COMMON NAMES: Calamus, Sweet Flag, Ajil-i-turki (Persian), Akoron (Greek), Bajegida (Kannada), Bhadra (Sanskrit), Bojho (Nepali), Ch’ang (Chinese), Erba di Venere (Italian, ‘plant of Venus’), Flagroot, Ganghilovaj (Gujarati), Kahtsha Itu (Pawnee, ‘medicine that lies in the water’), Kni (Egyptian), Lubigan Plants (Tagalog), Nabuguck (Chippewa), Peze Boao Ka (Osage, ‘flat plant’), Pow-e-men-artic (‘fire root’), Safed Bach (Hindi), Shobu (Japanese), Sinkpe Tawote (Lakota, ‘food of the muskrat’), Sunkae (Lakota, ‘dog penis’), Sweet Grass, Themepru (Assamese), Vash (Arabic), Wye (Kashmiri), Zwanenbrood (Dutch, ‘swan bread’)
Acorus calamus is a perennial plant with grass-like stems that grow up to five feet tall. The rhizome, or rootstock, spreads by creeping. The plants’ leaves range from light to lush green in color, and are gladiate, jutting skyward like swords. In its native India, the plant flowers from April to June; in central Europe, from June to July. The blooms are yellow-green and tiny, inconspicuously attached to a spadix up to 4 inches long (Ratsch 1998, 40).
Indigenous to Central Asia and India, Acorus calamus is commonly found on the island of Sri Lanka and in the Himalayas. It was introduced to central Europe in the 16th Century where it firmly took root along creeks and slow-moving bodies of water, as well as in lakes throughout the continent. It has since spread all over the world as the result of cultivation (Ratsch 1998, 40).
A. calamus thrives in marshy areas, easily surviving in standing water and equally well along the sidelines of ponds. In soil, it requires a lot of water and cannot be overwatered. It likes rich soil, but will also grow in poor soil, albeit not very well. It is propagated by planting divided pieces of the rhizomes with the shoots (approximately two-inch sections). In North America, A. calamus is easily grown from Texas to Canada. Highly frost tolerant, calamus goes into dormancy during the winter, and is best harvested around the summer solstice (Ratsch 1998, 40).
In the history of calamus in North America, the muskrat appears to have played a substantial role in its propagation, hence sweet flag’s alternate moniker of “muskrat root.” The muskrat, attracted to the calamus rhizomes, loves to collect, eat, and store parts of the root for later use. These stored rhizome pieces will often produce new roots, furthering the reach of the plant. Thus, A. calamus has been called sinke tawote – food of the muskrat (Morgan 1980).
TRADITIONAL USES: Remnants of A. calamus have been found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Throughout the Middle Ages, A. calamus was well known and widely used in Europe as a medicinal plant of extraordinary reputation. In addition, it has a long history of use as an aphrodisiac, and may still used for amorous enhancement in modern-day Egypt (Motley 1994).
Calamus was originally noted to have psychedelic properties in Caucasian literature through ethnobotanical research dating back to the 1960s. However, sweet flag has been held in high esteem by North American indigenous peoples for many hundreds of years. An important ethnobotanical, calamus served as a powerful shamanic libation, a panacea, health tonic and detoxifier, and a talisman against evil. Indeed, this plant is saturated with spiritual magic and universal connectivity (Ratsch 1998, 41).
Many cultures throughout the world believe that sweet flag roots contain potent powers that ward off evil. Countless North American tribes hang calamus root in their homes and sewed it into children’s clothing; the belief was that the plant would ward off nightmares and cause evil to pass by homes and families. To this day, the Winnebago, Ponca, Omaha, and Dakota tribes make traditional garlands of calamus grass that are used in secret rites known as wakan wacipi, sacred dances wherein the participants symbolically die and are resurrected during a day-long ceremony (Morgan 1980).
