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.
To be completely honest, I have found licorice root to be a challenge as an amateur gardener. Since I heard of this wonderful plant, I immediately set out to buy seeds and get myself started on a 2-year project of cultivating its roots and using it in various teas. What I found was a lot bigger of a trial than I could have imagined! The first issue was that my cat absolutely loves this plant (let’s be honest, who doesn’t?) and has a terrible habit of peeing in it whenever the chance arises.
Let me tell you, cat pee does not help that poor little plant in the slightest.
Besides my antagonistic feline, there are other factors that make licorice root harder to produce, some of which are temperature sensitivity, carefully monitored watering schedules or nutrient specifications. Depending on which plant you have, it can vary in its ability to adapt. The licorice plant is a herbaceous perennial legume native to southern Europe and parts of Asia, more specifically India, and there are few places in the United States that mimic the environment of these places.
Although it sounds like it, I’m definitely not trying to deter you from growing licorice root. I think you should! Moreso, some the general knowledge and expectations that I’ll be laying out for you are going to hopefully make you more successful of a licorice grower than I have been!
- Zones for the Rhizomes -
Since both varieties of licorice root are foreign to the U.S., their growing specifications vary and you may find that, like myself, licorice root will be best grown inside for you. For Glycyrrhiza glabra, zones 7-10 are best suited for growing, although zone 6 can be successful if it is mulched heavily. Glycyrrhiza uralensis, on the other hand, prefers zones 9-10, and tends to be less tender than its sibling plant.
Licorice usually flowers from June to July and is a great plant to grow around the perimeter of the garden, as it can adjust nitrogen in the soil and attract bees – the latter of which is important, as the flowers of this plant are hermaphroditic and are pollinated by insects!
Getting Licorice Root Started
- Growing Licorice Root From Seeds -
Soak the seeds for at least 24 hours in lukewarm, distilled water and then sow them into a fresh starting mix. You’ll want to sow them at a depth of about ½ inch. I’ve had some success with scarification as well, where you can use sandpaper or a sharp knife to gently shave off a side of the seed. Cover the seeds with soil and keep them evenly moist until germination occurs, usually within 2 weeks. The optimum temperature you’ll want to keep them at is around 68° F (20° C). If you aren’t using Jiffy Pellets (which I honestly recommend), space the little guys about 2 feet apart. They need plenty of room to grow.
- Growing Licorice Root from Division -
When harvesting an already established plant, you might want to think twice before using the entire root for your tea collection! One of the great things about this legume is that you can regrow a secondary plant from the roots of another. In spring or fall, you can cut off part of the root, dip the cut end in rooting hormone and replant it. Every division must have about one growth bud. Because of the shock, the plant will most go dormant for a season before it starts to grow again, however when it comes back, it will do so quicker this the second time. You can also cut off a new plant forming at the end of a sucker (stolon), which are stems that spread along the ground, and replant it in the same manner. If you are dividing the plant in the fall, divisions must be replanted immediately.
- Ground or Pot -
Since I live in Colorado where the seasons can be very bipolar, it’s more beneficial to grow licorice root in a pot so that I can bring it indoors during bad weather. If you have the same growing conditions, you’ll want to choose a large pot, at least twelve inches, preferably terracotta (this is important with plants susceptible to root rot since terracotta won’t retain water as much as plastic or glazed ceramic pots) and you’ll want it to be light colored so the roots also don’t overheat. Mix your soil as 1 part sand, 1 part compost and 1 part loam. It’s important that it’s light and airy for the root system to move around, while also maintaining an even moisture. It prefers neutral to slightly alkaline pH levels.
If you just plan on throwing that guy straight in the garden, you’ll want the land loosened with deep, well-draining soil. It’s also a good idea to root through the soil for stones, as they can get in the way of a healthy root system. If the soil is clay rich, as one might find in a lot of Colorado ground, lighten it by adding compost and sand. Dig a hole that is 24 inches wide and 20 inches deep. Again, you’ll want at least 2 feet in spacing between your plants.
Great companion plants for licorice root are rosemary, marigold (calendula) and marjoram. Bad ones are garlic, onion, leek, broccoli/cauliflower or cabbage.
Licorice root needs a sunny to semi-shady location to grow properly, although if you live in a high humidity state, the plant is going to need more afternoon shade. As long as your soil has been properly conducted, you can give your root regular and abundant watering while it’s growing. Deep watering is valuable to keep the soil slightly moist all the time, but you don’t want your pot to be a soggy mess or you may encourage root rot. I like these little self-watering bulbs to get that water deep in the pot. Another useful tool that helps people like me who overwater their plants (I love them to death, my roommate jokes) is this moisture reader that also measures pH that will help you gauge whether or not your sensitive plant needs more or less watering. Also keep in mind that licorice root needs less water during the winter.
- Other Licorice Root Plant Care -
While the care for licorice is fairly simple, there are a few specific needs that it has to grow successful, the first being temperature. It is only mildly frost tolerant and can bear down to temperatures of 5° F (-15° C) if it has to, although that’s obviously not ideal. The perfect medium is anywhere between 60-85° F (15-30° C). The alternating pinnate leaves can become sunburned and high winds can snap the stems. Treat this plant like your gentle grandmother, in other words.
It doesn’t need fertilizer unless the soil is poor, in which you should mix compost into it or mulch around the base of the plant with compost. The mulch is more or less required to retain the moisture in the soil.
- Harvesting Licorice Root -
Several different sources that I found have contended the number of years you should wait before harvesting licorice root, battling between 2 and 3. The only specific advice I can give is not to wait too long, as the roots can become woody, less sweet and not so easy on the teeth. You’ll want to harvest the plant in the fall, using a sharp spade to extract the horizontal roots, preserving the main roots if you plan on replanting and continuing its life cycle.
When it comes to drying the plant, there is a rule of thumb that should be followed: If it’s a flower or leaf, dry it in the shade; if it’s a root, dry it in the sun. The main problem people have with drying roots is keeping them from rotting before they dehydrate. That’s why I personally find it very useful to have a dehydrator that has an adjustable temperature on it. You’ll want to rinse the roots under cool water and pat dry with a cloth or paper towel, lining them up in a single layer on a dehydrator tray after. Depending on the humidity of where you live, you’ll want the thermostat set to 95-115° F, or 125° for humid places. Drying time can be anywhere from 1-6 hours. It’s alright if they are still slightly bendy by the end of the process, but you want them to be mostly firm, like a dead twig. If they are brittle, they might have been processed a smidge too long. You’ll be able to find the perfect medium, just trust yourself!
Once dried, the licorice roots can be stored for several months, sometimes up to a year.
That’s all for licorice root this month, Folks! I think we’ve all learned a lot about the fascinating history and use of licorice root. Keep updated on The Veil Blog to see what herb is coming up next!