Scientific Name: Glycyrrhiza glabra
Liquorice is a hardy perennial with stoloniferous roots, downy stems and pinnate leaves and can grow up to a height of 2 meters.
The roots are straight pieces of wrinkled, fibrous wood, which are long and cylindrical (round) and grow horizontally underground. Licorice roots are brown on the outside and yellow on the inside.
In late summer it bears pale blue to violet pea-like flowers in loose spikes followed by oblong pods, containing 2-4 kidney-shaped seeds. The flowers are hermaphrodite (having both male and female organs) and are pollinated by insects.
Liquorice can grow in any well drained soil but prefers deep fertile, moist-retentive soil for good root production. It will tolerate alkaline conditions as well as a maritime climate and can grow in full sun or light shade.
Liquorice has a deep taproot as well as horizontal rhizomes that will produce suckers from the second year — except when planted in clay soil. In order to produce good quality roots, the flowers must be pinched out.
Liquorice is a slow grower that do not produce much growth during the first two years — or after it had been transplanted. It has a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria that form nodules on the roots and fix atmospheric nitrogen. Some of this nitrogen is utilized by the Liquorice itself as well as other plants growing nearby.
Liquorice is a member of the pea family and it is native to some parts of Europe (like Spain, Italy, Russia) and Asia (India, Iran & China).
Liquorice is cultivated for its edible root which is widely used in medicine and as a flavoring, hence the name Glycyrrhiza that translates as sweet root in Greek.
Harvest and parts used
The bruised root has a characteristic sweet pungent smell and is harvested in autumn, 3-4 years after planting — and is dried for later use.
Licorice root is well known for its fragrance and flavor. The flavor that we associate as licorice in licorice candy is actually anise. Licorice candy is primarily flavored with anise oil and then sweetened with licorice root (The root contains glycyrrhizin, a substance that is 50 times sweeter than sucrose). The powdered root is used as a sweetener in soft drinks and some herbal teas. A tea made from the roots is also consumed as a thirst quencher while the leaves are used as a tea substitute in Mongolia.
Licorice supplements are made from the roots and underground stems and used in medicines to disguise unpleasant flavors. Licorice is a demulcent (soothing to irritated membranes), expectorant (loosening and helping to expel congestion in the upper respiratory tract), stimulates mucous secretions of the trachea, is anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-allergic, alterative, diuretic and laxative.
Licorice can be used to treat bronchial complaints such as catarrh, bronchitis, colds, flu, coughs and reduces irritation of the throat. It relieves stress and is a potent healing agent for tuberculosis. Licorice helps to reduce fever and is used in the treatment of chronic inflammations such as arthritis, mouth ulcers, rheumatic diseases, chronic skin conditions and auto-immune diseases. Licorice can be used to treat ileitis, leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease (it is anti-spasmodic in the bowels). It can also be used for auto-immune conditions including lupus, scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis. The dried root can be chewed and is excellent for teething children — it is also a good tooth cleaner.
Licorice should be used in moderation and should not be taken by pregnant women or people with high blood pressure, kidney disease or those taking digoxin-based medication. Excessive consumption of licorice or licorice candy can be toxic to the liver and cardiovascular system and may produce hypertension and water retention. People should not consume more than 100mg of glycyrrhizic acid a day.
Most cases of hypertension from licorice are caused by eating too much licorice candy.
Liquorice adds a mellow, sweet woody flavor and enhances the taste of tobacco. Extracts from the root are used as a foaming agent in beers and fire extinguishers. A fibre obtained from the roots is used for insulation, wallboard and boxboard.