In ancient China, calamus was evidently used in shamanism, and is one of the country’s oldest, most revered plants. It is believed that the famous Taoist An-ch’i-sheng, who is said to have instructed Ch’in Shih Huang-ti, the first Emperor of China, used wild calamus as an elixir that would not only cause him to be become immortal, but also invisible. Sadly, the recipe for creating this ancient tincture was not passed down through the generations. There are, however, unfounded rumors in archaeological circles that an ancient text containing the recipe exists. Bundles of calamus root tied together with Artemesia vulgaris are stilled hung over doorways to protect against evil spirits, and used as talismans during the dragon boat festival (Motely 1994).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The Cheyenne use calamus roots as incense in sweat lodge ceremonies. They toss pieces of root directly on the blazing stones of the sweat lodge and the resulting smoke is cleansing and detoxifying. Calamus root as well as calamus leaves are often added to herbal smoking blends (kinnikinnick) or mixed with tobacco (Ratsch 1998, 41).
Calamus oil is added to snuffs and alcoholic beverages. A tea may be made from chopped calamus root (one teaspoon per cup) for the treatment of weakness, anxiety, and stomach troubles. A strong mixture may be added to hot bath water for overall healing. According to North American tribes, the amount of calamus necessary to produce psychoactive effects is equivalent to the size of a finger. However, dosages of up to 300g have been tested. High doses have reportedly resulted in LSD-like experiences (Ratsch 1998, 40).
There are several varieties of A. calamus available, and from all of the online vendors we have purchased this product from, only a few had genuine Acorus calamus americanus. The Americanus variety is the only one that is known to have a historical use as an entheogen. Be sure to do plenty of research when selecting A. calamus root to purchase online. We recommend sticking to the whole root – it is definitely the most potent form available for purchase online.
MEDICINAL USE: In both the Ayurvedic and Tibetan systems of medicine, calamus is an important psychoactive plant used to treat sleeplessness, melancholy, neuroses, epilepsy, hysteria, memory loss and fever. Calamus is known as vacha in Ayurvedic medicine, meaning “speak” – its name describes the power, the intelligence, and/or the self-expression be stimulated by this plant. It is for this reason that calamus root, when used as an incense, has the effect of illuminating and strengthening the mind. The plant is often found in Tibetan incense mixtures that are burned to strengthen the nerves (Lad & Frawley 1987 cited in Ratsch 1998, 41).
Known to sooth the nerves and increase meditative concentration, calamus is also used as a rejuvenation tonic. Homeopathic decoctions of the root are commonly used for stomach and intestinal troubles, digestive problems, and cramps. Sweet flag root is good for colds (throat, chest and head), bronchitis and headaches. It is known to calm, if not completely cure, a sore throat with its antibacterial properties. Chewing the root not only fights infection (especially in throat colds) but it also has a stimulant effect, helping one to overcome the fatigued feeling that accompanies a cold. Native Americans still use A. calamus extensively for staving off colds and sore throats. Laryngitis caused or aggravated by speaking, yelling, or singing, is another specific indication for its use. Fresh pieces of the root are chewed and dried root is used to prepare medicines and snuff (Morgan 1980).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: As a stimulant, calamus is used similarly to the way coca leaves are used by the South American natives. It increases energy and stamina and quells hunger. As a sedative, A. calamus acts as an anti-anxiety medicine, perhaps best described as “calming and centering” – that’s why it is both stimulant and sedative, putting one’s energy into balance, allowing one to resonate as a whole.
For this reason, calamus is almost without a plant equal as a treatment for panic and anxiety attacks – not only for full-on panic attacks, but also for the ‘small daily anxieties’ most of us have from time to time. It has been reported to work especially well when an intense or traumatic situation occurs, allowing the user to handle whatever situation is thrown at them with aplomb. However, after the effects of the plant have faded, reports of feeling “strung out” have been reported.
If one is experiencing panic attack symptoms such as feelings of dizziness, nervous stomach, heart palpitations, ‘leaving the body’ psychologically and visual indicators of tunnel vision, acute anxiety, disassociated, calamus may be helpful. One would chews on calamus root and breathes deeply, fully, and slowly and the anxiety and panic will begin to subside very rapidly.
Morgan, G.R. “The Ethnobotany of Sweet Flag Among North American Indians.” Botanical Museum Leaflets 28, no. 3 (1980): 235–246.
Motley, T.J. “The Ethnobotany of Sweet Flag, Acorus Calamus (Araceae).” Economic Botany 48, no. 4 (1994): 397–412.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.