Synonyms: Beewort, calamus root, cinnamon sedge, flag root, gladdon, muskrat root, myrtle grass, myrtle sedge, pine root, rat root, sweet calomel, sweet cane, sweet flag, sweet myrtle, sweet root, sweet rush, sweet sedge
Scientific Name: Acorus calamus L.
Family: Araceae (Arum family)
South China and South-West Asia
Essential oil, bitter principles, tannins
Calamus loves marshy ground. With its rhizome, or root-stock, it anchors itself in waterlogged subsoil, especially on the muddy banks of lakes and streams. The root-stock grows horizontally, reaching a diameter of up to three centimetres, and sprouts a profuse, hanging mane of thread-like roots. The perennial, aromatic root-stock also produces sword-shaped leaves that grow to a length of up to one metre and somewhat resemble course grass or iris. These leaves have strongly crimped edges and are a distinctive identifying feature of calamus. The flower-stem under these fresh green leaves is hardly noticeable until, in June or July, it sends out a spadix, a spike, from one side. And only those who look very closely indeed will see that this spike is densely covered in flowers. Their petals are less than a millimetre long, and their greenish-yellow colour makes them almost invisible against the green receptacle. In our latitudes calamus does not produce its ripe, red berries – for these it needs the warmth of its southern Asian native regions. However, it is very easy to propagate plants from portions of the root-stock.
Root extracts of calamus are aromatic and rich in bitter substances. They relieve gastric, intestinal and biliary disorders and generally tone the digestive system. A course of treatment with calamus tea is especially effective in alleviating the symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders of psychological origin, and in treating sensitive stomach, lack of appetite or a feeling of fullness with no organic cause.
There is no completely satisfying explanation for the scientific name Acorus calamus. The Latin word calamus means reed or cane and describes the structure of calamus. However, the meaning of the word Acorus is subject to debate. It may come from the Greek koreon = pupil of the eye, which would fit with the recommendation by the first-century Greek physician Dioscorides to use calamus to treat inflammation of the eye. But some people believe Acorus to be the negative of the Greek koros = satiation, referring to the stimulating effect of our medicinal plant on the appetite.
On the Indian subcontinent calamus was already appreciated for its excellent healing properties and aromatic strength 3000 years ago, and was included in the Yajur Veda, a portion of Hindu sacred lore. But the water-loving plant did not arrive in Europe until the 16th century, around 1560, when the Italian physician and botanist Petrus Andreas Matthiolus (1501–1577) brought it back from a visit to Constantinople. After this it quickly became accepted and spread. The portfolio of its applications correctly included digestive disorders, but it was also used to treat coughs, fevers and consumption, as well as finding use as an aphrodisiac. The people of the Emsland district of Germany would put calamus root in their mouths to guard against infection. And Catholics in Southern Germany strewed calamus leaves in the path of the Corpus Christi procession. In Pomerania it was believed that a tincture of calamus was most effective if it was prepared with roots harvested on St. John's Day between 11 o'clock and noon.
Essential oil of calamus is included in liqueurs and perfumes. Its candied root is like ginger to taste – indeed, one common name for calamus in Germany is German ginger.
The plant from another perspective
Calamus responds to the wet, cold milieu in which its root is submerged with an inner fire in the form of essential oils. As a medicinal plant, its heat strengthens weakened digestive processes.