Often called “the grandfather of herbs,” licorice gets its botanical name from the Greek glyks, meaning sweet and rhiza meaning root. It has been used since ancient times by cultures throughout the world, including the Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and Hindus. The crusaders brought licorice to England during the Middle Ages where it has been cultivated since the 16th century by monks who began its confectionary trade in Pontefract, Yourkshire, where annual licorice festivals continue. Early settler even brought licorice recipes to America where they discovered American licorice, Glycyrrhiza lepitota, a related native species which has similar uses. Licorice grows wild in southern Europe and the sweetest sources come from Spain and Italy, however, the original plants probably came from Russia or China.
The licorice plant is a legume, related to beans and peas, and grows to a height of 3-5 feet at maturity. The plant produces small spikes of bluish-colored flowers that bear bean-like pods containing four seeds, but it is the roots that contain the very sweet, characteristic juice. It is also noted for its fall colors. Growing best in deep, fertile, well-drained soil in full sun, licorice is a hardy perennial whose roots descend about 3 feet underground, sending out an extensive network of rhizomes. Licorice has a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria that form nodules on its roots and fix nitrogen. Some of the nitrogen is used by the plant, but it also benefits other plants which grow nearby. Unless seed is wanted, the plants should be prevented from flowering which saves energy for good quality roots. Propagation is from seed which is rather slow or division of the roots, in spring or autumn. The roots are harvested in autumn two to three years after planting and may be dried or boiled for a concentrated extract. The dried roots may be stored indefinitely as long as they are kept dry. They are very hard and fibrous and can be sliced or ground before use.
The taste of licorice is sweet, similar to anise and fennel and is used in candy, condiments, soups and salad dressings as well as to make an herbal tea. True licorice candy contains an extract from the roots, but the familiar candy gets it flavor from anise, molasses and corn syrup. The most common use world-wide is in cough lozenges and syrups to treat coughs and colds. It also flavors certain types of beer like Guinness, root beer, frozen dairy desserts, gelatins, puddings and meat products as well as tobacco. The tender shoots can be eaten raw in the spring and the root can be chewed on as a special treat!
TEA TIME TRIVIA
The natural sweetness of licorice,
which is 50 times stronger than sucrose,
makes it a favorite in herbal tea blends
“Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”