Latin Name: Acorus calamus
Botanical Family: Araceae (arum family)
Acorus is Latin for “aromatic plant,” and calamus means “reed.” Flag comes from the Middle English word flagge, meaning “reed.” Indeed, these highly aromatic reeds were quite sought after in weaving chair seats, ropes, mats, and baskets. This is also the famous “calamus root,” used for pain relief in the folktale classic from the Deep South, Uncle Remus.
Sweet flag, muskrat root, beewort, sweetgrass, sweet root, sweet cane, flagroot, and sweetrush are some of the many regional names. Our native Calamus, A. calamus, is a distinctive member of the arum family, Araceae, which has about two thousand species worldwide that primarily live in wet regions. Its close relatives are jack-in-the-pulpit, green dragon, arrow arum, golden club, and skunk cabbage in the Northeast. When calamus is not in bloom it resembles blue flag, and like the latter it has been a highly valued root medicine among Eastern Woodland Indians and other tribes throughout its broad range for a long time.
The arum family, Araceae, includes more than 115 genera, and many of its species are cultivated ornamentals from the tropics. The native perennial Calamus is found in wetlands, often standing in water along streams and riverbanks across southern Canada from James Bay to Nova Scotia, south to North Carolina, and west to Texas and the Oregon coast. Its long, sword-like leaves are pale glossy green, with a stiff midrib running the entire length. The plants may grow up to five feet tall.
Mature stalks may produce halfway up an outward-jutting club-like spadix (a fleshy cylindrical bloom structure) between May and August that bears tiny clusters of yellowish-green flowers. These ripen into small gelatinous berries that quickly dry up and disappear. All plant parts are fragrant when brushed or bruised, especially the highly aromatic underground rootstalks so prized in Native American medicines.
The long, creeping rootstocks, with many tiny rootlets along their lower half, are usually dug from sand or wet mud, where these plants grow in dense colonies. Old colonies of Calamus can take over an entire eco-niche in low, wet pasture or marsh areas, crowding out almost all other plants. Transplanted into the garden, it becomes a delightful, slow-growing ornamental.
Some observers speculate that native peoples carried these valuable roots with them, establishing new stands of Calamus near their settlements as they moved and traded. The plant was so valuable to American Indians, possessing countless medicinal and spiritual qualities, that it was a primary trade commodity.
The roots are warm, aromatic, pungent, and bitter, and much better infused in water than in wine or spirits, as they resist the latter. Indian children were especially fond of calamus root, and would chew on a small piece, which was excellent to relieve colic, upset stomach, even toothaches. Calamus root was an early export from the colonies, being much sought after in England and China
The Cheyenne called calamus wi’ukh is e’evo (bitter medicine), and they traded with the Sioux to obtain the plant. They tied a small piece of calamus root on their children’s necklaces, dresses, or blankets to keep away the night spirits and bless their dreams. Men and women in many different tribes wore the long leaf blades as garlands and to adorn their hair. The Great Lakes tribes used calamus extensively. Small pieces of the root were chewed and held in the mouth to numb toothaches and other mouth problems, and to treat stomach aches, other digestive problems, sore throats, and colds Infusions of calamus root were also drunk to treat these same problems. Calamus water was often sprinkled on sacred items and throughout dwellings while prayers for renewal were offered.
The Hudson Bay Cree called calamus pow-e-men-arctic meaning “fire or bitter pepper root”. The Penobscot and Nanticoke called it muskrat root, and early in the twentieth century it was noted that calamus was perhaps the most important herb in Penobscot pharmacology. A Penobscot legend told that a plague of sickness was sweeping the Indians away and no one knew how to cure the people. Then one night a man was visited by a muskrat in a dream. The muskrat told him that he was a root and where to find him. The man awoke, sought the muskrat root, made a medicine of it, and cured the people of the plague. Sections of the dried root were cut up, strung together, and hung up for the preservation of nearly every house. Stan Neptune, a contemporary Penobscot artist, wood carver, and historian, recalls the importance of eating muskrat in winter, after the animals have been feeding on Calamus root and their meat tastes “like sweet medicine”.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Mohegan medicine woman, noted that the Delaware and other Eastern Algonquians made a Calamus tea that was used to treat coughs, colds, and suppressed menses. Calamus was combined with sassafras root for intestinal pains among the Delaware and other Eastern Algonquians. She described the practice of Eastern Algonquian people carrying a piece of muskrat root as a disease preventive, to chew in case of sudden illness, and just to ensure good health. Gladys also recorded the muskrat root as one of eleven botanicals steeped together for a spring tonic. The Connecticut Mohegan also used small pieces of calamus root to treat rheumatism and colds. From talisman to sophisticated compounds, Calamus continues to be a most valued health aid.
The Pawnee name is kahtsha itu (medicine lying in water), and they have songs about the calamus in their mystery ceremonies, as these plants were considered to have mystic powers. The long blades were used ceremonially for garlands and attached to important objects to bring good luck and power. The Osage called this pexe boao’ka (flat herb), and the Omaha and Ponca called it makan-ninida; the roots were chewed to treat diabetes, especially among the Dakotas. Potawatomi powdered the root as a styptic.
Calamus is found worldwide, mainly in the northern latitudes, and has an ancient history of uses. The unpeeled, dried rhizome was officially listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1916 and in the National Formulary from 1936 to 1950. Doctors prescribed it for indigestion, stomach ailments, and gas, and as a general tonic.
Extracts and bitters made from calamus root continue to be taken to relieve stomach cramps and indigestion. Calamus has long been valued as a flavouring agent and tonic, especially in aromatic bitters, and as a stimulant and carminative. Calamus continues to be a very valuable addition to many American Indian healing formulas, ceremonies, and health care practices, and is still used, alone, in essential ways of healing from tribe to tribe. Many American Indian traditional singers carry the dried root to chew on in order to improve their singing.
Calamus is an important component in Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Western herbalism. The rhizome, or root, is a valued remedy for digestion and a tonic for the nervous system. It stimulates the appetite, relieves gas and colic, and is formulated in tinctures and decoctions as well as powders. The aromatic qualities make the leaves a valuable insect repellent.
Some Asian varieties have been labelled as unsafe because they have been associated with tumours found in some laboratory rats. The carcinogenic agent is considered to be asarone, a constituent in the volatile oil. Apparently this is not present in the American species.
Growth needs and propagation:
In the wild, Calamus can form dense, intertwining mats in shallow water. Spring or fall is a good time to dig and gather the outer root tips, three to six inches long. Place them about two inches deep in garden soil. The young sprouts can grow rapidly, sending out many white hairy roots. These plants are handsome garden additions, since their foliage is striking.
Calamus grows well in the company of blue flag, cardinal flower, goldthread, and jack-in-the-pulpit. It will also grow fairly well with other moist-ground-loving herbs.