BRAS D’OR BIOSPHERE: Where angels fear to tread

Pictured is the Angelica sylvestris.

By: Dr. Annamarie Hatcher

As you drive around the roads in the Biosphere later in the summer, you will probably notice expanses of tiny white flower clusters on tall stalks.

You may have always thought that these flowers were Queen Anne’s lace. Perhaps they are, or maybe they belong to one of the many closely related species. This story is about Angelica, a fascinating plant which has an interesting history in Cape Breton dating back to the early residents of the Fortress of Louisburg. At this time of year, Angelica and all of the related species are largely underground, waiting for the warmth of the sun to kick-start their growth cycle. A rabid obsession to remove Angelica from our fields and forests has taken hold of several people that I have come across.

‘Angelica’ is from the Latin, meaning ’messenger’ or ’angel.’ It is said that an angel first demonstrated the medicinal properties of Angelica to humans. What is so bad about a plant whose scientific name was derived from ‘angel?’

The Angelica that has overtaken many areas of the Biosphere is probably a species that was introduced to Cape Breton by the early colonists of Louisburg. As is the case with many introduced or alien species, a new environment means a neighbourhood of potential competitors which have evolved in different environmental conditions. The new guy on the block often comes with physiological adaptations that allow it to thrive and outcompete the native species. In many cases, the new environment has very few predators that target the newcomer. That competitive advantage also comes into play when an alien species takes hold of our potato patch, or lily garden, and we have to wage a battle to protect our flowers and vegetables.

Goutweed, that scourge of many Cape Breton gardens, is a first cousin of Angelica. I expect that the French colonists who brought Angelica to Louisburg had no inkling of what would happen when the plant’s descendants eventually broke free of the walls of the fortress’s gardens. The colonists only wanted to surround themselves with plants that sustained them or brought them joy in the old country that they left behind. Angelica is a versatile herb which had served them as a food, medicine, flavouring agent and decorative garden plant. That is probably why it made the cross-Atlantic trip in those early days.

Angelica is a member of the parsley family and there are 60 species worldwide. The species that locals sometimes call ‘The Louisburg Flower” or “Woodland Angelica” comes with the scientific name Angelica sylvestris. It is a native of Eurasia where it peacefully co-exists with the other species that evolved in its neighbourhood in the old country.

However, in this part of the world, it thrives and outcompetes most of our native species. It is a beautiful plant which can grow to two metres high. It will flower from July to September, with white to lilac-tinged flowers growing on an umbrella-shaped flowering head at the top of the stalk. The delicate flowers are fragrant and attractive to many insects, including bees. A concoction of Woodland Angelica roots is a medicine which has been commonly used for coughs and sore throats by Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik residents of the Maritimes.

However, would-be herbalists need to exercise extreme caution for two reasons. First, too much of the active ingredient can make you very sick. Most of the Angelicas contain a compound called ‘Furcoumarin’ which can be toxic. The compound enters the nucleus of your skin cells and forms a bond with the DNA, which causes the cells to die. Your skin is then vulnerable to damage from sunlight which can lead to a serious blistering rash. Keep this in mind if you are thinking of attacking that weedy plant with a spade or your bare hands.

The second issue for a budding herbalist is that Angelica can be easily confused with two highly toxic plants, the poison hemlock and water hemlock. Poison hemlock looks very similar to Angelica. It has been documented as a resident of this province although it is native to Europe and North Africa. It was imported to the United States in the mid-19th century as a garden plant and has spread very easily from there. It grows in lowlands on dry to moist soils and can tolerate poorly drained soils. It is often found along roadsides and the banks of streams. It can grow to be two metres tall. In the late summer, it has small white flowers and hollow, purple-spotted stems. If the stem is bruised, poison hemlock will give off a nasty, strong odour that (apparently) resembles mouse urine. Be very careful with this plant as it can kill! It is the plant that led to the untimely death of the philosopher Socrates in 399 BC.

Another plant that you may confuse with Angelica is the water hemlock, one of North America’s most toxic plants. The spotted water hemlock is a native species in our province. It grows up to 1.5 metres tall in wet habitats usually alongside streams or freshwater marshes and has the familiar crowns of white flowers in late summer. It carries the common name ‘cowbane’ as it has led to the death of many livestock. Even in small quantities, ingestion of water hemlock can result in death or permanent damage to the central nervous system.

So, we appear to have a native/non-native mix of potentially toxic plants resembling Queen Anne’s lace in some areas of our Biosphere. Added to this mix are our two native species of Angelica, seaside Angelica (also called wild celery), and great (purple-stemmed) Angelica, as well as a reported hybrid between our native purple-stemmed variety and the Eurasian import. Some of these plants are long-standing members of our biosphere ecosystem and have been used as medicines for many generations.

According to Daniel Moerman in his book Native American Ethnobotany (1998), the purple-stemmed Angelica, has been used for everything from ‘flatulent colic’ to a tonic which rids dwellings of ghosts. As with any drug, it is all a matter of dosage and best left in the hands of experts.

If you want to throw a damper on the rampant spread of woodland Angelica, you can join my friends in their crusade to dig up and dispose of every piece of every plant that they encounter (with gloves on, of course). Another thing that you can do to stop the spread is to remove flowering heads so that seeds don’t form. Angelica, like our common garden parsley, is biennial and it flowers in its’ second year.

Physically removing first-year plants and removing flowering heads from second-year plants before they go to seed can be an effective management strategy. Dispose of the seed head in a sealed garbage bag but you can compost the rest of the plant. If you are faced with vast expanses of Angelica, they are most likely the imported woodland variety. Good luck!

Dr. Annamarie Hatcher is a consulting ecologist and a board member of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association. For more information about the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association, please visit http://blbra.ca/ or share your Angelica observations with us on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/blbra/.