Licorice whips, dark, salty drops, and soothing teas all get their signature flavor from the licorice plant. Well, sort of.
The root of the licorice plant is what gives us its sweet flavor. In fact, the word licorice comes from the Greek for sweet root. Licorice gets its flavor from certain chemicals found mostly in those roots. But licorice isn’t the only plant with those chemicals. Star anise, fennel, and anise, none of which are related to licorice, feature similar tastes. Most candies that are licorice-flavored actually contain very little licorice. Instead, aniseed oil is used to enhance and reinforce the flavor.
A different kind of sweet
Chemically, the sweetness of licorice is very different from the sweetness we expect from sugar. Licorice takes longer to register as sweet, but that sweetness lasts longer. In the Netherlands, dried sticks of licorice root are chewed as a candy. Thirty to fifty times sweeter than candy, these treats don’t hurt your teeth or your calorie count! Up until 2009, licorice root was used in the U.S. to enhance and moisturize tobacco products.
Licorice plant description
Depending on where you live, licorice is described as either a weed or an herb. I guess it has something to do with whether or not you like the flavor. However you feel about it, the licorice plant grows into a shrub that is 3 feet around, give or take. It has long, pinnate leaves, made up of leaflets. Delicate blue, purple, and yellow flowers are loosely clustered. The plant produces a pod-shaped fruit filled with seeds. Licorice plants spread using stolons, the same way strawberry plants have runners.
Licorice is a legume!
The licorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is an herbaceous perennial legume. Being a legume, licorice has a relationship with certain root fungi, called mycorrhizae, that allow them to fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form the plant can use for food. Those roots (which contain most of the licorice flavor) are extensive. They can reach 3 to 4 feet deep, and the stolons can extend for up to 25 feet! Don’t let that scare you off. If you prefer, you can also grow licorice in a container.
Licorice as medicine
Licorice has long been seen as a treatment for upset stomach and upper respiratory illness. Countless other claims have been made about licorice as a medication, but the scientific research does not yet support those claims. What it has shown is that licorice contains chemicals that can cause medical problems. If you are pregnant, or have existing heart or kidney problems, you should not eat actual licorice root in excess. That shouldn’t be difficult, right?
How to grow licorice
Traditionally, licorice was grown in Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. The licorice plant prefers full sun to partial shade, good drainage, and slightly alkaline soil. Licorice can be propagated with cuttings, by division, or from seed. To start a licorice plant from seeds, you will need to soak the seeds in water for 24 hours before planting them 1/2 inch deep. Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate, which should take two weeks. Germination is most successful when temperatures are around 68°F. These plants get large, so be sure to give each plant enough room to reach full size. Licorice is somewhat frost tolerant, able to withstand temperatures as low as 5°F, as long as it doesn’t stay that cold for long. Mulch around the plants to retain moisture, stabilize temperatures, and reduce completion from weeds. Your licorice plants do not need to be fertilized.
Licorice pests and diseases
The same flavors that make licorice so pleasant for us make it undesirable to most garden pests. Spider mites, slugs, and caterpillars are the only real pests of any concern. Powdery mildew can also be a problem. Other than that, licorice plants are trouble-free.
How to harvest licorice
Licorice root needs to grow for 2 or 3 years before it can be dug up in the fall. Leaving the main roots in place and undisturbed, dig up secondary roots, wash them, and store them in a dark location where they can dry. They can be kept for several months at this stage. To use, simply peel off the bark and chew or simmer out the root’s sweet deliciousness. You can also use licorice stems to make a tasty tea.
This unassuming, resilient plant can fill a neglected spot in your garden or foodscape, providing a tasty diversion when the mood strikes.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!