Wednesday Weed – Liquorice

Chinese licorice (Glycorrhiza yunnanensis)

Dear Readers, I do not consider myself to be a fussy eater, but if I have a nemesis in the confectionary world it is liquorice (or licorice if you are North American). When I was a child I remember peeling all the sugar paste off of my Liquorice Allsorts and leaving that unholy black stuff for my mum, who loved it. The very worst were those sweets that not only contained liquorice but were coated in aniseed, my second most-hated sweetmeat ingredient. I take my hat off to anyone who actually enjoys them, you must have the stomach and tastebuds of a megatherium.

Photo One by By David Edgar - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Liquorice Allsorts (Photo One)

Photo Two by By en:User:Ballista - from English Wikipedia[1], CC BY-SA 3.0,

Megatherium americanum (Photo Two)

So, it was during my visit to Coal Drops Yard last week that I find myself thinking about liquorice, for the first time in many, many years. The plant that intrigued me was the Chinese species Glychorriza yunnanensis, but like all of the liquorice plants its Latin genus name means ‘sweet root’. The species normally used to create the sweets is British or American Liquorice (Glychorriza glabra), and it is a member of the pea family (Fabaceae) – as I mentioned last week, the seedheads of ‘our’ plant reminded me of a giant clover, but the ‘real’ liquorice plant looks even more leguminous.

British/American liquorice (Glycorrhiza glabra) (Public Domain)

All of the liquorice plants contain a substance called glycyrrhizin, which can cause adverse effects if more than 2mg of the pure active ingredient are eaten in a day. The chemical can wreak havoc with your blood pressure and give you diarrhoea – unfortunately it is one of the substances sometimes used as a purgative (along with senna and rhubarb) by those with anorexia/bulimia (see here for a most interesting article). Glycyrrhizin is 30 times as sweet as sugar, and so there is actually very little of it in liquorice sweets, with aniseed being used to produce most of the flavour, so you would have to eat a lot before you were poisoned (though a 56 year-old woman was admitted to hospital with muscle failure after eating 200g of Pontefract cakes (of which more later)).

I once had a spell working in the Netherlands (Rotterdam to be precise) and liquorice-flavoured sweets were a great favourite. Most reception desks had a bowl of wrapped sweeties to munch on while you waited to be admitted to the offices of the great and the good and many times I was caught out, throwing what I thought was a mint into my mouth only to discover that it was most definitely not. The worst occasion involved a salty-liquorice hard candy which I subsequently learned was called a zoute drop. I had just discovered my mistake when I spotted  the Finance Director descending in a glass lift like some kind of corporate angel. There being no time to deposit the sweet in a plant pot or wrap it in a tissue, I just had to swallow it. My face must have been a picture.

The romance of business travel is much overstated in my opinion.

If you are unfortunate, you may also come across salty liquorice in the Nordic countries.

Photo Three By Marcin Floryan - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Swedish salty liquorice (Photo Three)

In many cultures, the root of the liquorice plant is eaten without any preparation, as a breath-sweetener and an aid to digestion. I imagine that chewing on the fibrous bit of the plant gently releases the sweetness, but without the danger to the teeth. In the UK the first liquorice sweets were probably the Pontefract cakes made in Yorkshire: Spanish monks apparently brought the plant to Rievaulx Abbey near Thirsk, and the confectionary is still known as ‘Spanish’ in the area. Have a look at these little tarry tablets of pure hell. You’re welcome.

Photo Four By Dave Spellman from Lancashire, England - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Pontefract cakes (Photo Four)

In the wild, British liquorice grows in a great swathe of Eastern Mediterranean countries, right the way through Central Asia and as far east as Mongolia. It loves well-drained soils and sunshine, and if cultivated, is harvested three years after planting. For a long time it was used as a flavouring for tobacco, particularly pipe tobacco. Our ‘insurance man’, Mr Sawtell, used to visit the house once a month to collect the payments on Mum and Dad’s life insurance, and I remember that his teeth were worn into a perfect inverse-V shape by his constant pipe smoking. I also remember a certain sickly-sweet smell to the miasma that hung around him constantly, these being the days before worries about passive smoking (or indeed active smoking). I wonder if that is one of the factors in my life-long loathing of this apparently innocuous substance?

Photo Five By Sjschen (Sjschen) - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Pipe tobacco (Photo Five)

Liquorice is also used as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine, being believed to harmonize the different elements of a prescription. Some studies consider it effective in the treatment of psoriasis-related infections and in the killing of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, which is associated with stomach ulcers. It could possibly also be useful in the treatment of Hepatitis C.

