Calamus (Acorus calamus)

Calamus Information

Acorus calamus is the botanical name of the plant more commonly known as calamus. Other common names of calamus include calamus root, flag root, muskrat root, sweet calomel, sweet flag, sweet sedge, and many other names.

It has long been classified as belonging to the Araceae family, but more recent studies suggested that it should be placed in its own family. Although not everyone agrees, many now consider calamus to be a member of the Acoraceae family.

The Acoraceae family is comprised of a single genus called Acorus. Only Acorus calamus and no more than one or two other species of Acorus are included in the genus. The APG II system (2003), recognizes the Acoraceae family and gives it its own Acorales order.

Scientific Classification Of Acorus calamus
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Liliopsida
Order: Acorales
Family: Acoraceae
Genus: Acorus
Species: Acorus calamus

Both the leaves and rhizome are apparently psychoactive, with the rhizome being more potent. Some users report mild hallucinations when sufficient quantities of calamus are ingested.

In lesser amounts it can have a stimulating or sedative effect on the user. According to Arabic, Roman, and later European folk botany, the plant is also an aphrodisiac.

It is said that calamus will keep people young, boost their health, and strengthen their sexual life. For aphrodisiac purposes, higher doses are recommended. A herbal bath with calamus is said to increase sexual desire. (reference 1)

The oil of Acorus calamus is used as an ingredient in flavors, particularly in liquors. It is used a great deal in the making of alcoholic drinks and in perfume to give a bitter tang to the former and those special nuances to the perfumes, it is also used in toothpaste.

The rootstalks were at one time used to make candy. If boiled in water for about an hour, with several changes of water, then simmered in syrup, they can be a sweet treat.

History Of Acorus calamus

Calamus is thought to have originated in Central Asia or India and it is common in areas that surround the Himalayas. As a result of cultivation, calamus has spread throughout the globe. It was introduced to Central Europe in the 16th century.

It was introduced to North America by early European settlers, who grew it for medicinal uses. The muskrat appears to have played a significant role in increasing the occurrence of calamus in North America.

The animal is attracted to rhizome of the plant and not only eats the rhizomes of the fresh plant but also collects parts of these for future use. Under proper conditions, these pieces may produce new roots. (reference 2)

It is an uncommon but widespread semi-aquatic plant found in temperate and subtemperate zones of both the Old and New Worlds. Today it is mainly found in Europe, North America, Japan, and in a few parts of southern Russia.

Asians have been using sweet flag for at least the last 2000 years for a number of beneficial medicinal usages. It has been traded in markets throughout the Middle East and Asia.

Calamus was used in the sacred incenses of both the Sumerians and the ancient Egyptians and remains of the plant were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The aromatic leaves were placed on the floors of medieval churches and houses as effective air-fresheners and insecticides.

It may also have had a similar use in Biblical times. In Exodus 30: 23,24,34, when God ordered Moses to make the Holy Oil, one of its constituents was an aromatic reed which some authorities have suggested might have been Acorus calamus.

Calamus was also known to many early American settlers and used for a number of folk remedies. It is believed that Native Americans may have widely dispersed them around the United States as they planted the roots along their migratory paths to be harvested as needed.

Calamus can often be found growing close to the sites of Indian villages, camping areas or trails. This planting was probably undertaken not only to maintain a supply of it for medical use but also to provide the muskrat with its favorite food (hence the common Indian name for calamus, 'muskrat root', or simply 'rat root') and thereby profit from a steady supply of furs.

Walt Whitman even wrote poetry about his beloved sweet flag. In Leaves of Grass he dedicated no less than thirty-nine poems to sweet flag, they are known as the Calamus Poems.

Dried rhizomes, and sometimes leaves, of sweet flag have been used in the formulation of alcoholic beverages and some other food products.

However, in some countries, calamus and its oil have been prohibited as a food additive, and within the last few years many herbal shops have stopped recommending or dispensing it.

In the USA, calamus is considered unsafe for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration due to its carcinogenic nature. In 1968, calamus and products derived from it (like its oil) were banned as food additives and medicines.

Description Of Acorus calamus

The plant has a branched and aromatic root or rhizome (underground horizontal stem of a plant that produces roots) from which rise its long erect leaves. The roots have a sweet fragrance (they have been used to flavor candy) and the leaves smell similar to lemon.

The sword-like leaves of the plant resemble those of other similar plants so much, that before the Acorus calamus is in flower, it is difficult to recognize it simply by the appearance of its leaves.

In late spring, green flowers appear in 2 to 4 long spadices (plural form of spadix) below the leaf tips. The flowers eventually give way to small berries.

