Synonyms: Liquirita officinalis (L.), reglisse, lacrisse, sweet liquorice, liquorice root, sweet wood.
Description: Glycyrrhiza is a tall, erect perennial plant with light, gracefully-spreading pinnate foliage and dark green lanceolate leaflets that hang down at night. Long-stemmed spikes of numerous bluish-purple to white papillonaceous flowers grow from the leaf axils and appear from June to August, followed by small leguminous smooth-skinned seed pods. The roots are brown, long and cylindrical. Glycyrrhiza is native to south-eastern Europe and south-west Asia to Iran, growing in open fields close to running water. It was commercially cultivated until recently in northern England.
Parts used: dried roots and stolons (runners that are found at spoil height)
Collection: The roots are unearthed in the autumn of the fourth season.
Constituents: glycosides called glycyrrhizin (about 7%) and glycyrrhizinic acid, triterpenoid glycosides (saponins), flavonoids (including liquiritigetol) and isoflavonoids, bitter principle (glycyrmarin), volatile oil, chalcones, coumarins, amino acids, amines (choline, betaine, asparagine), oestrogenic substances (including beta-sitosterol), glucose and sucrose (5-15% sugars), starch, tannins (trace), gums, wax.
Actions: expectorant, antitussive, demulcent, spasmolytic, anti-inflammatory, adrenocorticotrophic (stimulates the cortex of the adrenal gland), anti-allergic, mild laxative.
Indications: bronchial catarrh, bronchitis, chronic gastritis, peptic ulcer, colic, primary adrenocortical insufficiency. Specifically indicated in Addison's disease.
Therapeutics and Pharmacology: Glycyrrhiza has a marked effect upon the endocrine system. Its glycosides are structurally similar to the natural steroids of the body, and are responsible for the beneficial action that this herb has in the treatment of adrenal gland problems such as Addison's disease. Glycyrrhizin is fifty times stronger than sucrose, which encourages the production of hormones such as hydrocortisone. This helps to explain its anti-inflammatory action and also its role in stimulating the adrenal cortex after steroid therapy. It has an ACTH-like action on the adrenal cortex, increasing the production of gluco- and mineralocorticoids. It is used in allopathic medicine as a treatment for peptic ulceration, a similar use to its herbal use in gastritis and ulcers. It produces a highly viscous mucus over the stomach wall and reduces gastric acid secretion and eases spasms of the large intestine. It increases the secretion of bilirubin in the bile and lowers blood cholesterol levels.
Glycyrrhiza is widely used in bronchial problems such as catarrh, bronchitis and coughs. It reduces irritation of the throat and yet has an expectorant action. It produces its demulcent and expectorant effects by stimulation of tracheal mucous secretion. It is a potent healing agent for tuberculosis, where its effects have been compared to hydrocortisone. Glycyrrhiza is also effective in helping to reduce fevers (glycyrretinic acid has an effect like aspirin), and it may have an antibacterial action as well. It can neutralise many toxins such as those of diphtheria and tetanus. Its anti-inflammatory action accounts for its use in the treatment of chronic inflammations such as arthritic and rheumatic diseases, chronic skin conditions, and autoimmune diseases in general. It may also be used as an eyebath in conjunctivitis and other inflammatory conditions of the eye surface.
Glycyrrhiza has an antipyretic effect comparable to sodium salicylate. Asparagine is a potent diuretic, leading to speculation that its presence may reduce the chance of the whole plant increasing blood pressure compared with isolated glycyrretinic acid.
The solidified extract, sold in sticks, forms the basis of many proprietary laxatives, stimulating bile flow, with a gentle action in constipation. Glycyrrhiza can be used as a non-sucrose sweetener and can be taken safely by diabetics.
Contraindications: Long-term usage at high doses may cause sodium retention, low potassium levels and hypertension (although asparagine does act to counter this tendency). Vertigo and headaches may also develop. Liquorice should not be taken by people on digoxin-based drugs. It should also be avoided during pregnancy and in cirrhosis of the liver.
Healthcare professionals have warned against overindulgence in Pontefract cake after a 56-year-old woman was admitted to hospital following an overdose. The woman consumed about 200g daily, leading to dangerously low potassium levels and subsequent muscle failure. The European Commission recommends limiting consumption of the active ingredient, glycyrrhizic acid, to 100 mg or less per day.
Preparation and Dosage:
Decoction: 1 teaspoonful of the root in a pan of around a cup of water and gently boil for 10 minutes, drink three times a day.
Tincture: 1-3 ml in warm water three times a day.
Additional Comments: Liquorice was one of the most widely known medicines in ancient history, and records of its use include Assyrian tablets of around 2000 BC and Chinese herbals of the same period.
Theophrastos of Lesbos, writing in the fourth century BC wrote that 'it has the property of quenching thirst if one holds it in the mouth'.
Dioscorides gave the plant its botanical name (Greek glukos = sweet, riza = root).
Its 13th-century English name was Lycorys, a corruption of glycyrrhiza.
The plant originated in the Mediterranean and the Middle East but has been cultivated in Europe since at least the 16th century.
In China, G. uralensis or gan cao, known as the 'great detoxifier', is thought to drive poisons from the system. It is also an important tonic, often called 'the grandfather of herbs'. Gan cao is used as an energy tonic, particularly for the spleen and stomach, and the root is added to many Chinese formulae to balance other herbs. It is also used for asthmatic coughs, as an antispasmodic and ulcer remedy, and to cool 'hot' conditions. The dried root is given to Chinese children to promote muscle growth. Liquorice is often used as a method for disguising the taste of medicines and as a flavouring in confectionery.
It is not known who brought liquorice to Pontefract, but it was either crusaders returning from
The exact origins of liquorice growing in England remain uncertain. However, by the 16th century, there is a record of the activity, possibly via monastic gardens and as a garden crop for the gentry. During the 17th century, it was recorded as being grown in areas with alluvial soil overlying Magnesian limestone such as in Surrey, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire.
In Pontefract, the growing of liquorice was done on plots of land behind people's houses. In a map of the 1648 Siege of Pontefract, the liquorice is indicated as being grown in "garths" either side of Micklegate, the street which runs between Pontefract's Market Place and the castle.
In the 18th century, liquorice was used as medicine both for humans and for horses. The Pontefract cake "was almost certainly a
black cake, the portable lozenge used to make 'liquorish water', stamped with the castle lodge emblem of Pontefract to signify quality. This trademark had been employed on Pontefract cakes since 1612, when the initials 'GS' were used, and are thought to be those of Sir George Saville, major local landowner; and a second die-stamp from 1720." It was only in the 19th century that it was used extensively for confectionery. Of the merchants in the 18th century, apothecary chemist George Dunhill (later bought by German confectioner (Haribo) was the most important. In 1760, Dunhill added sugar to the medicinal liquorice; he was also a grower of liquorice.
With the growth of Pontefract cakes as confectionery, the demand for liquorice outstripped the capacity of Pontefract growers to supply. By the late 19th century the twelve firms producing liquorice confectionery relied mainly on extract imported largely from Turkey.