Wild Licorice


Wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota Pursh, Fabaceae) is an erect perennial that grows to 1 - 1.5 m tall, from deep, woody rhizomes that have a licorice flavour. The leaves are alternate, each with 7 - 21 oblong leaflets. The flowers are yellowish-white, in spike-like clusters from the leaf axils. Fruit consists of oblong brown pods that are covered with long hooked prickles.

History And Use

True licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra L.) has traditionally been used as a treatment for coughs, sore throats, toothaches and earaches, and as a flavouring for tobacco and food products. It has been used for thousands of years in China as a treatment for stomachache, insomnia, food poisoning, sores, herpes and abscesses. Today’s uses include arthritis and ulcer treatment, as an anti-inflammatory and an effective treatment for cold sores and hives. Wild licorice has had a much narrower range of uses, e.g. as a flavouring for root beer and chewing tobacco, but it is possible that its market share could be increased with the proper promotion.

Area Of Adaptation

Wild licorice is very common in low spots, along sloughs, riverbanks, lake shores and roadsides. It prefers rich well-drained sandy loam with a pH of 7.0 - 8.0, full sun or partial shade. Its distribution extends from SE British Columbia across the prairies to western Ontario and southward into Mexico. In Manitoba it grows at least as far north as Roblin and Duck Mountain.

Cultivation And Processing

Wild licorice can be started from seed, but the seed should be scarified or soaked in cold water overnight to break the seed coat. It is usually propagated by root division or stolen cuttings planted 1 in below the surface. The soil should be deeply cultivated. The roots and stolens are harvested in the fall of the 3rd or 4th year, before the plants have gone to seed. Flowers should be pinched off as they form in the year of harvest. The roots are dried and crushed, then boiled to evaporate off the liquid, leaving a thick black paste or solid. Yields are 2.5 to 5 tons/acre (5.5 to 11 tonnes/ha).


1998 prices for true licorice root were US$2.60/lb for non-medicinal use and US$7.60 - 24.50/lb for organically grown.

Most "licorice" candy in North America is actually flavoured with anise oil. Wild licorice has a unique market potential as a natural sugar substitute, due to growing concerns over side effects of other synthetic sugar substitutes. However, any product is unsafe if consumed in excess: licorice over-consumption is dangerous for people with high blood pressure or liver disease. Wild licorice has also been tested as a feed additive for cattle and hogs.