Unusual Vegetable Plants
Licorice or Liquorice
Licorice is actually a perennial deciduous herb and is a Legume like beans and peas. A native to southern Europe and Asia, the name licorice comes from a corruption of its Latin name "Glycyrrhiza Glabra" which means "Sweet Root." Common or "Spanish" licorice is grown in many parts of the World including some of the states in America such as California and Louisiana.
Liquorice was known to all the ancient civilisations going back thousands of years with its roots harvested by the early Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Indians. Traditionally it has been used in medicines to hide any taste they might have, especially in lozenges and syrups, but it does have some medicinal properties of its own and is often used in the treatment of peptic ulcers. However, too much Liquorice in the extreme can be toxic and it can also cause water retention.
Licorice was always a much needed product that had to be imported to England, so in the 16th Century crops were planted in the Pontefract district of Yorkshire where it became an essential part of the local economy. So important was the crop that the finished Licorice product came to be called "Pomfret Cakes," or "Pontefract Cakes," after the area that produced it.
However, cultivation has progressively declined in England and much Liquorice now has to be imported to Britain. The plant is still grown in some areas and in an occasional garden, but it is one of those plants that is not straightforward for the home gardener to harvest its full potential as some effort is needed to obtain Licorice from the plant.
Licorice grows by creeping rhizomes
that spread horizontally and roots that go several feet almost
straight down. The top growth is some 2-3 feet tall and has blue
flowers that produce flat reddish brown seed pods, but it is the roots
that are harvested, in lengths of 3 feet or so long, when they are
about one centimeter thick. Roots of the Licorice are soft, flexible, fibrous,
and bright yellow inside and it is from these roots, as well as the
rhizomes, that the all
important juice is obtained. To extract the juice, the roots are boiled, crushed,
ground and after cooling the juice sets into a thick paste, that
hardens as it cools, which can be molded and extruded into the familiar shapes used in various
confectionary products. The sweet taste of Licorice is due
to "Glycyrrhizin" that yields "Glucuronic acid"
which is in fact many times
sweeter than normal sugar. It is this incredible sweetness that makes
it so useful as
aflavouring in sweets and other food products.
Sometimes health food shops in the UK sell dried Licorice roots that look like a long thin brown cigarette and indeed they have been used in the past as a cigarette replacement for people to chew on to help them give up smoking.
Although Licorice is a perennial and will thrive in the colder temperatures of Northern England, frost will kill its top growth every winter like many other Herbaceous plants. There is however, a fully hardy Chinese variety, that will even grow in Siberia as well, called "Uralensis."
As with many young plants newly set licorice will need watering, but after it has become established it is partially drought tolerant, hence its popularity in Southern Europe. One big drawback for the amateur gardener is that it should not be harvested until after its third year.