Remembering Ashitaba (angelicus keiskei)
Many years ago my wife and I visited the Japanese island of Hachijojima, where the owner of our modest lodgings introduced us to an herbal tea we had never tasted. As we sipped the slightly resinous brew I asked a silly question; where was this plant cultivated? He pointed out the veranda window to a profusion of emerald green in the garden. “That’s it there,” he said. “It grows wild all over the island.” I shouldn’t have been too surprised. The name of the inn was Ashitabaso.
In truth, I was more impressed by the honesty and generosity of our host than by the inn’s namesake plant. There was not a rental car to be had on the island, yet this man had picked us up at the airport, and invited us to use his extra car (no mention of paying for it, or insurance) for the duration of our two-day visit. And so, along with inexpensive lodgings, and delicious meals (and all the ashitaba tea we could drink) we had the freedom to explore this volcanic island a few hundred miles south of Tokyo – a sleepy enclave of stony beaches, fishing hamlets and verdant slopes that felt a lot farther from the megapolis than a thirty-minute flight would suggest.
Upon returning to Tokyo, we asked friends and family if they had ever heard of ashitaba – and found that no one had. After that, we quickly forgot about the funny tea we had imbibed for a few days on Hachijojima. In fact, we pretty much forgot about Hachijojima. (That’s what happens when you escape the urban tumult for a weekend respite – and then go right back.)
Fast forward thirty years to Torrance, CA, where I recently found myself in a local café listening to a Japanese-American acquaintance talk about her favorite herbal drink. I stopped her. “Did you say ashitaba?” Surprised that I knew of it, she began to recite a litany of purported benefits, and added that she was growing it in her own backyard. “It grows so fast!” As my thoughts routed back to memories of Hachijojima, she posed an etymological test: “I wonder what the name ashitaba means?”
A bit of searching edified us; the common Japanese name ashitaba is a combination of the words ashita (tomorrow) and ha (leaf), an appellation derived from the plant’s high rate of growth. Ashitaba is in fact a member of the plant genus angelicus, which includes dozen’s of species of wild celery recognized for a plethora of medicinal benefits. Do your own research, and you will soon agree – this is one of those herbs that should be on your short list of go-to curatives any time the health weather turns gray.