Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Licorice
Nature Bulletin No. 735   December 7, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County 
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

LICORICE
For as long as any of us now alive can remember, children have been able to buy "lickrish" candy with their pennies. In old-time country stores, the general stores in towns and, later, in ice cream parlors, we could buy it in sticks, long flexible whips, jelly beans, gum drops, and hard round jawbreakers. The first chewing gum was spruce gum but in 1850 the Curtis brothers made paraffin wax gums at Portland, Maine, and one of those was named Licorice Lulu.

In those days a great many men chewed tobacco. Youngsters are apt to imitate their elders -- including, surreptitiously, some of the bad habits. Consequently, licorice candies were popular not only because of their distinctive flavor and chewing qualities but also because they made a lot of spit and it was black. There were even square plugs o£ licorice, with a red disc at the center, imitating two popular brands of plug tobacco identified, respectively, by a tin horseshoe and a tin star.

Nowadays, in addition to the traditional kinds, several other licorice candies are sold in markets, dime stores, candy stores and neighborhood stores near schools: novelties such as licorice pipes, cigars, Halloween mustaches, toffee, et c., etc. Blackjack chewing gum, flavored with licorice, is one of the oldest brands still sold. Smith Brothers Black Cough Drops, containing licorice and anise, are still available in a box with pictures of the two bearded brothers on the cover.

Commercial licorice is obtained from the roots of a plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra, native in Mediterranean regions but also grown in Turkey, Iraq and southern Russia. The best grades are imported from plantations in Spain and Italy after being cured several months. There are a dozen or more species of licorice plants but glabra, meaning smooth, is most important. In this country, widespread, we have G. lepidota or wild licorice. Glycyrrhiza is the Latin version of two Greek words: glykys (sweet) and rhiza (root). According to Webster, the name "Licorice: was derived from Liquirita, a Late Latin corruption of Glycyrrhiza. If you are confused, so are we.

The licorice plant is a perennial herb, a member of the Pea Family and a legume, with compound fernlike leaves and pealike flowers usually pale violet. Its long pliant fleshy roots extend into the soil for a yard or more. Manufacturers of drugs and others such as the American Licorice Co, in Chicago, import big bales of licorice roots. About as thick as one of your fingers and from 6 to 30 inches long, they are good chewing and sweet.

The roots are ground and steeped in hot water to extract a brownish liquor which is cooked by steam in a double boiler until it becomes thick, black as coal, and bittersweet Mixed with a gum flour, it is poured into molds and dried in a kiln until brittle. About 95 percent of it is used in chewing tobaccos, snuff, and confectionery. A further extract is used in certain types of fire extinguishers and by some brewers as a foaming agent. It is a carminative or mild laxative used by pharmacists to disguise disagreeable tastes in medicines or, mixed with syrups, in cough medicines.

Formerly, cough drops and some licorice candies also contained oil of anise, which has a similar flavor, obtained from the seeds of star anise -- a plant native and cultivated in southeastern Asia -- no longer obtainable from Red China. A synthetic, anisole, is now used with blackstrap molasses and artificial coloring. An anise plant native in Egypt and cultivated in Europe is also widely used. A wild anise, called Sweet Cicely, is one of the most common plants in our forest preserve woodlands.

Since the birth in New Orleans of jazz bands and blue music, the clarinet has been called a licorice stick.


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