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Licorice – Queen of Plants

Over the last four years Pukka has been on an incredible journey, investing in plants, people and planet with the FairWild Standard. Since starting with the first FairWild tea, Peppermint and Licorice, in 2012, Pukka’s use of FairWild-certified ingredients has grown to a range of 27 teas today. Bryony Morgan, FairWild’s Executive Officer, shares her perspective on Licorice, “Queen of Plants”.

Licorice – Queen of Plants

All the FairWild-certified plants are close to my heart. But if I had to pick one out for a special mention, it would surely be licorice - target of the first certified FairWild project worldwide, and the key ingredient of Pukka's "hero" tea, Peppermint and Licorice, launched in 2012 as part of the conservation campaign celebrating their 10th anniversary. It is also rather a pretty plant, with delicate blue or purple flowers, and pinnate leaves.

In my work for the FairWild Foundation, I have the great privilege to work with entrepreneurs from around the world who are enthusiastic about ensuring sustainable use of wild plants and improving the livelihoods of rural harvesters through their trade partnerships.

When Pukka decided to take the plunge and get involved with FairWild, licorice was a clear choice of where to start. As a natural sweetener – licorice means “sweet root” – it is used across their range of herbal teas. It can be found in some of Pukka’s most popular products - sales of Peppermint and Licorice ultimately helped raise over 50,000 GBP for conservation causes with WWF (a founding partner of FairWild).

Licorice also has a few biological characteristics which made it a good candidate for piloting a FairWild project. Licorice plants are woody shrubs in the Fabaceae (pea family), which grow up to a meter tall. The three species most commonly used originate from Asia, with relatives found across the Mediterranean to East Asia, the Americas and Australia. It is widely cultivated for its medicinal properties, and also for use in beverages. However, much of the material in trade still originates from the wild - being harvested from meadows where the plant naturally grows.

Only the root of licorice is used, from which a wide variety of chemical compounds have been isolated. Among the most important is glycyrrhizin, a chemical that possesses almost 50 times the sweetening power of cane sugar. Harvesting involves digging up the plant, which can be potentially damaging to the environment. However, with careful planning and monitoring, it can be sustainably harvested – allowing time for the plants to regenerate and to check that there is no lasting impact to the habitat.

Sustainable sourcing of licorice is important, as it is so widely used. It is an important ingredient “gan cao” in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), while in Germany, Europe’s major consumer and trader in medicinal plants, over 1,000 tonnes of licorice root are imported annually.

In 2012, Licorice was named medicinal plant of the year in Germany - chosen because of its paramount importance to human well-being world-wide. It has been used for centuries to soothe sore throats and coughs, as well as for other medicinal purposes. The root is also used in confectionary and in many herbal liqueurs. In Japan, licorice is used mainly in medicine although also as an ingredient in cosmetics.

As interest in natural medicines and herbal products such as licorice root grows, pressure on wild plant populations is also increasing, placing them in danger of over-harvesting. Some Glycyrrizha species are now threatened in parts of their range, with populations known to be depleted in parts of Central Asia and China.

The FairWild Standard provides a framework to ensure environmentally sound, socially just and economically sustainable collection of wild plant resources, and serves as a basis for certification of plant products. The first such project was of Licorice Glycyrrhiza uralensis in Kazakhstan. Here the abundant stands of wild plants are harvested on a crop rotation system.

Pukka and the other industry partners involved are also ensuring the harvesters are getting a fair and sustainable income – it can be tough work in the harvesting season out on the steppe, where a group of around 14 collectors work for nine months out of the year. The FairWild premium and fair pricing structure has helped improve livelihoods and working conditions, with funds used for healthcare, and construction of rest facilities.

Since Pukka's first FairWild tea was launched in 2012, their use of certified licorice has grown, to over 100k tonnes in 2015. From that first product, licorice now features in an impressive 27 different herbal teas today! Here at FairWild Foundation we're happy to see the volume of commercially available FairWild licorice is increasing overall. Since the first project in Kazakhstan, other certified projects have now come on line in Spain and Georgia, in response to the demand from Pukka and other manufacturers who are keen to make a difference through their ingredient sourcing.

FairWild licorice - we hope to continue to see you grow!

Meet the author

Bryony Morgan, Programme Officer

Bryony Morgan is a Programme Officer with TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and Executive Officer of the FairWild Foundation Secretariat. My role involves managing the FairWild certification scheme day-to-day, and providing technical support to medicinal plants trade projects worldwide. I also support the FairWild Board on development of the FairWild initiative overall. The work builds on a lifelong fascination with plants, and the desire to improve the lives and livelihoods of people living in poverty, as well as conserve our amazing natural heritage.

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