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Licorice, the Sweet Root

December 9, 2016 Back to Picks >

The licorice flavor we enjoy in candies and cough drops comes from the roots of the licorice bush, a member of the sweet pea family of plants. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a sub-shrub that grows 3-4 feet tall. Leaves are light green ovals grown in pairs along a 6-8 inch stem that from a distance looks light and feathery. The small flowers are purple to pale blue. Once fertilized they produce inch-long seed pods with small black seeds.

Licorice can be found growing wild in parts of California, Nevada, and Utah, which tells you something about its drought tolerance. It is grown commercially in Spain, the south of France, and Italy where warm climate prevails. Once source says that �climate particularly favorable to the production of the orange is favorable to that of licorice.� In your garden, plant it in light sandy soil (it doesn�t care for clay soils at all) and provide plenty of water. Since it tends to be on the tall side, plant it in the back of your herb beds where it will serve as a backdrop to shorter plants.

After planting, enjoy its reliable foliage for several years while you wait for the roots to mature. Licorice root is harvested 3-4 years after planting. The roots are dark reddish brown on the outside and pale cream on the inside. The peeled roots can be chewed but licorice is usually consumed as an extract for flavoring. The roots are boiled to extract the flavoring which congeals as a glossy, black substance.

Licorice extract is used in a variety of ways. It is combined with sugar to make a variety of candies. Brewers add licorice to porter and stout to make them thicker and darker and to beer as a foaming agent. The flavor is sometimes added to medicines to disguise an otherwise bitter taste. It is also considered a medicine in its own right. Its anti-inflammatory and expectorant properties make it useful in combating throat and bronchial disorders.