The Monthly Wort: Licorice Root (Part 1)

The Monthly Wort


The Monthly Wort will provide readers with detailed descriptions of specifically chosen herbs (aka “wort”, meaning a useful herb), splitting into 4 categories over the span of the month. Herbal History, Medicinal Uses, Magical Uses and Growing/Harvesting. In order to get the full scope of each plant, stay tuned every week as we delve into the spiritual and practical experience of Herbalism.

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Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is what some would refer to as nature’s candy due to its delightfully and almost sugary taste.  Originating from Eurasia, it was first historically mentioned by the Grecian Theophrastus and later revisited by Roman writers. It didn’t stop there, however, and is now used worldwide, most commonly in China (gan cao or gan-zao) and southern Europe (liquorice root). It’s cultivation in England dates back to the 16th century. The word liquorice is derived from the Greek word glukurrhiza, meaning “sweet root”, and then translated from Old French, from which it was known as licoresse.  The current spelling licorice is the Americanized version.

- Licorice: Above and Below Ground -

You might find it surprising that licorice root is a perennial legume! It grows to 40 inches in height, with pinnate leaves about 3-6 inches long, with 9-17 leaflets. The flowers are purple to whitish-blue with loose inflorescence. The roots have to be substantiated for at least two years before they can be harvested and can grow up to several feet, depending on the conditions. It is generally picked and harvested when about the circumference of a pencil. The roots are stoloniferous, meaning they have stolons or “runners” that connect horizontally between organisms, and can also be re-planted and grown again after a term of dormancy.

NOT licorice root flavor - just gross, black candy.

NOT licorice root flavor - just gross, black candy.

- Licorice Identity Crisis -

There is a common misconception about licorice root when facing those who aren’t familiar with it: the word “licorice” is often mis-referenced with the black and red licorice candies. While licorice root was in fact used as an additive in many sweets, the flavor you taste in “licorice” candy is actually employed by anise and fennel, two completely different plants with very distinct qualities. In my experience, there have been very strong opinions about the anise/fennel licorice flavorings among sweet-goers. For example, I can’t stand the taste, however my mother eats it like it’s… well, candy. Licorice root itself can be quite strong in flavor, although in a vastly different way.

Licorice root in raw form

Licorice root in raw form

In fact, the root has helped folks stomach even the most potent of medicines with its earthy sweetness (perhaps even covering up the flavor of poison in more unfortunate cases) and has such a powerful ability of doing so that it was largely used as a flavoring agent in tobaccos. This includes for pipes or cigarettes, moist snuff, and chewing tobacco. Although I don’t recommend smoking or huffing the root.

An equally common benefit of licorice root is its medicinal qualities. Next week, we’ll delve into more detail on how it has aided human health across continents, but until then, we’ll name a few of its amazing capabilities: An estrogenic, anti-allergic, expectorant, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-convulsive, choleretic, anti-tussive ( relieves coughing) , anti-hepatotoxic (strength and stimulant for the functioning of liver), and antineoplastic (to prevent, inhibit or halt the development of a tumor).

How is this all possible?! Come back next Friday and you’ll be able to read all about the medicinal benefits of this tasty root. See you then, folks!

Mountain Hedgewitch

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