COMMON NAMES: Calamus or Sweet Flag, Acorus Calamus is popularly known as the “Plant of Venus” in Italy.
Calamus is a perennial plant, its grass-like stems growing up to 5-feet tall. The rhizome, or rootstock, spreads by creeping. The plants’ leaves, from light to lush green in color, are gladiate, jutting skyward like swords. In its native India, the plant flowers from April to June; in central Europe, from June to July. Its blooms are yellow-green and tiny, inconspicuously attached to a spadix up to 4-inches long.
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 the creeks and slow-moving bodies of water, as well as in the lakes throughout the region. It has since spread all over the world as the result of cultivation.
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 its soil rich, but will also grow in poor soil, albeit poorly. It is propagated vegetatively by planting divided pieces of the rhizomes with the shoots (approximately two-inch sections). In North America, it 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.
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, would consume some while stashing away parts of the roots for future use. These stored rhizome pieces then, under the right conditions, produce new roots to further the reach of Calamus, sinke tawote – food of the muskrat.
TRADITIONAL USES: Remnants of the plant were said to be found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Throughout the Middle Ages, 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 is still used for amorous purposes in modern-day Egypt.
Calamus was originally noted to have hallucinogenic properties through ethnobotanical research dating back to only the 1960's. However, sweet flag, also known as muskrat root or “sinke tawote” (which, in Lakota, means “food of the muskrat”), has been held in high esteem by North American Indians for at least hundreds of years. An important ethnobotanical, calamus served as a powerful shamanic libation, a panacea, health tonic and detoxifier, and as talisman against evil – saturated with spiritual magic and universal connectivity.
And this detail is a critical fact when making any purchase of Acorus Calamus! There are several varieties 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, so as what seems to becoming a mantra here on Entheoology.org, we trust only a few to buy this root from. Shaman's Garden offers an entire category with plentiful information on Calamus Root, so we recommend doing your research as well as to purchase whole root; it's the most effective form according to them.
Many cultures throughout the world believe that sweet flag roots contain potent powers that ward off evil. Countless North American Indians hung calamus root in their homes and sewed it into their children’s clothing; the belief was that nightmares would stay away and evil would pass by their 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,” a sacred dance wherein the dancers symbolically die and are resurrected during a day-long ceremony.
In ancient China, calamus was evidently used in shamanism, and is one of the culture’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. Reportedly, 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 exists.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The Cheyenne use calamus roots as incense in their sweat lodge ceremonies. They toss pieces of root directly on the blazing stones of the sweat lodge and the resulting smoke is said to be cleansing and detoxifying. Calamus root as well as calamus leaves are often added to herbal smoking blends or mixed with tobacco.
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 practice, literally meaning “speak” – its name describes the power, the intelligence, and/or the self-expression thought to 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. It is often found in Tibetan incense mixtures that are burned to strengthen the nerves.
Known to sooth the nerves and increase meditative concentration, calamus also has been used as a rejuvenation tonic. Decoctions of the root are commonly used as a homeopathic remedy 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 the infection (especially for throat colds) but it also has a stimulant effect, helping one to overcome the fatigued feeling that accompanies a cold.
Native Americans still use it 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 (medicinal as well as ritual). The oil of calamus, as well as its roots (known as rhizome), are both psychoactive.
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: As a stimulant, calamus is used similarly to the way Coca leaves were used by the South American Indians. It increases energy and stamina and quells hunger. As a sedative, it acts as an anti-anxiety medicine, perhaps best described as “calming and centering” - that's why it can be 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 its over, reports of feeling “strung out” have been reported.
Following the panic attack profile of feelings of dizziness, nervous stomach, heart palpitations, 'leaving the body' psychologically and visual indicators of tunnel vision, acute anxiety, disassociated - these are all good indications that calamus would be helpful to a person suffering from these symptoms. One would chew on calamus root and breathe deeply, fully and slowly and the anxiety and panic will begin to subside.