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Licorice hailed as "Medicinal plant of the year"

Posted Dec 07 2011 12:00am
Licorice plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra
Seems most people either love licorice or hate it. I can’t stand it. But I had no idea that licorice has medicinal properties until I came across a surprising news flash in my daily perusal of conservation articles.  Licorice has been named “Medicinal plant of the year 2012″ because of its importance to human health worldwide.   Who knew?   “Licorice is special because it can quickly sooth sore throats and coughs and was used centuries ago to treat coughing, hoarseness and asthma by Ancient Greek and Egyptian physicians,” said Dr. Johannes Mayer, a medicinal botanist at the University of Würzburg. The plant was selected by a panel from the University of Würzburg and two conservation groups: WWF and TRAFFIC .

It’s all in the root
Licorice has been used not only for respiratory ailments, but also as a mood-elevator and for its purported anti-inflammatory and antiviral effects, among other things.  So far, more than 400 different compounds have been isolated from the root, the only part of the plant used medicinally.

One of the most widely used compounds from licorice root is glycyrrhizin, which is 30 to 50 times as sweet as cane sugar. Today, the licorice extract used to make licorice candies is derived by boiling the root of the licorice plant then evaporating most of the water.  The extract can be purchased in syrup or solid form. Googling turns up numerous vendors of the stuff.

The licorice plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra, is a legume that’s native to several continents: Australia, the Americas, eastern Asia, and the Mediterranean area – quite a broad distribution.  At maturity, it’s a woody shrub about 3 ft tall.  The plant is not related to anise, star anise or fennel, which all have similar tastes.  I can’t stand them either!

Growing demand could threaten plant
Currently, licorice root is used to make medicinal teas, candy, herbal liqueurs, and “gan cao” (a traditional Chinese medicine).  Germany has seen a recent surge in the popularity of “natural medicines” and now imports about 500 tons of licorice root per year; 100 tons of that are used to brew medicinal teas. The growing demand for licorice in Europe and China has raised concerns about over-harvesting of the plant. In 2010, WWF and TRAFFIC created a “ FairWild Standard ,” an international standard to encourage socially-just and environmentally-sustainable harvesting of wild licorice and other plants.

Protecting plants and workers
Roland Melisch of TRAFFIC says that consumers can purchase FairWild certified products with confidence that the wild plants have been harvested sustainably and that profits will be distributed fairly to all in the chain of production, including the low-earning gatherers, who rely heavily on the gathering of wild plants to support their families.  At present, the FairWild website offers at least two herbal teas made from licorice root that meet the FairWild standard.  More will be forthcoming.  Sounds like a valuable new certification procedure, pertaining only to plants and animals harvested from wild populations.  Sorely needed.  I’m glad to see it, even for one of my least-favorite tastes.

A few of my previous posts about overharvesting:
Monkeys and parrots pouring from the jungle
Illegal trade in animals and animal parts: what you can do
Can a warmer planet feed us?
Trade a major threat to primate survival
Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations 

Keywords: licorice FairWild overharvesting fair trade sustainable harvest TRAFFIC WWF University of Wurzburg Johannes Meyer Chinese medicine medicinal tea sustainability socially just
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