to the heavy fruitcake that I loved so much. It was some years before I put two and two together and realized that the cake-maker’s addition and the white flowered umbels I saw while out walking were one and the same angelica, and that the sweet green pieces in cakes were derived from the freshly grown stems of the flower.

The family Umbelliferae provides us with more than just candied angelica; it includes a wide range of food crops, such as carrots, parsnips, lovage and celery. Yet few users know of the close affinities between them. We find spices, too, in this family: coriander, dill, cumin, caraway and anise; chervil, fennel and parsley.

Family members find use also in the production of perfumes, medicines and even poisons. The angelicas, mainly those of Europe, have long been known to herbalists, who for centuries have used their bitter or sharp-tasting parts as medicinal herbs, as a tonic and as a stimulant for the digestive system. Almost every part of the plant, from the roots to the seeds, has value.

Bathing the skin with an infusion of angelica not only tones up the skin but accelerates the recovery of sores and ulcers and apparently assuages arthritic and rheumatic pains. Taken internally, Angelica stimulates the heart and reduces vomiting. The 18th-century German Abbot Sebastian Kneipp wrote that to remove unhealthy or retained heavy foods, when you have a feeling of cold in the stomach, you must drink, three times a day, a cup of angelica root tea.

“When in the bowels there is windiness or grumbling, the same tea is mixed: half water and half wine. In the stomach cramps and colics, the root’s decoction acts in a prodigious way.”

Besides medicines, angelicas are used in the preparation of perfumes and natural insecticides, while angelica oil is used to flavor liqueurs such as Chartreuse. The medieval cures accredited to members of the great umbellifer family range from memory loss to eczema and even gout.

Hemlock is one of the deadly forms, containing the powerful toxin known as coniine, and is thought to have been responsible for the death of Socrates.

Perhaps most appealing is that angelica is a flower of inspiration. Poets once made themselves crowns of angelica leaves, as these were sure to enhance their lyrical abilities. More obscure are their celestial and divine virtues: They are known in parts of their range as herbs of the angels or of the Holy Spirit.

Ezo nyuu is a giant among the Umbelliferae, and its dried stems in autumn, when dusted with frost or powdered with early snows, look like magical constructions from some fairy tale.