Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Looking Forward, Looking Back - American Licorice

American Licorice

"Wild Licorice"
American Licorice, or "wild licorice" is another one of nature's gems hiding inconspicuously amongst th' rest. Unless you happen to rub up against a seed pod or ten. Then you'll know it well. When i was a kid we called 'em Kook-a-burrs. We'd collect them and stick them to unknowing victims, often friends and relatives, then giggle uncontrollably. Natural velcroe we called it. Turns out th' folk that invented velcro got the idea from burr-dock burrs, which have th' same hook type pods as licorice. We were more correct than we realized. 
wild licorice seed pods

Th' pods are a brilliant rust color, and are a dead give away when hunting for this plant. If you want to collect some pods just wear a wool sweater and walk amongst them. But th' part of th' plant we use is th' root. Licorice usually grows near water, especially flowing water. We find it along th' banks of all th' farm ditches around here. But it's also found in seemingly random places, like an apple orchard. Th' roots are very long, sometimes up to three feet in lenth, so i just dig up whatever th' ground will allow, scatter th' seeds if they're ready, and go about my merry way. Be cautious when harvesting this, and any plant, and look for signs of pesticides around. Use your nose too, it takes a while for plants to curl up into th' tell-tale don't eat look. But you can often smell poison before you can see it's effects.

whole plant

american licorice roots

 We harvest th' roots, slice them up and chew on them when fresh, then dry them out to use in tea blends. A favorite being a blend of wild mint, Linden flowers, and two or three slices of Licorice root steeped for about ten minutes. Th' taste of Licorice root is somewhat woody and sweet. It coats your mouth and throat, which is why it's often used as a cough suppressant. Th' flavor is very subtle and doesn't come through right away, but lingers pleasantly for quite a while.

licorice root peeled, chopped and sliced

Historically, licorice root was used as a food and medicine. (Hippocrates anyone?) In Scandinavia licorice candy is still quite common, and a friend of ours from Norway turned us onto it years ago. Thanks Kristin. Folks would use it as cough medicine, especially for children. It was also said to have been given to kids during church to keep them quiet for a while. It also speeds up th' heart-rate if eaten in quantity, and so was used as a decongestant.
Here in th' United States, licorice was used extensively by th' plains tribes. It has faded out of common usage now, but it still grows there for those of us wishing to get th' most out of our native foods and medicines. It has near th' same nutritional content as Alfalfa, which is highly prized for being a "superfood". Where do you think cows get all that protein and calcium? 
The Lakota, Cheyenne, and Blackfeet were known to use it frequently. Most likely other peoples did too, we just didn't start to take much notice of the Indians till they were almost wiped out. Th' three tribes mentioned above just happen to be some of th' last to "be conquered". I could go on and on with how i feel about that, but i'll try to stick to th' subject at hand. Anyway, They would eat th' fresh shoots. They would chew on th' fresh roots. They dried th' roots for tea. They drank th' tea for upset stomachs, diarrhea, coughs, indigestion, and, after th' white man came, flu. It was brewed really strong and used for ear-aches. It was chewed to relieve teething pains in infants. Some tribes roasted th' roots and ate them. I haven't tried this yet, but it sounds delicious. 
Here's a picture of th' sliced roots drying out with some Orach leaves. Orach is related to Lambs Quarters, and is very salty. It makes a good seasoning fresh or dried, but that's a post for another time.

licorice root drying
One of th' nice things about Licorice root is that it can be harvested anytime th' ground will allow you to dig it up, so it's almost always available. And it's easy to dry enough to last throughout th' winter. Here's me smiling behind my first found plant. I looked and looked, after having read about it in a book with bad descriptions. I found a few plants that i thought were it, but then when i really found it, i knew it without a doubt. Go outside and look for something. There really is a treasure out there.

Ha! I've found it!

my first wild licorice plant



  1. i love the pic of licorice in front of the sheepskin!

  2. Another thing to keep in mind is that licorice is also a purgative and was given to children, in small doses, to help move the bowels. It's important to keep this in mind so that you don't overindulge and create some serious cramping and diarrhea. We have some down by the creek and I love to make my own cough drops with it! Come visit when you can.

  3. thanks sharlene- your right, licorice, even for adults, is not something to be consumed in large quantity, a little goes a long way. We've had something something similar to an overdose of caffeine after chewing too many of th' roots before. Could you send us your cough drop recipe sometime? Or maybe post it on your blog so we can read it?

  4. I would like to know if it grows in Idaho about 3300' up because I don't think I have seen this plant here.. Or do I need to look down below more?? would love the cough drop recipe too...Thank you

    1. Dinny, i've never looked around there... but as far as i know it grows all over th' west, we almost always find it near running water, if that helps... good luck