What is Calamus?
Calamus root, commonly known as sweet flag, has been used by various cultures since biblical times. In the Orient, and in ancient Egypt, the rhizome was thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac, while the Turk’s carried the aromatic rhizome to thwart infectious disease. The Sanskrit Kalamas, the Roman calamus and the Greek Kalamos all refer to the reed of the plant. In the 17th century, sweet flag was so much in demand that over-harvesting almost led to its eradication.
Sweet flag was heavily used by perfumers and makers of powdered wigs. Dutch children were given the rhizomes as a form of chewing gum or as a crystallized candy. Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs were flavored with the herb, as well as many liqueurs, beers, bitters, tonics and gin as late as the 1960’s. The famous Stockton bitters include calamus. Sweet flag was also once used in toothpowders. The dry shampoos of the 1960’s and 1970’s contained calamus root. It has been used magically for luck, healing, money, and protection. It is said that placing the root in the corners of the kitchen protect against hunger.
Habitat and Description
Reeds and bull-rushes come to mind when one sees this hardy perennial growing in the shallow, still recesses of streams and watery ditches in the Northern Hemisphere. The long, sword-shaped, slightly crinkled, sweet-scented leaves grow to around 4 ft. (1.2 m) high and tiny yellow flowers are borne on a solid, cylindrical spike resembling a bull-rush. Although the plant sometimes fruits, propagation is mainly achieved by vigorous growth of the rhizome. While all parts of the plant are sweet and aromatic the inner section of the stalk having an orange-like taste – most culinary and medicinal use is made of the root system or rhizome. This is about 3/4 in. (2 cm) in diameter and when dry is pale gray-brown in color and scarred from the removal of scores of ‘worm-like’ rootlets on harvesting. In cross-section the rhizome is pale, almost white, porous and woody. Calamus root has a pungent aroma, the flavor being initially sweet, similar to a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger with a bitter aftertaste. There seems to be little argument that calamus or ‘sweet flag’, as it is often called, is a native to the mountain marshes of India. Use of the rhizomes there stretches back to antiquity and even after its introduction to Europe and widespread distribution by the Viennese botanist Clausius in the sixteenth century, the Indian rhizome was reputed to have the strongest and most pleasant flavor. The first record of cultivation was in Poland, where it was said to have been introduced by the Tartars. The name calamus is derived from the Greek ‘calamos’ meaning reed. It was as a strewing reed for festivals in churches and in some homes that it experienced considerable popularity in Norfolk, England where much of it was grown. Calamus now grows extensively in the marshes of England, though it is uncommon in Scotland. It is not found in Spain but grows abundantly throughout Europe and east to southern Russia, China and Japan. In the northern United States it is so prolific it is considered to be indigenous.
Harvesting is a pretty messy business as the matted roots, partially immersed in the mud and about 12 in. (30 cm below the surface of the water, are cut and raked out of the mire. The leaves are stripped off and separated from the rhizomes, which have to be thoroughly cleaned and stripped of the less aromatic rootlets before slicing and drying. Calamus root should not be peeled as the cells containing the aromatic volatile oil are located in the outer section near the surface. Because appearances have often been considered as important, white, peeled German calamus was popular, however it was not considered to be as good as the unpeeled version, especially for medicinal applications.
Culinary Uses of Calamus
The leaves can be used fresh in an infusion with milk for custards, rice puddings and other desserts in much the same way as a vanilla bean or cinnamon quill is used to impart its flavor. Young leaf buds have been added to salads and the powdered root is sometimes used for its delicate cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger notes in Indian and Arab sweet dishes. Calamus is a key ingredient in Absinthe and the original recipe for Dr. Pepper.
Health Benefits of Calamus
Calamus has been used as an aphrodisiac in ancient Egypt and in India, for more than 2,500 years. This wonder herb has been used for a variety of purposes throughout the world, by different people suffering from different ailments and disorders. While in Europe calamus was used as a stimulant for one’s appetite, or even for other appetites, or to aid one’s digestion, in North America the herb was used in the form of decoction for fevers, colics, and stomach cramps, while rhizome was chewed to help ease toothache. The powdered form was taken to treat congestion. As a matter of fact, the calamus has been used extensively in Western herbal medicine to provide effective relief from digestive problems such as flatulence, bloating, and weak digestive function. In Ayurvedic medicine too, calamus has been used to treat patients suffering from digestive disorders, as well as for ‘rejuvenating’ the brain and the nervous system of the user. Calamus, particularly ‘A. calamus var. americanus’, also known as one of the best antispasmodics, relieves intense spasms of the intestines. Calamus helps and relieves distended and uncomfortable stomachs, and also treats the intense headaches that are generally related to a weak digestion. Taken in small amounts, the drug can help reduce and relieve acidity of the stomach, while larger amounts would increase deficient acid production. This is a good example of the way in which the same drug, when used in different dosages, would produce entirely different results, and can therefore be used to treat different ailments. There are doubts about the safety of sweet flag however. The European and American species have a relatively low toxicity, at least according to some studies done in the 1980’s. But previous studies on the Indian, or “Jammu” variety, revealed the carcinogenic effects of B-asarone. Rats who were fed varying concentrations of calamus oil ranging from 500 to 5,000 parts per million, developed abnormalities of the heart and liver after 18 weeks, and malignant intestinal tumors after 59. Although the European and American species are void of B-asarone, the FDA banned all calamus extracts from use in foodstuffs.
Gardeners should take note that calamus effectively kills ants and fleas when applied as a fine dust. It is also very efficient at getting rid of grain weevils since it renders the male sterile. While the flowers of this herb are not particularly attractive, the stems or reeds are rather interesting looking and quite aromatic. A moist area in shade or woods, especially near a stream or pond, makes the ideal habitat for cultivation.
myrtle grass, sweet cane. sweet flag, sweet grass, sweet rush, sweet sedge, wild iris
Photo by Hermann Adolf Köhler (1834 – 1879) / Public domain