Chances are that when you're enjoying your black licorice treats, you're enjoying its aromatic flavor and chewy texture - not wondering where the flavor comes from. But what is licorice root?
Licorice root comes from the licorice plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra. This perennial legume is native to Western Asia and Southern Europe and is more closely related to peas, beans, and peanuts than to anise or fennel - even though they have similar scent and flavor compounds.
The plant's botanical name refers to the most widely known characteristic; in Greek, glukos means "sweet" and riza means "root." The compound glycyrrhizin that's found in the root of the plant is about 50 times sweeter than sugar. Glabra is from the Latin word for "smooth" because the roots of the plant have a smooth surface.
The licorice plant is a member of the Fabaceae family, which includes about 20,000 species of trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs. Glycyrrhiza glabra, the variety most often used to make licorice extract for flavorings, is primarily found in Southern and Central Europe, while the Glycyrrhiza uralensis and Glycyrrhiza inflate are native to Asia. Glycyrrhiza lepidota, on the other hand, is native to North America.
There are about 20 species that belong to the licorice genus. Licorice plants have sticky, sometimes hairy foliage that spreads through both seeds and rhizomes. While cultivated throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the plant is native to dry scrubland and damp ditches in the Mediterranean and southwestern Asia.
Licorice plants grow to be 3-7 feet (about 1-2 meters) tall. They bloom in late summer with pale blue to violet pealike flowers and their fruits have leathery or prickly seed pods with 2-5 seeds each. The roots resemble straight, wrinkly, cylindrical pieces of fibrous wood. Licorice roots are brown on the outside and pale yellow on the inside.
Licorice can be grown as a perennial garden herb or in containers if you live in a generally mild climate. Licorice prefers warm climates, so plant it after the risk of frost has passed and temperatures are at least 60°F (15.5°C). Choose a spot in full sun or partial shade with fertile and moist, but well-drained soil.
Before planting, dig in some nitrogen-rich fertilizer into the soil. While licorice plants can be grown from seeds, the easiest method of growing them is to plant root cuttings 1-1.5 feet (30-45 cm) apart. To grow successfully, each root cutting needs at least one growth bud. Cuttings from smaller roots will produce smaller initial plants. A thicker piece of root will produce a larger new plant.
Whichever method you use to propagate your plants, apply nitrogen-rich fertilizer every 4-6 weeks after planting and give them a regular, deep watering. Mulch well in the summer to help retain the moisture. Good companion plants for licorice include marigolds, marjoram, rosemary, lettuce, and zinnias.
Growing licorice is not a speedy hobby. Home gardeners should plan on at least 2 years, but not more than 4 years, as the roots start to become too woody to be useful after that time. In the fall, dig up the roots, saving any that you plan to replant if propagating with rootstock. Since small bits of the root can grow new plants, it may be difficult to get rid of after it's planted, so you may want to consider using similar containment methods as when planting mint or bamboo.
After digging the roots, clean them and air dry in a warm, dry area for several months. You can either store the whole root this way or cut them into chips prior to drying. After the roots or root chips are dry, they can be stored in a cool, dry place.
Health Benefits of Licorice Root
One reason people are interested in licorice root is its role in many traditional herbal medicines. Licorice has a long history of medicinal use in Ancient Egypt, China, and India, as well as by the ancient Assyrian people. Even today, licorice root is the most widely used Chinese herb in traditional medicines - right up there with ginseng.
Licorice has been used to support healthy digestion, for respiratory ailments, and diseases of the liver, circulatory, and kidneys. Today, people use licorice root for similar ailments: heartburn, acid reflux, and coughs. There is also research into glycyrrhizin (the compound responsible for the root's sweetness) and its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, but more research is needed before it can be stated definitively as fact. Capsules and liquid supplements are readily available, and licorice tea is also available at most supermarkets in the United States.
What About Safety?
Licorice root is generally considered safe as a food ingredient. However, when consumed in large quantities for long periods of time, it can cause serious side effects. How much is too much? In 2003, the European Union's Scientific Committee on Food determined the safe limit of licorice consumption to be 150 grams (a little over 5 ounces) per day. That's almost a third of a pound! Not many people eat that much black licorice every day - even if they love the stuff.
Consuming what's been determined as an unsafe amount would mean consuming more than 2.5 pounds of black licorice every week to reach the quantities of glycyrrhizic acid needed for side effects like increased blood pressure and decreased potassium levels in the body. Of course, if someone is taking other licorice root products, like herbal tea or capsules, the amounts of candy they can consume would be lower. It's also recommended that people who are pregnant or have high blood pressure and heart or kidney disease should consume less than the maximum amount deemed safe - just to be on the safe side.
Treats and Sweets
What does all this mean for you, the licorice lover? For the most part not much. Most "licorice" in the United States don't contain any licorice at all. Instead, they're flavored with anise oil, which smells and tastes similar to licorice root. Even in Europe, where traditional licorice is more popular, the amount of actual licorice root in confections is typically very small.
Licorice is so popular in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and France, that dried sticks of licorice root are considered a traditional treat all by themselves. Since the 1970s, easier-to-consume manufactured licorice treats have been steadily displacing the plain root, but the flavor remains a favorite.
So ultimately, what is licorice? It's delicious, my friends. That's what it is.