Calamus is found in both temperate and sub-temperate areas of the globe. The sheathing leaves of this perennial are from 2 to 6 feet in height and about 1 inch in width. They are sharp pointed and have a ridged midrib running their entire length.

The leaves of the blue flag (also called poison flag) are very similar to those of calamus. However, rhizomes of blue flag can be dangerously toxic. This resemblance often leads to cases of poisoning among children who thus mistake one for the other.

The leaves of Acorus calamus are fragrant, the smell can be a means of recognizing it. The odor is aromatic and agreeable, and taste pungent and bitter. Internally the rootstock is whitish and of a spongy texture. The aromatic odor and pungent, bitter taste are retained in the dried article.

At present there are no laws against the personal use of Acorus calamus in the USA but calamus is considered unsafe for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration.

This is due to the fact that massive doses of beta-asarone (one of the chemicals in the plants from India) given to lab rats over an extended period of time proved to be carcinogenic.

It should be noted that the Food and Drug Administration spent a great deal of money and had some of their top minds studying calamus. Therefore it must be assumed, that you should stay away from Acorus calamus from India.

The FDA studies have shown that only calamus native to India contains the carcinogen beta-asarone. The North American variety contains only Asarone. Beta-asarone is not an active ingredient of calamus. Acorus calamus with and without beta-asarone may be used for the same purposes.

Rhizomes from European Acorus calamus has low concentrations of asarone, compared with those from India. There are no cases of malignancy that have been reported in mill and mine workers who chew European Acorus calamus.

Many of the Cree Indians of Northern Alberta chew calamus root for oral hygiene and as a stimulating tonic. They apparently suffer no unpleasant side effects. Human use of the plant (from cultures all over the globe) has always been associated with health and long life.

As a rejuvenative for the brain and nervous system, calamus powder is used to help manage a wide range of symptoms in the head including neuralgia, epilepsy, memory loss, and shock.

Chemistry Of Acorus calamus

The main chemical components of Acorus calamus are:
Hydrocarbon (C10H16)
Acorin (C36H60O6)
Trimethylamine (C3H9N)
Asarone (C12H16O3)
acorenone, beta-asarone, calamendiol, a-selinene, a-calacorene, calamusenone, camphone and shyobunone.

Four types of Acorus calamus have been characterized: diploid (North America), triploid (Europe), tetraploid (East Asia, India and Japan) and hexaploid (Kashmir).

The active ingredients of calamus are not the most stable of compounds. They will deteriorate within a few years, leaving the herb useless.

Studies have shown that calamus is mutagenic (increases the number of mutations above those found in the natural state) in bacteria. There is also a risk of hypertensive reactions if taken with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI's).

The use of calamus in digestive medicines has been discontinued in most countries because of possible toxic and carcinogenic effects. Toxicity is ascribed to beta-asarone. This compound may cause duodenal and liver cancer.

TMA can be synthesized from Acorus calamus. TMA (trimethoxyamphetamine) is a drug in the MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) class of drugs. TMA, like ecstasy, can be described as a psychedelic amphetamine. However, calamus is not converted to TMA in the human body.

Medicinal Use Of Acorus calamus

Acorus calamus root has a long history of medical usage. It is known as an old folk remedy for the treatment of arthritis, neuralgia, diarrhea, dyspepsia, hair loss and other disorders.

The plant is mentioned by many of the great classical writers on medicine, from Hippocrates (460-377 BC) and Theophrastus (371-287 BC) onwards. According to Dioscorides, the smoke of Acorus calamus (if taken orally through a funnel) relieves a cough.

For centuries, many Native American tribes were familiar with calamus. It was used as an anesthetic for toothache and headaches. So mainly it was used as folk medicine. The Cree say that they can take Acorus calamus root and travel great distances without touching the ground.

Calamus or sweet flag is or was known by the American Indian tribes and early settlers, was well known for its medicinal value. Although the preparation of this species and the ailments it treats vary somewhat among the tribes, rhizomes are the most commonly used part.

The unpeeled, dried rhizome was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia until 1916 and in the National Formulary until 1950, for medicinal use on humans. In Europe, it is used for the stomach and bowel because it stimulates the salivary glands and production of stomach juices, helping to counter acidity and ease heartburn and dyspepsia.

It also eases flatulence and relaxes the bowel, reducing catarrhal states of the mucous membranes. In traditional Chinese medicine sweet flag is used to treat deafness, dizziness and epilepsy. The ancient Chinese are also reported to have made a hallucinogenic substance out of sweet flag, marijuana, and other ingredients.

