Plant medicines native to the U.S. can easily be overlooked. In many cases they are not as well known, marketed as neatly, or widely studied as plants from other countries. Nonetheless, it is important for American plants to be taken just as seriously. When we treat our native medicines with reverence and trust, we discover the wealth and wisdom of our their healing potential, and show respect for our natural resources.
One plant that is an example of local neglect is wild licorice, or Glycyrrhiza lepidota. It is a little known treasure of our American native plant kingdom. It is rarely highlighted, and very little research has been done to prove its clinical abilities, unlike its European and Asian counterparts Glycyrrhiza glabra and Glycyrrhiza uralensis. But even without the superstar status of its cousins, I think it is a plant poised to make a mark in Western herbal circles.Read more…
Namesake and Origin
Glycyrrhiza lepidota is one of about 20 species of the Glycyrrhiza genus worldwide. The name, Glycyrrhiza, is derived from the Greek words glukos, meaning sweet, and rhiza, meaning root. The genus name, lepidota, means scaly, and refers to the tiny scales on the young leaves. Common names for the American species are many, but it is most often referred to as wild licorice or sweet root. Because sweet root is a common name to another Western plant, I prefer to use the name wild licorice.
Wild licorice is native to America, Canada and Mexico. It was first examined and identified by the botanist Frederic Pursh in his publication about American flora and fauna in 1813. Wild licorice is native to most all the north western and southwestern states. It is a native species in New York, and Rode Island, and the midwestern states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Indiana. Unfortunately, it is not an identified native species of Wisconsin, but would easily grow in a medicinal garden in this climate.
American Indian Uses of Wild Licorice
The history of wild licorice as a medicine begins with the American Indians. Their knowledge is instrumental in documentation of early uses of the plant, for wild licorice has not been widely employed by Western herbalists.
The native use of wild licorice involved the whole plant, from the burs and leaves, to the shoots and the roots. The Cheyenne, Montana Indians and Northwestern tribes ate the tender spring shoots raw. Many tribes nibbled the roots to keep the mouth sweet and moist. The buffalo runners of the Black Foot Indians were known to suck on the burs to keep from getting thirsty, while other tribes sucked on the burs to keep the body cool during sweat lodge or Sun Dance.
Wild licorice leaf poultices were an excellent remedy for sores on the backs of horses, and earaches. The poultice was laid on the sore, or around the ear to assist with inflammation, pain and irritation. Infusions of the leaves with roots were also a common remedy for upset stomach or diarrhea.
The root had multiple uses. Many tribes chewed it for toothaches, to assist with pain and swelling, and used an infusion to be drunk for fever, colds and flu. The Cheyenne made use of the root for diarrhea, ulcers and upset stomach, while the Montana and Black Foot Indians used it most notably for coughs, sore throat and chest pains. The Lakota added the root to general infusions to doctor the sick.
Western Herbalism and Wild Licorice
The beauty of the American Indians’ knowledge and use of wild licorice is foundational for the way it is used today. But there are also many new uses that are emerging through research and application to support the disposition of modern day diseases.
Wild licorice and its relatives have a strong influence on the lungs, stomach, adrenals, and reproductive system. While there are some variations in how the different medicinal species of licorice are used based on each plant’s chemical picture, the applications that follow apply to wild licorice, as well as Glycyrrhiza glabra and uralensis.
The chemical makeup of wild licorice is an amazing web of support to the body in cases of acute and chronic conditions. It balances system function from many directions, weaving and strengthening them. It is high in anti-inflammatory flavonoids, free-radical scavenging antioxidants, estrogen-balancing isoflavones, and soothing saponins.
The Respiratory Tract and Throat
Wild licorice provides great relief in cases of dry and inflammatory conditions of the upper respiratory tract. It is indicated for dry coughs with wheezing, low production of mucus, and is effective against viral bronchitis and tuberculosis. It is antispasmodic, an expectorant (loosening and thinning mucus so that it may be expelled), and acts as a demulcent, soothing dry and irritated mucus membranes. While wild licorice may be used alone, one of the great attributes of this plant is its ability to increase the healing potential of other plants it’s combined with. Therefore, it is useful to research combinations of plants that licorice can compliment based on the symptom picture presented. For hot and dry respiratory conditions with spastic cough, one might combine wild licorice and mullein leaf. Once things loosen in the respiratory tract, one could follow with wild licorice and yerba santa. Or, in cases of a cold or flu, a combination of wild licorice with ginger would be beneficial.
