In the Garden: You Either Love It, Or You Hate It

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Garden flower and wispy foliage on fennel

I can produce paroxysms of displeasure in my wife by taking a big chaw of licorice, then exhaling vigorously in her general direction. She’s one of the haters. No need to ask which side I’m on.

The source of this delight/revulsion is the licorice plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra, a member of the legume family. A perennial plant growing to about three feet tall, it’s native from southern Europe, through the Middle East, and on to India. The roots, harvested after three years of growth and not black in color, are the source of the substance anethole, which provides the characteristic licorice flavor.  (“Liquorice” is the preferred spelling in the UK, and the pronunciation varies as well, although not necessarily by region. I grew up saying “lik-or-is,” but a few years ago I started saying “lick-rish” more or less as a joke, and now I can’t stop.)

Although licorice appears to be a reasonably attractive plant in photographs, I can’t recall ever seeing it in cultivation. It probably wouldn’t survive in this part of Virginia, preferring a warmer, drier climate and more alkaline soil. There is a licorice species, Glycrrhiza lepidota, native primarily to the western parts of North America, although the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora does report one occurrence in Brunswick County. Presumably these plants are persisting from the time that licorice was used in flavoring cigarettes. 

In addition to providing its characteristic taste, anethole is thirteen times sweeter than sugar, and is used in flavoring ouzo and Pernod. Another component of the licorice plant is glycyrrhizin, sweeter even than anethole, at 30-50 times the potency of sucrose. One might wonder if this considerable sweetness makes licorice a potent tooth decayer, but Wikipedia claims that it does not damage teeth.

Tooth decay aside, there are worrisome reports concerning other effects of excessive licorice consumption, namely increased blood pressure, renal failure and paralysis. Scary stuff, and it’s a bit hard to equate dangerous levels of the chemical culprit, glycrrhizic acid, to actual pieces of candy consumed. I would love to report that, “You’d have to eat ten pounds of licorice a day for fifty years to experience any ill effects!”, but, alas, the threshold seems to be lower. Wikipedia does say that most people should be able to consume about 200 grams— about 7 oz.!— a day without a problem, and that’s a lot of licorice. But they go on to say that consuming as little as 50g per day for two weeks would be unhealthy. As always, I’m not in the business of providing medical advice. Consult your physician.

Fortunately, there are safer ways to get a similar flavor from other unrelated plants. The carrot family (Apiaceae, formerly known as the Umbelliferae) is comprised of many useful plants—carrots, parsley, and dill, to name a few—as well as some really bad actors, such as poison hemlock and giant hogweed. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and anise (Pimpinella anisum) are two species that taste much like licorice.

Illicium parviflorum ‘Florida Sunshine’

Native to the Mediterranean but widely naturalized, fennel is very happy in my garden, growing to over six feet high. Perhaps too happy, since I’m constantly pulling up seedlings. The bronzy, frilly foliage of the cultivar ‘Purpureum’ can be difficult to spot growing out of brown mulch. Relatively easy to pull out when it’s young and the ground is moist, if you wait too long the strong taproot really takes hold. Not all fennel taproots are bad, however. On the cultivar Florence fennel, aka finocchio, the taproot becomes swollen and bulb-like and is used as a vegetable. As for my eating habits, I occasionally pull off some fennel foliage and munch on it in the garden or toss it in a salad.  I’ve also nibbled on the seeds, and find them tasty straight off the plant. I plan to see how I can dry them and store them for future use.

Fennel’s daintier cousin, anise is an annual plant also native to the Mediterranean. The white or yellow flowers produce aniseed, used to flavor various sweets and baked goods, as well as ouzo, sambuca and absinthe. Both anise and fennel prefer to grow in light, well-drained soil and are drought-tolerant.

A third group of plants is more likely to make its way into your ornamental garden, the anise shrubs (the genus Illicium). The forty-some species are native to North America, the Caribbean and Asia, with the greatest number of species found on the latter continent. Usually medium-sized shrubs with evergreen leaves, the tropical species can become small trees.

The true star anise (Illicium verum) comes from northeast Viet Nam and adjacent China. When ground, the star-shaped fruits of this plant are a common spice in many Asian cuisines, and the extracts are also commonly used as a less-expensive substitute for the true aniseed. Worth noting: the Japanese star anise (I. anisatum) produces a similar fruit, but is highly toxic. Consumption of all other species should also be avoided.

A couple of American Illicium are good candidates for the garden. Florida anisetree (I. floridanum) is native to moist sites in the Deep South, but is hardy to Zone 6. Growing to 6’-10’ in height and greater in spread, this shrub prefers light shade and is stressed by drought. Red-to-purple two-inch flowers only stand out when you come near to the plant; if you get very close, you will detect a not particularly alluring aroma that is not anise-like. The leaves are the source of the more pleasant smell, sometimes compared to gin and tonic.

A few cultivars of Florida anisetree are available. ‘Halley’s Comet’ has deep red larger flowers and may rebloom into fall; for white flowers, look for ‘Semmes.’  ‘Shady Lady’ is the most unusual—wavy, gray-green leaves fringed with gray-white margins, then topped off with pink flowers.

Illicium parviflorum, commonly called swamp star anise, plays second fiddle to the showier Florida anisetree, with small yellow flowers almost hidden in the foliage. Still, its ability to take sun, shade and relatively dry conditions make it a “true everyday garden plant” in the mind of woody plant guru Michael Dirr. The medium-green leaves can provide a pleasant contrast to darker evergreens. To achieve even greater showiness, many gardeners are now planting the cultivar ‘Florida Sunshine.’  The chartreuse leaves become even brighter in fall, then almost parchment-colored in winter, even as the stems turn red. Put this cultivar in light shade to prevent scorching of the foliage in winter.

What about “red licorice” Twizzlers, with their fake-artificial strawberry flavor?  These contain no licorice, so please don’t even think of using that term in describing these candies. That’s how language becomes corrupted. 

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