A member of the pea family native to the Mediterranean region and Asia, licorice is a perennial with downy stems and pale blue flowers that appear in loose spikes. The plant’s deep taproot sends out thin, horizontal rhizomes.
The Greek name for the plant is “sweet root” and, in fact, licorice root is about 50 times sweeter than sugar. Although licorice is often associated with a candy flavoring, most licorice-flavored candy today is flavored with anise oil. Licorice has a very long history of therapeutic use, however, and herbalists still value it for its pharmacological properties.
Common Names: Licorice, Russian Licorice, Spanish Licorice, Turkish Licorice
Description: Erect, branching perennial, up to 6-feet tall; spikes of ½-inch pale blue to violet flowers; alternate, pinnate leaves with 9 to 12-leaflets; long taproot
Hardiness: To Zone 7
Parts Used: Roots
Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region and central and southwest Asia
Licorice makes a flavorful herbal tea. Commercial producers of beers and soft drinks, pastries, ice creams, puddings, and soy products use licorice extract as a flavoring.
Licorice has anti-inflammatory properties and has traditionally been used as a treatment for arthritis and allergies. Modern herbalists also use the herb as an expectorant and demulcent because it stimulates mucus secretions of the trachea. Its soothing effect on mucous membranes makes it useful for treating sore throats and coughs, as well as for protecting and healing your gastrointestinal tract.
The primary component of licorice root is glycyrrhizin, a compound that acts much like cortisol, stimulating the excretion of hormones by the adrenal cortex. For this reason, licorice is thought to benefit people suffering from adrenal weakness. However, glycyrrhizin can also cause water retention and an increase in blood pressure. To reduce these side effects, researchers have developed a form of the herb called deglycyrrhizinated licorice, or DGL, from which 97 percent of the glycyrrhizin has been removed.
To make licorice tea, simmer 1 teaspoon of the dried and sliced root in 1 cup of water for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink two or three times per day for up to 7 days.
Caution: Do not take this herb if you are pregnant or have heart or liver disease or hypertension.
How to grow it
Licorice grows in full sun and rich, moist, sandy loam. Plant divisions or cuttings in a prepared garden site in early spring or late fall, and water frequently until plants are established. In Zone 6 and colder, grow licorice indoors in a 12-inch-deep pot. Harvest the roots of 3-year-old plants in late fall. Dig a trench on one side of the plant to expose the roots. New plants will grow from roots left in the soil. Dry the harvested roots in a dark location with very low humidity for 6 months, then store them in an airtight container.