And now, a poem. As we have seen, liquorice was once grown commercially in Yorkshire, but those days are largely gone (though one intrepid farmer decided to plant some liquorice to provide ‘chewing sticks’ for visiting children back in 2012). However, that lover of British Amazons Sir John Betjeman was moved to write about wooing one of his paramours in a liquorice field. The results are much what you’d expect from this poet who had a remarkable sense of rhythm and rhyme, even though, for me, he never really rose above the whimsical. I do love the line about the sturdy, flannel-slack’d legs however. It’s not that easy to find rhymes for ‘Pontefract’.

The Licorice Fields at Pontefract by John Betjeman

In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened licorice bush
Was blooming round our feet;
Red hair she had and golden skin,
Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d
The strongest legs in Pontefract.

The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
From various black Victorian towers
The Sunday evening bells
Came pealing over dales and hills
And tanneries and silent mills
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.

She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak,
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.

Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza yunnanensis)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By David Edgar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two by By en:User:Ballista – from English Wikipedia[1], CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three By Marcin Floryan – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Four By Dave Spellman from Lancashire, England – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Five By Sjschen (Sjschen) – Own work, CC BY 2.5,


28 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Liquorice

  1. Anne

    You poor soul! It must have been the pipe tobacco of the insurance man that turned your taste buds from liquorice! It is a confection that one either enjoys or dislikes intensely: as youngsters we loved the long laces of liquorice – haven’t seen them for sale for decades. I can devour packets of liquorice allsorts yet am more cautious about the salty versions you mention.Ah! Bring on the liquorice I say.

  2. thehospicegardener

    Like you, I cannot bear liquorice or aniseed. However, Sam loves it! If we are ever in Haworth we always visit the traditional sweet shop there. I buy something like pear drops whilst she will buy a quarter of “double salted liquorice”! (better than triple salted!) URGH!!! x

  3. Rosalind Atkins

    This post is absolutely brilliant! I love liquorice (especially the salty Nordic version) and you had me laughing all through my reading. I also very much enjoyed the published article.
    Do you have anything to do with Heartwood, in Forest Row, Sussex, where they run courses, seminars and so on on herbal medicine, and also maintain a substantial herb garden?

  4. tonytomeo

    Licorice is one of my favorite confections! Chocolate is great too, but is somewhat overrated. I have tried a few times to grow licorice, but still have none in the garden.

      1. Bug Woman

        Tell me more, Tony! I have only ever encountered the seedpods, and they are strange enough, plus I was once in the remains of a chocolate plantation in Cameroon, but I was trying to escape some army ants at the time so wasn’t paying sufficient attention to the plants…

      2. tonytomeo

        They are related to the flannel bush, Fremontodenron californica (or Fremontia californica) and other mallow, so produce an irritating tomentum (fuzz). It is not as irritating as that of flannel bush or cow itch tree, but it is bothersome enough that I would want to give it plenty of space. However, those who grow it explain that in their preferred climates, the tomentum gets weathered away, so does not bother those working with the plants. I still don’t like them. (I sort of think that flannel bush is overrated too.)

  5. Toffeeapple

    When I was a child we used to have Liquorice Root, they were delicious even with the bits of root that caught between one’s teeth. I have been a lifelong fan of Liquorice and fennel and anise. I know it is not good for my blood pressure but there are times when I absolutely feel the need to eat some.

    I discovered the salty variety when I lived in Sweden but it is no as good as the proper sort.

    1. Bug Woman

      So interesting, Toffeeapple! I would say that, taking a rough poll of the folk who’ve commented on this post, 90% of them are liquorice fans. I have obviously missed something. Or maybe there is a liquorice gene that I’m missing….

  6. mpeverett

    I can’t resist mentioning the timely news that Licorice, a novel by Bridget Penney,is being launched this evening at the Horse Hospital gallery in Bloomsbury. Attendees will be regaled with Dutch salty licorice windmills!

    1. Bug Woman

      Now, as it happens when I was about 13 years old, I went to a friend’s house and she raided her mum’s drink cabinet. All that there was in there was a bottle of Ricard (practically Pernod) and some Tizer (a fizzy drink that was a mixture of orange and lemonade). We drank Ricard and Tizer until all of us started to feel a bit strange, and some of us (ahem) spent a lot of time in the toilet. So it’s safe to say that while I don’t like liquorice, I really really really don’t like Pernod, or Ricard, or Raki or any other of those hellish drinks 🙂

      1. gertloveday

        You naughty girl! It’s a wonder it didn”t put you off all kinds of alcohol for life. I am rather partial to sweets known here as chocolate bullets; chocolate coated liquorice. Yum.

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