What is your immediate reaction to...licorice?
No, not red vines, and not traditional black licorice candies either. We’re talking licorice root, right out of the ground. Many people who are new to herbalism have a gut reaction when they first hear about licorice root, and it is generally negative...you know who you are! Fun fact: most licorice candies sold today are flavored with anise, not licorice. Take a moment to shelve your loath of licorice and discover how licorice root’s benefits are deeply rooted in traditional herbal practices worldwide.
Licorice is a perennial plant native to southwest Asia and the Mediterranean and is now cultivated worldwide. It is a member of the Fabaceae, or legume family, with the familiar pinnate leaf structure of beans and peas. When growing licorice in your home garden, you will be amazed at the runners it sends out from its main taproot, sometimes measuring up to 26 feet long, and popping up all over your garden. It is recommended to let the plant grow for 2 to 3 years before harvesting the root.
Once harvested, wash the roots and chop them up into little pieces while still fresh, as they are almost impossible to break down once they are dry. Use a well-ventilated area or dehydrator to dry the roots and store them in a cool dark place. Licorice root makes a lovely decoction on its own in combination with other herbs. You can also make a tincture of licorice by soaking the roots in vodka at a ratio of one part root to 5 parts vodka.
Sweet Flavor Harmony
In nature, there are few plants as sweetly satisfying as licorice root, and areas of the world where licorice grows wild have been tapping into this sweetness for much more than candy. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) there is a theory that “nine out of ten formulas contain licorice.” This is because its sweet flavor is known as a harmonizer and is added to formulas to make unharmonious flavors more pleasant.
Sweet flavored herbs like licorice, marshmallow, slippery elm, ginseng and ashwagandha have more in common than just being able to harmonize other flavors. The sweet flavor indicates that polysaccharide starches are present in the plant, making our sweet herbs excellent at supporting and strengthening the immune system.*
History and Traditional Uses
Beyond harnessing its sweetness for flavor, licorice is a wonderful stand-alone herb. It is considered an “essential herbal medicine” in China.
“Since 25 A.D., licorice has been extensively used by the Chinese to tonify qi (life energy) of the heart and spleen.”1
Licorice root, called “gan can,” meaning “sweet herb” is found in the oldest surviving Chinese text on medicinal plants, The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, written and credited to Emperor Shen Nong who ruled China around approximately 2695 B.C.E.
“From China, this medicinal root spread to India, Africa, and Europe. Legend holds that even Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, affirmed its beneficent nature.”2
Then around 77 A.D. Dioscórides’ Included licorice in his book De Materia Medica, where the root is given its Greek name Glycyrrhiza “glukos riza” meaning “sweet root.” Licorice was also among the treasures found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The primary phytochemical of interest in licorice is glycyrrhizin, which is not only responsible for its sweet flavor but also much of its traditional use.
Glycyrrhizin is structurally one of the coolest molecules in nature: a saponin. The molecular structure of a saponin is comprised of both water-loving and oil-loving parts. Saponins are somewhat sensitizing which is why they are so powerful. Their mild irritation not only inspires movement throughout the body, supporting our eliminatory channels, but also seems to be what triggers an adaptive response in our cells. Through mild irritation from the saponin molecules, our cells become more adaptive to stress, which can carry over to supporting our overall response to occasional stress over time, thus categorizing licorice root as an adaptogen.*
Furthermore, Glycyrrhizin is the constituent responsible for potential water retention when taken in high doses over long periods of time, making this an herb linked to (and to be avoided with) high blood pressure. This is why you see deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DLC) on the market.
Licorice root is also high in mucilaginous polysaccharides. These molecules are extremely hydrophilic (water loving), swelling as they encounter water, resulting in a thickening, hydrating effect. This makes licorice root great a delivering hydration directly to the tissues of the body. Muco-polysaccharides (and all polysaccharide starches found in plants) are nourishing to the cells, giving them an immunomodulating action, meaning that they build and strengthen the immune system over time. *
This beautiful composition of sweet glycyrrhizin and hydrating polysaccharides makes licorice the perfect herb for soothing tissues along the digestive tract. A warming licorice root tea is traditionally used for digestive support, especially in hot, acidic constitutions, and a spray of the tincture onto the back of the throat can aid in soothing tissues of the throat and tonsils. *
Common Names: Licorice, Liquorice, Gancao, Glycyrrhiza, sweet root, Yasti-madhu (Ayurveda), gan can (TCM)
Scientific Binomial Name: Glycyrrhiza glabra
Plant Family: Fabaceae
Habitat & Cultivation: A perennial herb native to the riverbanks of the Mediterranean, central to southern Russia, and Asia Minor to Iran. Now cultivated in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia and can be successfully grown in temperate zones worldwide.
Botanical Description: “The plants are graceful, with light, spreading, pinnate foliage, presenting an almost feathery appearance from a distance... From the axils of the leaves spring racemes or spikes of papilionaceous small pale-blue, violet, yellowish-white or purplish flowers, followed by small pods somewhat resembling a partly grown peapod in form.”
*FDA warning: This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.