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Native Wildflowers of the North Dakota Grasslands

JPG -- species photo

Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota)

Found throughout North Dakota, wild licorice occurs from Minnesota west to Alberta and Washington and south to Texas and California at elevations up to 8,500 ft.

Wild licorice is perennial from long, tough taproots and interconnected rootcrowns. Plants are hairless. They may grow three feet tall in southern states, but North Dakota plants usually are about 18 inches tall. Leaves are pinnate (arranged like two combs set back-to-back) and up to eight inches long. Each leaf bears 7-21 leaflets up to 1 1/2 inches long that have small scales when young. The scales soon change into sticky, resinous dots. About 10-20 pale, whitish-yellow flowers about 1/2 inch long are grouped into spikes about 2-3 inches long that arise in the middle and upper branches. The seeds are enclosed in dark brown pods (legumes) equipped with hooked prickles like the cocklebur.

Look for wild licorice during May to August in rich soil areas in native prairie near wetlands or coulee bottoms. Grazing seems to have little effect on the density of this plant. Wild licorice was sometimes grown by Amerindians, who ate the sweet, slightly licorice-flavored roots. The roots contain up to 6% of the sweet substance, glycyrrhizin.

Wild licorice is a member of the economically important bean family (Fabaceae). Fab means bean in Latin. The generic name is from the Greek glycys, "sweet", and rhiza, "root". Lepidota means "scaly" in botanical Latin. There are about 15 species of Glycyrrhiza worldwide, but only one in the United States. Wild licorice was first described for science by Frederic Pursh in his monumental Flora Americae Septentrionale of 1814.

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