The cultivation of Licorice root in the United States.

Botanical name: 

By Henry N. Rittenhouse.

Many interesting accounts of the cultivation of the licorice plant are to be found scattered through the works on materia medica, agriculture and gardening during the past one hundred years, and the methods therein described are essentially the same as those pursued at the present time, and which it is not the intention to reproduce here.

Licorice root is cultivated, in the true sense of that word, in so few places in the world, and to so small an extent as an article of commerce, as hardly to be worth mentioning. One or two places in England, and a like number in France and Germany, embrace all the localities I happen to be acquainted with, and the area of land under cultivation varies from a few rods to an acre or two, five acres being an exceptionally large field.

The large amount of licorice imported into this country, and which also supplies the needs of the world, grows wild, without any care or cultivation whatever. Italy and Spain supply a small percentage of the total amount, probably 5 to 8 per cent., while Southern Russia, along the line of the Transcaucasian Railway, supplies two-thirds of the remainder, and Asia Minor and Syria the other one-third. The total amount of all kinds imported into the United States is about 80,000,000 pounds per annum, on an average. In 1872, the imports were about 5,000,000 pounds, and the consumption still increases yearly.

The licorice plant grows over an area, extending from the shores of the Mediterranean, on the south (latitude 30°), to Siberia, on the north (latitude 55°), and from the western shores of Europe to the plains of Persia and farther India, and from low levels to 1,500 feet above the sea; thus showing over what an immense area of land and variety of soil and climate it will grow vigorously. In Afghanistan it forms the principal fuel. It is a hardy and tenacious plant, almost impossible to eradicate where it once obtains a foothold, and growing without care or cultivation when once fairly started. The mention of these conditions under which the plant, which furnishes the root of commerce, is found, is to illustrate its hardy nature.

As the plant grows wild, and generally on wild and uncultivated land, and is dug and prepared for market by cheap Asiatic and Russian labor at starvation wages, the first question naturally is, would it pay to grow it in the United States? The answer to this is: if it is intended to grow it as root dried and sold in competition with this wild, imported root, probably not; but to propose and advance such an enterprise is not my object.

Licorice root, as found in commerce, is dried and pressed in bales. The root, when freshly dug, contains, on an average, 50 to 60 per cent. of moisture. This must first be dried out, which is done by exposure to the air, much as hay is made, requiring frequent turnings and handling to prevent, as much as possible, heating, fermenting and darkening during the drying, as well as the wetting by rain or snow, which may be frequent before the root is dry enough to press for shipment. The root, when nearly dry, and danger from further damage from the presence of moisture has passed, is piled up in large stacks until ready to be pressed. Around these stacks are dug ditches for draining the ground, and after a heavy shower, or prolonged period of rain or snow, these ditches will fill with a black water, containing a very strong taste and a high percentage of the extractive matter of the root; this, of course, deteriorates its value and is itself waste. When dry enough, it is pressed in powerful hydraulic presses worked by steam, so as to reduce the bulk to a minimum, and so save freight in shipment. The bales are bound with iron straps, and sometimes covered with canvas.

The plants, which supply the root as found in commerce, have been growing for a long time, some pieces being two to three inches in diameter when dry, indicating probably a growth of twenty or more years; but these very thick pieces are usually rejected as being worthless for making extract, as a root after four years' growth begins to deteriorate in value for the purpose of making extract, because of becoming too woody and fibrous, and lessening the percentage of extractive matter. On the other hand, the very thin fibres of one year or less growth are equally worthless, yet the the shipper works in as much of both kinds in the bales as he dare, to say nothing of adhering soil and debris. Root of three years is the most desirable, if it could be obtained, as being the richest in extractive matter.

It will be seen from the above that the preparation of licorice root for market, as we find it, is a tedious and expensive process—first, the organization of the business, in the employment of clerks, superintendents and a host of minor officials to superintend the diggers, receive and weigh the root at the various stations appointed in different localities, pressing, shipping, etc. The right to dig over a certain territory is obtained by lease or tithe, as the land is owned by the Government, the church, the village, or by individuals. Then there are the digging, drying, curing, pressing and baling, inland transportation, ocean freights, insurance, fire and marine, bankers' and brokers' commissions, interest and loss of weight in transportation. These expenses alone, throwing aside the cost of the freshly dug root, will represent fully 75 per cent. of the price of the root ex-ship in the United States. The foregoing expenses are fixed and unavoidable, as the fresh root could not be transported, owing to its perishable nature. These considerations have led me during the past four years to investigate the feasibility of growing this plant in the United States.

The consumption of the extract in this country is now so large and important, especially in the manufacture of chewing tobacco, that in case of a European war, a blockade of the Black Sea at the Dardanelles, or the Mediterranean at Gibraltar, would effectually cork up the world's supply, and throw the large American industry of tobacco-manufacturing into confusion. As licorice has become a more or less important ingredient in most brands of chewing tobacco, and the present generation of chewers has become so accustomed to its use, new brands omitting this ingredient might be unsalable.

Referring now to the vast and varied area over which the licorice plant grows wild, and the great variety of soil and climate in the United States, as well as cheapness of land and labor, and the ability to obtain large tracts of land of comparatively easy accessibility for transportation and labor, has led me to present the following information on the subject, of what I believe can be made a new and profitable industry in this country, with money and time intelligently expended. I believe it would, in time, pay better than either sugar cane, sugar beets, rice or cotton, although the industry would not be as large or important as any of those, which are all exotic, the cultivation of all of them having been begun in a very small way in the United States.

Licorice extract can be made as well, or better, from fresh root than from the dry, and is so made in the countries that furnish the root; but the duty on it of five cents per pound restricts largely its importation, while the root is free.

