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Licorice 101

Have you ever noticed that some people love licorice candy, while others can’t stand it? Some may say this is due to the natural sweetness of licorice root, while others attribute it to the very sweet-tasting aromatic compound anethole—also present in fennel. While perhaps polarizing as a candy, licorice can be quite harmonizing in its traditional form, especially when prepared as a tea. In fact, it has been celebrated in the east for thousands of years for its many healing properties, particularly as a demulcent for soothing the digestive tract and throat, for hoarseness of voice and in promoting respiratory health.*

Outside of ancient China and India, the therapeutic benefits of licorice were also documented in The Code of Hammurabi, written about 3,800 years ago by the 6th King of Babylon and later about 3,000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians, who created a tonic with it and packed it in funeral jars to bring with them to the afterlife. Famous generals from Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte carried licorice with them, and the ancient nomadic Scythians of the Central Asian steppes were said to survive without water for 12 days thanks to licorice—please note: do not try this at home! This powerful root’s history has endured through 5,000 years of use and is now one of the most widely used medicinal plants in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.

Licorice hails from the genus Glycyrrhiza (or GLY-KUH-RYE-ZA), taking its name from the Greek Glukurrhiza, or “sweet root.” That it has similar names in Sanskrit—“sweet stalk”—and in Chinese—“sweet herb”—attests to its long herbal medicinal history throughout the world. This native perennial grows wild in parts of Eastern, Central and Western Asia and as far west as the Mediterranean region, growing particularly well near riverbanks and in floodplains of semi-arid steppes. Consisting of a stalk of flowers, pinnate leaves, a small oblong fruit pod, and an elaborate root system, the plant can reach up to seven feet in height. Most of the world’s supply of licorice is wild collected. As it takes five to six years before the roots are ready to harvest, farming is generally not profitable. This is why it is so important to protect wild collection areas.

Licorice is a key ingredient in many of our teas, particularly our organic FairWild® Licorice Root, Smooth Move®, and Throat Coat® teas. In some formulas like Throat Coat® it plays a leading role as a demulcent but in other formulas like Smooth Move® it plays a secondary or complementary role, traditionally combined with laxative herbs like senna. We source our licorice exclusively from wild collectors in countries like Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Inner Mongolia and Georgia, where the root grows in abundance. While wild collection of mature roots yields highest quality, it is not necessarily a guarantee of responsible business practices. This is why we source organic and FairWild® certified licorice, a social business investment that creates jobs, ensures economic stability for the wild collection communities, protects the biodiversity of collection areas, and solidifies a reliable and sustainable source of licorice for generations to come.

Once steeped, licorice root tea can be a delightful beverage that is surprisingly sweeter than one would expect in an herbal remedy. Beyond its distinctive flavor, the real power of this plant lies in its harmonizing effect—not only as a therapeutic benefit and a key ingredient in our formulas, but also as a tool for orchestrating positive change in our collection areas.

Posted in Plants on March 15, 2016