In Ayurvedic medicine calamus is an important herb, and is valued as a rejuvenator for the brain and nervous system, and as a remedy for digestive disorders. In Western herbal medicine the herb is chiefly employed for digestive problems such as gas, bloating, colic, and poor digestive function.

Calamus helps distended and uncomfortable stomachs, and headaches associated with weak digestion. Small amounts are thought to reduce stomach acidity, while larger doses increase deficient acid production, a good example of how different doses of the same herb can produce different results.

The Dakotas use calamus to treat diabetes, and there are several reported cases where calamus had cured people who had been given up by western medicine. Calamus depresses central nervous system, and an ingredient in formulation for disorders like epilepsy. Also, the vapors of calamus from the roots do repel some insects.

Acorus calamus extract is anti-rheumatic and analgesic. The extract is used in the form of powder and balms and it is very much useful in case of asthma, bronchitis and cough. As per Indian Ayurveda it was used as an anesthetic for toothache and headaches.

The rhizome contains from 1.5-3.5% essential oil which is extracted from the fresh roots or the unpeeled dried root by steam distillation. The essential oil is anticonvulsant, antiveratrinic and antiarrhythmic. It is also taken as an infusion, tincture or fluid extract.

The essence, which contains asarone, has a tranquilizing action. When very fresh, it can be poisonous. It is often adulterated with the rhizome of the yellow water iris (Iris pseudacorus).

It is slightly tonic but forms a useful adjunct to other tonics and stimulants. The root is carminative (prevents the formation of gas or eases its passing), slightly tonic, and excitant (a stimulant).

It may be used in cases of flatulent colic, atonic dyspepsia, feebleness of the digestive organs, and to aid the action of cinchona or quinine in intermittents.

The rhizome alcoholic extract has sedative and analgesic properties and causes depression in blood pressure and respiration. Extracts are used to treat intestinal cholis, anorexia, gastritis and gastric ulcers.

Calamus oil should never be used in aromatherapy. Even though it is fairly safe as an herbal medicine when administered properly, users should not use it long-term or exceed recommended dosages.

Ingesting a little bit of root powder can relieve motion sickness (car or air) in some users. Traditionally, the root was chewed, though a suitable infusion can be made by soaking it at the top of a closed jar of cold water overnight.

When you take a lot (at one time) you can over-stimulate a stomach that doesn't need stimulation. If this is the case, what you may get is vomiting. This is not because the plant is poison, but rather the result of using it when it is not needed.

Is Acorus calamus A Hallucinogen?

Whilst the traditional use of sweet flag as a stimulant by many native North Americans is not contested, the purported use of it as a hallucinogen among the Cree of northern Alberta has been the source of much confusion.

Hoffer and Osmond's 1967 account has been cited in many books since its publication as evidence of the plant's use as a native hallucinogen. In fact, Hoffer and Osmond clearly state that the two individuals who were their informants were both white.

Both the male informant and his wife (who was a psychiatric nurse) had already tried LSD before consuming 10-inch pieces of rat root (a normal stimulant dose is about 2 inches) on five separate occasions. They reported LSD-like effects but did not state that any native people used the root in hallucinogenic doses.

The idea that Native Americans used the sweet flag as a hallucinogen could be rejected were it not for a passing but telling comment in a written account of a people of the Canadian far north. The anthropologist June Helm was told by a local Indian man that chewing a large piece of the root was done to have a good time.

It is also used in the introductory ceremonies of the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom cult among the Ojibwa people of the Great Lakes, but because these rites are little known it cannot be said whether sweet flag is used in stimulant or hallucinogenic doses, although it does seem to have been used in this context as a ritual purgative.

But since the Ojibwa use of the hallucinogenic fly agaric was only discovered by western researchers in the late 20th century, it is possible that the Ojibwa have kept secret their knowledge of the hallucinogenic properties of the muskrat root.

Among the Lai people of New Guinea, the ceremonial eating of the rhizome of Acorus calamus is said to aid communication with the spirit world. The Chinese use of Acorus calamus has largely been for rather mundane purposes such as an insecticide.

However, there is an interesting passage from a book written about AD 370 by one Wang Chia which is quoted by Joseph Needham as follows: 'In Ying-chou [one of the isles of the Immortals] there is a herb called yiin miao, in appearance like the rush [Acorus calamus], but if any man eats the leaves he becomes drunk, howbeit if he then eat of the root he will be made sober.'

