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Calamus Root Used For Indigestion, Bronchitis, Endurance, Colic, Gas and More
Latin name: Acorus calamus
Botanical family: Araceae (Arum family)
Acorus is Latin for “aromatic plant” and calamus means “reed”. Flag comes from a Middle English word flag, meaning “reed”. Indeed, these highly aromatic reeds were highly sought after for weaving chair seats, ropes, coasters and baskets. It is also the famous “calamus root” used to relieve pain in classic folktales from the Deep South, Uncle Remus.
Sweet flag, musk, 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, living mainly in humid regions. Its close relatives are jack-in-the-pulpit, green dragon, arrow arum, golden club and skunk cabbage in the Northeast. When not in flower, calamus resembles the blue flag, and like the latter, has long been a highly prized root medicine among the Eastern Woodland Indians and other tribes throughout its wide range.
The arum family, Araceae, includes more than 115 genera and many of its species are cultivated ornamental plants from tropical areas. The native perennial Calamus is found in wetlands, often standing in water along streams and river banks across southern Canada from James Bay to Nova Scotia, south to North Carolina and west to Texas and the Oregon coast. Its long sword-shaped leaves are a pale glossy green, with a stiff center that runs the entire length. Plants can grow up to five meters tall.
Mature stems may produce a half-protruding peduncle (a fleshy cylindrical flower structure) bearing tiny clusters of yellowish-green flowers between May and August. These ripen into small gelatinous berries that quickly dry up and disappear. All parts of the plant are fragrant when brushed or crushed, especially the highly aromatic underground stems, which are so prized in Native American medicine.
Long, creeping rootstocks with many tiny rhizomes along the lower half are usually dug from sand or wet mud where these plants grow in dense colonies. Old colonies of calamus can occupy an entire ecological niche in low, wet pastures or marshes, displacing almost all other plants. If transplanted to the garden, it becomes a pleasant, slow-growing ornament.
Some observers speculate that indigenous peoples carried these valuable roots with them and established new stands of calamus near their settlements during migration and trade. The plant was so valuable to the American Indians for its myriad medicinal and spiritual properties that it was a primary trade commodity.
The roots are warm, aromatic, pungent and bitter and much better immersed in water than in wine or brandy, as they are resistant to the latter. Indian children were particularly fond of calendula root, chewing on a small piece which was great for colic relief, upset stomachs, even toothaches. Calamus root was an early export from the colonies and was much sought after in England and China
The Cheyenne call it calamus wi’ukh is e’evo (bitter medicine) and traded with the Sioux to obtain the plant. They tied a small piece of calamus root to their children’s necklaces, dresses or blankets to ward off night spirits and bless their dreams. Men and women in many different tribes wore long leaf plates as garlands and to adorn their hair. 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 stomachaches, other digestive problems, sore throats, and colds. To treat these same problems, they also drank a decoction of the root of the mullein. Water from the calamus was often sprinkled on sacred objects and on dwellings while praying for renewal.
Hudson Bay Cree called calamus pow-e-men-arctic meaning “fiery or bitter pepper root”. The Penobscot and Nanticoke called it musk-root, and in the early twentieth century it was discovered that calamus was perhaps the most important herb in Penobscot pharmacology. A Penobscot legend said that the Native Americans were afflicted with a plague and no one knew how to cure the people. One night, a man was visited by a muskrat in his dream. Muskrat told him it was a root and where to find it. The man woke up, found the root of musk, made medicine from it and cured the people of the plague. Parts of the dried root were cut, strung and hung for preservation in almost every house. Stan Neptune, a contemporary Penobscot artist, carver and historian, points to the importance of eating muskrat in the winter after the animals fed on the calamus root and their flesh tasted “like sweet medicine.”
Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Mohegan medicine man, noted that the Delawares and other Eastern Algonquians made a calamus tea that they used to treat coughs, colds, and menstrual cramps. Among the Delaware and other eastern Algonquians, calamus was combined with sassafras root for intestinal pains. She described the practice of Eastern Algonquin people carrying a piece of musk root as a preventative against disease, to chew in case of sudden illness, and just to ensure good health. Gladys also wrote that musk root is one of eleven botanicals that are steeped together for a spring tonic. The Mohegan of Connecticut also used small pieces of calamus root to treat rheumatism and colds. From talisman to sophisticated compounds, Calamus remains the most revered health aid.
Pawnee’s name is kahtsha itu (medicine that lies in water), and in their mysterious rites they have songs about calamus, as these plants are said to have mystical power. Long blades were ritually used for garlands and attached to important objects to bring good luck and strength. The Osage called it pexe boao’ka (flat herb), and Omaha and Ponca called it makan-ninida; the roots were chewed to treat diabetes, especially among the Dakota. The Potawatomi crushed the root into powder as a styptic.
Calamus is found all over the world, especially in northern latitudes, and has an ancient history of use. The unpeeled dried rhizome was officially classified as American Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1916 and National form from 1936 to 1950. Doctors prescribed it for indigestion, stomach ailments and gas, and as a general tonic.
White calam root extracts and bitters continue to be taken to relieve stomach cramps and indigestion. Calamus has long been valued as a flavoring and tonic, especially in aromatic bitters, and as a stimulant and carminative. Calamus remains a highly valued addition to many Native American healing formulas, rituals, and health practices, and is still used on its own in essential healing practices from tribe to tribe. Many American Indian traditional singers carry the dried root to chew to enhance their singing.
Kalam is an important ingredient in Chinese, Ayurvedic and Western herbal medicine. The rhizome or root is a valued digestive remedy and tonic for the nervous system. It stimulates the appetite, relieves flatulence and colic, and is formulated into tinctures and decoctions and powders. The aromatic properties make the leaves a valuable insect repellent.
Some Asian varieties have been labeled as dangerous because they have been linked to tumors found in some laboratory rats. Asarone, a component of the volatile oil, is considered a carcinogen. Apparently, this is not the case with the American species.
Growth and reproduction needs:
In nature, calamus can form dense, interlocking mats in shallow water. Spring or fall is a good time to dig and collect the outer tips of the roots, which are three to six inches long. Place them about two inches deep in the garden soil. Young sprouts can grow quickly and sprout many white hairy roots. These plants make a wonderful garden addition as their foliage is stunning.
Calamus grows well in the company of blue flag, cardinal, golden thread and pulpit. It will also grow quite well with other herbs that love moist soil.
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