Herbal A-Z: Licorice
By Meagan - January 05, 2016
Licorice. Glycyrrhiza glabra... from the plant family Fabaceae. Also known as Spanish juice, black sugar, and many other country-specific names.
HistoryThe first recorded mention of licorice was on Assyrian tablets and Egyptian papyri and was known as "sweet root." However, the Greeks coined it "scythic" as they learned about this herb from the Scythians. It was told that the Scythian warriors would go days without eating food or water while eating licorice only. Its name was later changed to "glycyrrhiza" as -glykys means "sweet," and -rhiza means "root." And -glabra is used in reference to licorice's smooth seed pods. Hence... Glycyrrhiza glabra... the sweet root with smooth seed pods. It has been passed down through many ancient cultures for its use for colds, coughs, and stomach ulcers as well as its use as an aphrodisiac. The Chinese use it as a detoxifier and tonic, and it's often called "the grandfather of herbs." Licorice really took off in 15th century Italy where it was sold in apothecaries and used to sweeten bitter medicines or bind things together in pill form. (Rogers, 2006).
Plant DescriptionLicorice is a perennial plant that starts with a vast root system made up of a taproot, branching roots, and runners. This root system sends up a woody stem that reaches around 5 feet in height. This main stems branches out into smaller offshoots that are covered with dark green leaves that grow in opposite pairs with one single leaflet at the end. The leaves are sticky due to all the oil glands they contain. Buds begin to appear in early spring and by late July, bluish-purple flowers can be found blooming until late September followed by the small, smooth seed pods that contain licorice's dark, oval seeds. The small runners are what is often used for medicinal purposes from the licorice plant. The runners are pencil-like and consist of fibrous, yellow wood that can be used fresh or dried.
Growing Your Own LicoriceLicorice is a commonly cultivated plant. It can be transplanted from runners or started from seed. It needs deep, well-tilled soil (at least 2 feet deep) that is on the sandy side and retains moisture well so it can establish a strong, solid root system. It also prefers slightly alkaline conditions. When starting from seed, presoak seeds for 24 hours before starting them in a greenhouse in spring or autumn. Transfer seedlings into their own individual posts when they're big enough to handle and grow them in the greenhouse for their first winter. Plants can be planted outdoors the following spring or summer when they appear to be growing quickly. Plants will need to be divided in spring or autumn. Divisions need to have at least one bud on them and can be planted directly outdoors in full sun. If they are small, they'll do better to be planted in a cold frame where they're well-protected. Young plants are susceptible to damage and need a lot of care during their first few years of growth until a hardy root system is established. It usually takes around 2 years for a good root system to be developed. Many growers pinch flower buds off during the life of the plant (unless seeds are needed) so the plants put their energy into developing their root system and so the roots retain the sweet sap that they're known for. Plants are hardy to about 17°F and do better in warmer climates (US zones 7-10). Harvesting Licorice Licorice roots (runners and main root) can be harvested during the plant's third or fourth year (best in fourth year) in early autumn. Tender runners can be used to propagate new plants while woody runners and the main root are normally tinctured fresh or washed, cut, and dried. (Rogers, 2006). (Grieve, n.d.).
Calcium, Choline, Chromium, Cobalt, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus, Potassium, Selenium, Silicon, Zinc, Vitamins B1, B2, B3, and C.
Anethole, glycyrrhizin, isoflavones, polysaccharides, volatile oils, starch, amino acids, phytosterols, coumarins. (Hoffman, 2003)
ActionsAdaptogen, Antibacterial, Anti-inflammatory, Antiviral, Demulcent, Antispasmodic, Hepatic, Tonic. (Herbarium, 2014)
EnergeticsMoist, sweet, neutral. Note: It's 50 times sweeter than sugar.
Medicinal UsesUpper Respiratory Tract Infections Colds, coughs, and sore throats are some of the most common uses for licorice. Not only has licorice been shown to have broad-spectrum antiviral effects (which is great for upper respiratory infections), but it's a demulcent so it soothes and adds moisture to hot, dry tissues and an expectorant which means it thins mucous that's stuck in the lungs so it can be coughed out (which cuts down on the amount of coughing one needs to do). Speaking of coughing... licorice has antispasmodic actions too so it helps to relax that cough reflex which is great before bed. Did you know that licorice is a "broad-spectrum antiviral" meaning it inhibits viruses from entering cells, stimulates a variety of mechanisms to directly slow or stop viral replication and growth, or stimulates the immune system to attack viruses? (Buhner, 2013). This is a great herb to have on hand in tincture form when dealing with all sorts of viruses! Intestinal Issues: Ulcers and Constipation Licorice has been used since 500 BC for it's abilities to help ulcers in the stomach and intestines. This is most likely due to its demulcent, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. Not only that but licorice is also commonly used in herbal remedies for constipation as it is thought to help stimulate peristalsis while at the same time, buffer the harsher effects of stronger herbal laxatives. (Balch, 2006) Balance The Body Against Stressors Another one of licorice's uses is as an adaptogen. An adaptogen works to help the body handle and defend itself against environmental stressors. It doesn't take away the stress response, but, instead, buffers it so you don't have too many highs and lows. It's like a tonic herb to the endocrine system in they way it works to balance the stress response of the body. (Hoffman, 2003). Don't worry if that doesn't make sense. We'll be talking more about adaptogens and how they work later this month. Just know that licorice is one of them and can be used before, during, and after stressful events.
- Decoction: 1/2-1 teaspoons of root per 8 ounces of boiling water, steep 10-15 minutes, drink hot 3 times a day.
- Tincture: 1-3 ml tincture (1:5 in 40% alcohol), 3 times per day. (Hoffman, 2003)
PrecautionsGenerally, licorice is a very safe, nontoxic herb when used correctly... even in high doses. However, there are some cautions that one should know about before using licorice for an ongoing amount of time, especially if you have chronic medical conditions or are taking certain medications.
- Avoid use of the single herb for more than 4-6 weeks at a time as unwanted side effects can occur. Side effects are less common when using herb in whole form along with other herbs to offset effects.
- Side effects can be: swelling, weakness in the extremities, numbness that comes and goes, dizziness, headaches, high blood pressure, and low potassium levels.
- It has been known to have a strong estrogenic activity in men when taken over a long period of time, especially when in combination with other estrogenic herbs. Thankfully this resolves itself in 2-4 weeks once discontinued.
- Do not use in large doses or for lengthy periods of time during pregnancy.
- Do NOT use without consulting your doctor if you have high blood pressure, low potassium levels, are pregnant, or have kidney disease or heart disease.
- Do NOT use if you are taking cardiac glycosides, blood pressure medicines, corticoids, diuretic drugs, or MAOI inhibitors without consulting your doctor.
- Balch, Phylis. (2006). Prescription for Nutritional Healing. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
- Duke, J. (2000) The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.
- Herbarium at HANE (2015). Yarrow Monograph. Retrieved September 25, 2015.
- Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical Herbalism. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
- Rogers, M. (2006). Herbalpedia. Retrieved December 11, 2015.