Are these flights of pure fancy, or a vague memory of a psychoactive plant? There are hints from both hemispheres that the apparent hallucinogenic properties of calamus were made use of. (reference 3)

How To Use Acorus calamus

The most common way of ingesting Acorus calamus is by chewing it. When it is consumed in small doses, it can have a stimulating or calming effect on a person (depending on the state of the user).

In a higher dosage, calamus can have mild mind altering or hallucinogenic effects. However, these effects are very subtle and many experienced drug users don't feel any effect when taking calamus (even in high doses).

Calamus can be used as an antianxiety drug that has a calming effect. Some users take it to treat panic and anxiety attacks. Others use it after a traumatic situation, it will calm most people but symptoms re-appear when the effects wear off.

To use calamus as an antianxiety drug, chew (between your jaw and cheek) on a small amount of calamus (you don't have to swallow it) and breathe in and out, deeply. Chewing a bit of calamus can also have stimulating qualities when one is tired.

Calamus can be used as a mild stimulant when one is tired and worn out but still has to keep going. Simply chew a bit of calamus between your jaw and cheek without swallowing it.

If you are interested in the mind altering potential of calamus, try chewing (between your jaw and cheek) a spoonful of the root (you don't have to swallow it). After 30 to 60 minutes of chewing you can spit out any remaining root and chew larger amounts, if you like the feeling.

You can swallow calamus when you chew it, but it can upset the stomach. Stop chewing when you feel like you've had enough. Most people can handle 2 ounces or more of root at a time.

For those who are interested in getting to know the plant better, you can buy Acorus calamus here. The company that sells it ships from the USA to most countries. American calamus does not contain the cancer causing compounds found in calamus from India.

How To Grow Acorus calamus

Seed should be planted during the fall or winter in a greenhouse. Fill a 2-inch deep tray with an organic soil mix, scatter seed sparsely on the surface and press firmly into the soil. Do not bury further than 1/8 inch deep. Keep the soil from moist to saturated.

Seed does not require stratification and germinates in less than 2 weeks. When plants reach 3 to 4 inches, transplant them into individual 4-inch pots. Pots can be placed in shallow water or irrigated frequently to maintain very moist to saturated conditions.

Transplant outdoors 1 foot apart in the spring. With adequate moisture seed can also be planted outdoors spring through early summer or in a cold frame late summer through fall. Keep soil very moist to saturated, sweet flag does not tolerate droughty conditions. Should be planted where it will be in full sun to partial shade.

Calamus grows well under seasonal, shallow inundation, however, avoid flooding of newly established plants or seeded areas. Starter fertilizers may be used indoors to improve early growth but are unnecessary once transplanted outdoors into a rich soil.

The spadix will turn brown as the seed ripens in late summer or early fall. Seed can be planted immediately or stored in low humidity refrigeration.

Rhizomes should be harvested for medicinal use in early spring before new growth, or late autumn. Collect when large and firm, generally after 2 to 3 years of growth, before becoming hollow.

The flowering head, produced from the side of the stalk, consists of a fleshy spike sometimes three and half inches long and about 1/2 inch in thickness, closely covered with very small, greenish yellow flowers, which appear from May to July.

Calamus grows well in muddy places, in swamps and meadows, along streams and the borders of lakes in the American states with lakes and rivers, including Tennessee and northern Mississippi. In America it blooms from April to July.

The rhizome should be gathered in early spring or in October and November. Dirt and bitter rootlets should be removed and the rhizome should be dried quickly in a warmed room. The leaves also possess the aromatic properties of the rhizome, but to a lesser extent. Leaves are not employed as a medicine. You can find an image of the calamus plant here.

reference 1 - plants of love: aphrodisiacs in myth, history...
reference 2 - the encyclopedia of psychoactive plants
reference 3 - the encyclopaedia of psychoactive substances

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The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants:
Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Very nice book and considering the subject matter, it's easy to understand. The botany, history, distribution, cultivation, preparation and dosage of more than 400 psychoactive plants. Over 900 pages with hundreds of black and white illustrations and full color photographs.

Information about almost every plant that has been used for medical, spiritual, or recreational purposes. Includes all the common and most of the less common plant drugs. This is the most thorough plant drug encyclopedia available at the present time. Contains four pages of Acorus calamus info with several color and black and white images.

The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants

The Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Substances

Gives up the goods on well over 100 drugs, plants, and animals capable of altering mood and thought. Did you know there are species of hallucinogenic fish? That ants have been used in vision quests? That barbiturates were named for St. Barbara?

Not technical enough to bore the average reader, the book pulls together little-known facts from a variety of literature and produces cohesive, well-documented entries equally well suited to the student and the regular person interested in the subject. Contains several pages of Acorus calamus info.

The Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Substances

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