For over 2000 years Licorice, the famous 'sweet root' was the basis for sweets. As a claimed cure for ills it had an even longer history. Hippocrates mentioned licorice in 400 BC and Theophrastus "Father of the Greek Botany" considered it as being a valuable medicinal.
Pliny wrote 1900 years ago that licorice juice is first rate for clearing the voice, good for the lungs, liver and stomach. In the first World War, the French provided their troops with a beverage made of licorice root. Licorice has been attributed as containing rejuvenating, healing and nutritive properties, and it has been given to aid endurance and strength and has often been called a 'cure-all' in history.
The ancient Chinese divided their drugs into three classes, according to their reputed properties. Licorice was listed amongst drugs of the first class, because "They preserve the life of Man, and therefore resemble Heaven. They are not poisonous. No matter how much you take and how often you use them, they are not harmful. If you wish to make the body supple, improve the breath, become old in years without ageing in body, then make use of this class."
Like the Chinese, the Hindus considered licorice an excellent general tonic, beautifying agent and elixer of life.
When the 3000 year old tomb of King Tut-Ankh-Amen of Egypt was opened, archeologists found quantities of licorice stored with fabulous jewellery and art works.
Licorice was often called 'Scythic' because the ancients declared that the Scythians, the redoubtable warriors of antiquity, could by chewing licorice, go for ten days without eating and drinking, for licorice allays both hunger and thirst.
The licorice plant originally came from the East and has been grown since early times in China, Persia, Turkey and the Mediterranean countries. In the present time it is propagated commercially in Spain, France, Russia, Germany, the Middle East and Asia. Licorice was first introduced in England in the Middle Ages and became a popular medicine. In the early 16th Century, licorice began to be cultivated in the monastery garden at Pontefract, which later became the centre of the licorice confectionery industry and of lozenges, for which it is still renowned. Licorice juice constitutes a large industry, although in the future, the cost of hand-harvesting in countries with high labour costs, may change the viability.
The name 'licorice', Glycyrrhiza glabra, comes from the Greek word glukos, which means 'sweet', and rhiza, which means 'root'.
Licorice is a perennial shrub and grows to 1.5-2 metres high. Being a legume, it has the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, and because of its deep-rooting tap root, it is considered very hardy. Creeping stolons or rhizomes from the main tap root can go down in the earth many metres, particularly in loose soils. The roots are brown and wrinkled and yellow on the inside. The extensive horizontal roots may form shoots with leaf buds and stems when well-established, usually in the second year. For this reason, in the home garden it is wise to allow the plant ample room to spread.
The long horizontal stolons can be used equally as well as the tap root. The root can be used fresh just by digging, washing and scraping as desired. It is very sweet.
The round stems are dark green, growing singularly or in groups above the ground. Once established, it makes an attractive bush with its graceful, light, pinnate foliage, presenting an almost feathery appearance.
The erect stems bear 4-7 pairs of leaflets 2-5 cm long. From the leaf axils, racemes of pale blue to lavender, or yellow-white flowers appear in late summer, followed by small brown pods containing 3-8 seeds.
The plant goes dormant in autumn and comes to leafy life again in spring. Length of dormancy depends on the coolness of the climate where it is grown.
Plants can be grown from seed, but propagating by means of cuttings from younger parts of the rhizome usually gives better results. Cutting 8-25 cm long are set perpendicularly in the soil. A deep, loose, moist, loamy soil is ideal. It is an advantage to enrich the soil with compost, or well rotted manure and to have a neutral pH level by adding dolomite, lime or ashes. Rocky and clay soils have grown licorice, but the root formation will be slower or restricted. The plant should not be placed in waterlogged or swampy conditions.
Licorice thrives in a warm climate, but adapts to cooler climates and withstands frost because it is dormant in winter. Plants grown commercially are usually set 7-12 cm apart in rows 45 cm apart. For home use, larger spacing is recommended.
Plants can be fertilised in Autumn and Spring. Young plants should be kept weed-free. Mulching is beneficial. Watering can be carried out in Spring and Summer if no natural rainfall has been recorded. Young plants will thrive with plenty of water. Dry periods during Autumn are quite favourable for the formation of the sweet content.
The root is usually dug in the 3rd or 4th year, although for home use, the 2nd year would yield a considerable quantity of useful root.
The sweet content of the root will be at its best if the flowers are pinched out as they develop. Plants that are allowed to flower and seed use up some of the sweet sap from the root system. If not dug out after the 4th year, roots take on a tough, coarse and woody character. Grown for commercial or home use, the shoots (often called canes) and leaf stems are cut back to soil level each year in Autumn until ready to be pulled.
DATE: March 1994
* * * * * * * * * * * * *