Growing Licorice in Your Herb Garden – Mother Earth News

Learn about growing licorice in your herb garden, including the history of licorice and a gardening guide.

Growing Licorice in Your Herb Garden

Lately, more and more people have begun to realize how limited our “modern” diets have become, both in terms of variety and nutritional value. This realization sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs. . . these plants which, although unknown today, were, barely a generation ago, “guests” of honor on the dinner tables and in the medicine cabinets of our grandparents’ houses. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS will examine the availability, cultivation and benefits of our “forgotten” plant foods and remedies. . . and – we hope – help prevent the loss of yet another piece of ancestral knowledge.

You might be surprised to learn that good old-fashioned licorice has an impressive family history — and in some cases royalty. Large stores of the tasty root have been found, alongside priceless art treasures and jewelry, in the 3,000-year-old tomb of King Tut. In fact, licorice was considered such a precious herb that no Egyptian king would go without it on his journey through eternity. And even today, a drink called May sus, brewed from the sweet yellow root of the licorice shrub, is popular in the Middle East.

The Royal History of Medicinal Licorice Root

The botanical name for licorice, Glycyrrhiza glabra, incorporates Greek glykys (Soft and Rhiza (root). If you quickly and casually pronounce the tongue-twisting “glycyrrhiza,” you’ll know how it became “licorice” in English.

This perennial shrub (also known as sweetwood or sweetroot) grows wild in Asia Minor, Greece, Spain, southern Italy, Iraq, Syria, Russia and the northern China. Large quantities are now shipped to northern Europe for various trade purposes, but the sweet root may have been taken there first by the Romans who ate it because they thought it grew personal stamina.

Different uses of this medicinal herb have developed over the centuries. An ancient Arabic remedy for skin lesions and blisters, for example, was to sprinkle licorice powder on the affected skin. The ancient Hindus made a tonic of milk, sugar and licorice to increase virility, the Chinese long consumed large amounts of this wondrous herb to ward off old age, and medieval Europeans believed the root to be so nutritious and thirst-quenching that a small piece held under the tongue could keep a person alive for 11 or 12 days!

Most of our modern licorice supply is grown commercially for its medicinal value as a natural laxative and for use as an ingredient in cough mixtures. The thick, black syrup extracted by boiling the chopped sweet root is 50 times sweeter than cane sugar and helps mask less appetizing ingredients.

Grow your own licorice

Of course, most of us are most familiar with licorice in the chewy twist candy form that we loved as kids. Now, you can’t grow candy sticks in your garden, but you can certainly grow licorice plants from living roots. The wrinkled, brownish-yellow rootstock will produce—as it does every year—a five-foot shrub.

Dry, rocky soil in full sun is best for grass. The plant’s stems will bear alternate pinnate leaves – with three to seven pairs of dark green oval leaflets – and pea-shaped, pale lavender or yellow flowers will bloom throughout the summer.

Licorice stems make a flavorful tea.

Homegrown licorice stalks peeled of their bark can be used to prepare a tasty tea. . . or even as teethers for small children!

For more helpful tips on growing and using herbs, check out MOTHER EARTH NEWS The Many Medicinal Benefits of Goldenseal and Grow tarragon in your herb garden.

Terri S. Tomasini