The thought I have in mind, in introducing the growing of licorice here, is very much on the same lines as sugar is now made from cane and beets; that is, to have large tracts of land devoted exclusively to the growth of the plant, with the factory for making the extract from the fresh root in, or near, the fields. The present sugar factory, too, could easily be adapted to the manufacture of the licorice extract, the apparatus required being simply suitable crushers or shredding machinery, the diffusion battery and vacuum pans for evaporating. Sugar factories, too, could be utilized when not running on sugar, as the proper time for digging the root is from October to April, and if the root is not needed one year, it can be left in the ground until the next, not only without deterioration, but to its increased value in weight. It is not well, however, to allow the root to exceed five years in growth; three or four year root is the richest in extractive matter; as it becomes older it becomes more fibrous. Frost or drought do not injure the root when once well established; young and tender plants in the first year might be injured. The elaborate and expensive methods ot culture, followed by the gardeners of Europe, would be entirely unnecessary here on a large scale. After selecting a suitable tract of land, having the necessary requirements of soil, location, etc. (prairie land, because it is open and easily tilled, would be my choice), it need only be plowed once to turn down the grass and weeds, harrowed, then laid out in furrows about 25 to 30 inches apart, and the buds or cuttings, set in the rows 6 or 8 inches apart, and covered by a plow, throwing a furrow over the buds from each side, or even cover them 3 or 4 inches with a hoe; this is all. From time to time, during the growing season, a cultivator should be run between the rows to keep down weeds or grass. The tops, at the end of the growing season, should be cut off; this could be done with the mowing machine. The second and third year the treatment would be the same. In the fall of the third year the crop would be ready to harvest. The cost of harvesting would be the most expensive part of the business, and thus far I am unable to give any exact figures, but up to the point of harvesting, the cost of planting and cultivation would not exceed $4 per acre per annum, or $12 for the three years, including interest and taxes. As the root grows to a great depth in a light soil, if digging had to be resorted to, the expense would be more, and some other mechanical means would have to be used, as a plow or digger. All the world over, digging by shovel and pick is the usual method; one reason for this is because labor is very cheap, and another is, the plants grow in patches often widely apart, and individual plants, so scattered over such an extensive area that no other plan is possible, while in the field, as proposed, the plants would be in rows and an acre very thickly grown.

An acre, with the rows 30 inches apart and the plants in the rows 6 to 8 inches apart, would contain 20,000 plants, and narrower rows and closer planting is permissible, so that many more than 20,000 plants can be grown to the acre. I prefer to take 20,000 plants per acre as a unit for calculation, to allow for loss in many ways of a liberal percentage, say one-third, by failure to grow and by dying after starting, etc. The growth each year is not so much in weight as one might be led to think by reading what has been written on this subject; but so far as I have been able to ascertain, there is nothing at all definite and specific published. The information herein is of my own investigation and experiment, and is only offered as approximate, as indeed the whole subject must be considered as still in an experimental stage, but, in my opinion, full of promise if properly entered upon with a view to making it a commercial success.

By obtaining plants from the growers of one, two, three and four years' growth drying and weighing them, I get the following results: plants of three years' growth will average when dried four ounces, equal to eight ounces fresh; or to an acre of 20,000 plants 10,000 pounds as the crop at the end of the third year, costing, according to my estimates for growing and harvesting, $15 for the crop of 10,000 pounds of fresh root, at the end of the period of three years.

I have not given the weights of the other root, as three year root is the basis on which I am working; four year growths would show much larger results, and younger roots are too immature to dig.

Allowing a loss in various ways of one-third the plant, leaving 13,300 yielding ½ pound each of fresh root, or 6,650 pounds at the end of the third year at a cost of $15, or even $20, and the enterprise would be profitable. The 6,650 pounds of fresh root represents one and a half tons dry, and the lowest price at which dry Russian Root, or Asiatic, can be laid down in the United States, is about £8 per ton; the crop of a ton and a half would be worth $60, costing $20, or a net profit of $40 per acre for the three years, equal to $13 per acre per annum as the profit of growing the root; but if the fresh root is at once made into extract, as I propose, the profit would be much greater even at 4 cents per pound, just half the present price of the extract.

My own experience in growing the plant in the United States has thus far been very moderate in results, owing to causes that might have been prevented, viz.: inundations, unsuitable buds for planting, and possibly a want of care or interest, or experience, on the part of those in charge, to say nothing of the effect of unusually hot and dry weather on the young plants before they had become acclimated. I have grown the plants in several places in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Florida, and still have some growing in the different localities, and believe it to be quite a feasible matter to introduce the industry on a large scale.

In 1856 W. R. Prince, of Flushing, L. I., contributed an article in The Horticulturist, Phila., on the cultivation of licorice root in the United States, showing the possibility of it. In 1854 the Department of Agriculture published in its annual report an account of its cultivation in this country.

In 1886 Mr. Isaac Lea, of Florin, near Sacramento, Cal., grew several acres very successfully, but abandoned it for want of a home market and for more profitable use of the land occupied by it. There are still some plants growing on that farm as well as in several other places in California. Mr. Lea was an enthusiast on the subject of growing the plant on a commercial scale, and had visited Louisiana and Florida with the object of establishing the enterprise in one or the other of those States; but finally abandoned the project for personal and domestic reasons. I mention these facts to show that the plant has been grown here by practical men whose opinion was that it could be grown on an extensive scale, but who knew nothing of the manufacture of the extract from it.

This paper is far from being exhaustive of the subject; much practical information has been accumulated and my experiments are still going on, and I believe with the necessary capital invested in the business on a sufficiently large scale, it need not be many years before the entire wants of this country, of licorice paste, could be supplied from the home-grown root, as indicated.

The American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 67, 1895, was edited by Henry Trimble.