The mucilaginous effects of wild licorice are also helpful in cases of sore throats. The simplicity of chewing on the root can be effective, or a hot tea of wild licorice root can be sipped. It can also be included in a soothing throat spray. My favorite back in the southwest was wild licorice with yerba mansa or osha. Other additions could be echinacea root, calendula, sage, or marshmallow root.
Stomach and Intestines
The soothing and anti-inflammatory action of wild licorice benefits people with stomach and duodenal ulcers as well. Wild licorice lessens irritation and speeds healing of an ulcer in several ways. Chinese studies show that licorice and wild licorice balance the pH of the stomach. They also relieve spasms in the intestinal tract that are associated with ulcer pain, and sooth the mucosal lining. Some find the greatest relief using a liquid form of the root for stomach ulcers, while the encapsulated powdered root is best for duodenal ulcers.
Wild licorice is also useful in cases of diarrhea and constipation. It is a remedy for acute diarrhea when used short term. When used in small amounts over time it becomes a remedy for chronic constipation, and is a specific remedy for irritable bowel syndrome that has a tendency toward constipation. I like to combine it with other liver and digestive tonics, such as yellow dock or dandelion root. Another more soothing combination for some is the use of powdered wild licorice with an equal part of powdered marshmallow root encapsulated.
Female Reproductive System
While the jury is still out as to the strength wild licorice exhibits hormonally, it has been shown to have a positive influence on female reproductive organs. Due to the significant amount of isoflavones, it has the ability to balance estrogen levels in women, bringing levels up when they are low, and down when they are high. For menstrual and premenstrual discomfort, the antispasmodic effects of the plant are a remedy for cramps. In cases of menopausal discomfort, the estrogenic effects can be felt, as well as the plants ability to cool the body.
Wild licorice is more recently being considered an adrenal adaptogen, much like the other medicinal species in the Glycyrrhiza family. An adaptogen increases the vitality of the body by strengthening the core of the internal workings. Wild licorice is thought to increase function of the adrenal cortex when it is under functioning, thereby increasing production of corticosteroids, which suppress inflammatory response in the body, and also effect immune function. Lessening the inflammatory response is of great help to individuals who suffer from autoimmune diseases and cancer. Research is still being done to define the degree of inflammation that is decreased by this plant. I have sometimes used it in place of the other licorice species in such instances and found it to be effective, but only in certain instances.
New information on wild licorice continues to be uncovered. With it we gain a greater understanding of the relief this plant can bring to contemporary illnesses. Wild licorice is being looked at as a tumor suppressor in cancer, and, as mentioned, an anti-inflammatory adaptogen to balance function of the immune system and production of cortisol in autoimmune diseases.
A study of most notable mention is one by the US National Cancer Institute. It identifies a new chemical constituent of wild licorice that has potent anti-viral action in vitro against the HIV virus. While I believe in whole plant healing, and not isolated chemical constituents, this study shows that we are taking interest and stock in what native plant medicines are capable of clinically.
Chemical Difference Of Species and Contraindications
Due to the hormonal influences of wild licorice, it is contraindicated during pregnancy. Wild licorice may also increase the potency of steroids in the body. It is therefore contraindicated for use during steroid therapy.
Licorice species other then wild licorice have another contraindication due to the high content of the constituent glycyrrhizin. Because glycyrrhizin has been found to increase systolic blood pressure when taken in high doses, it is not to be used by people with high blood pressure. In my practice, I have never witnessed this effect, but use it responsibly nonetheless. One advantage of wild licorice is that it does not contain near the amount of glycyrrhizin as the other licorice species, nor does it have the same hypertensive effects on the body.
The concept of native plant medicine is very important, and it’s not just about saving resources or what is most clinically effective. It is about our relationship to our environment. When we use plants that grow in our country, our body’s rhythm aligns with the soil that we call home, bringing deeper physical, spiritual and emotional healing through connection. Wild licorice is a web that supports balance and wholeness within, and it is a powerful plant that connects us deeply with our native herbal roots.