Acorus calamus

Sacred Plant of the Native Cree.

Family: Araceae (Arum Family)

Common names: Calamus root, sweet flag, rat root, sweet sedge, flag root, sweet calomel, sweet myrtle, sweet cane, sweet rush, beewort, muskrat root, pine root, racha (India), shih-ch'ang pu (China), makan-ninida (Omaha and Ponca), mankan-kereh (Winnebago), kahtsha itu (Pawnee), sinkpe-ta-wote (Dakota), sanka ce (Lakota), pexe boao'ka (Osage), wi'ukh is e' evo (Cheyenne), moskwas'wask (Algonquian), muskwe s uwesk (Penobscot), weekas (Cree).

Other scientific names: None known.

Related species: Acorus gramineus, Acorus americanus

Botanical description: Sweet flag is a grass-like, rhizome forming, iris-like perennial that can grow to 2 meters high. It inhabits perpetually wet areas like the edges of streams and around ponds and lakes, in ditches and seeps. It often shares habitat with the common cat-tail.

Plants have long creeping roots that spread just below the surface of the soil. Roots spread horizontally and can be up to almost 2 meters long, for old, well established specimens.

The thick, erect leaves are very similar in appearance to those of an iris, but with edges that are crimped.

Plants very rarely flower or set fruit, but when they do, the flowers are 3-8 cm long, cylindrical in shape, greenish brown and covered in a multitude of rounded spikes. The fruits are small and berry-like, containing few seeds. Flowers from early to late summer.

Calamus is associated with the muskrat in many native cultures as the rodent consumes copious quantities of the root.

Native to: Most Northern Latitude countries around the World. May have been widely dispersed around the United States by Native Americans who planted it along their migratory paths to be harvested as needed. Calamus can often be found growing close to the sites of Indian villages, camping areas or trails.

Cultivation parameters: Calamus is a hardy, easy to grow addition to most peoples medicinal/visionary gardens. New plants are almost always started from root divisions. Use at least a 5-6 cm piece of root, preferably firm, clean and aromatic, and free from any damage or infection. Plants can be divided in the Fall for Spring transplanting.

Will grow most anywhere as long as adequate amounts of water are present, and ample sunshine.

Active constituents: Monoterpene hydrocarbons, sequestrine ketones, (trans- or Alpha) Asarone (2,4,5-trimethoxy-1-propenylbenzene), and Beta-asarone (cis- isomer) contained in the roots essential oils.

The Asarones are MDA type compounds that are the naturally occurring precursors of TMA-2. The psychoactive constituents break down over time lessening potency until at a year after harvest, the roots are considered worthless.

The American variety has consistently tested free of the carcinogenic Beta-asarone. The Asian varieties do contain varying amounts of Beta-asarone, and cause a more sedate feeling when ingested.

European varieties of sweet flag have yielded various sesquiterpenoids with as of yet unknown psychoactive properties.

Effects of ingestion: In smaller, 5 cm long quantities, it is considered stimulating (but unlike amphetamines) and euphoric. 25 cm long pieces of root caused alterations of reality, hallucinations and an experience similar to LSD. The measured pieces were about the thickness of a pencil.

The Cree say that they can take Calamus root and "travel great distances without touching the ground".

A-asarone produces stimulating effects.

B-asarone produces sedative effects similar to reserpine and chlorpromazine.

The ethanolic extraction yields an effect somewhat different from that which one attains by consuming the entire root, or by consuming pure A-asarone. This suggests that other psychoactive substances are also present.

Methods of ingestion: Chewing and swallowing either fresh, dried, or ground and pulverized in capsules. Also can be extracted with ethanol and taken as a tincture. Was also mixed with tobacco and other herbs and used as a smoke treatment.

Traditional uses: The Cree Indians of Northern Alberta use Calamus for a number of medicinal reasons including: as an analgesic for the relief of toothache or headache, for oral hygiene to cleanse and disinfect the teeth, the fight the effects of exhaustion or fatigue, and to help cure/prevent a hangover.

Other Native tribes used it to treat a cough, made a decoction as a carminative and as an infusion for cholic.

The Dakotas use calamus to treat diabetes, and there are reported cases where of the root curing people who had been given up by Western medicine. When calamus was chewed regularly by the Indians, they would be miraculously cured in a matter of months.

The Sioux used the whole plant, making aromatic garlands from the leaves and using the root as a tea for bowel pains, or rubbed the chewed root on the skin for an illness cure.

Sweet flag has been used in Asia for at least the last 2 millennia for a number of beneficial reasons. The ancient Chinese used it to lessen swelling and for constipation. In India, Ayurvedic practice has used the magical root to cure fevers, for asthma and bronchitis, and as an all around sedative. The root was also used by the ancient Greeks and included in the traditional remedies of many other European cultures.

Calamus was an admixture in several of the ancient, psychoactive, "witches flying ointments".

The root was also well-known in Biblical times and mentioned in Exodus 30: 22-25 as one of the ingredients of the "holy annointing oil".

Calamus was also known to many early American settlers and used for a number of folk remedies. Walt Whitman even wrote poetry about his beloved herb in "Leaves of grass".

Calamus was also widely used by Canadian Trappers working for the Hudson Bay Company, chewing a small piece when tired.

The unpeeled, dried rhizome was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia until 1916 and in the National Formulary until 1950, for medicinal use on humans.

Health hazards: Calamus is considered unsafe for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration due to the fact that massive doses given to lab rats over extended time periods has proved to be carcinogenic.

FDA studies have shown that only calamus native to India contains the carcinogen Beta-asarone. The North American variety contains only Asarone.

Legal status: At this time Calamus or its naturally occurring constituents are not scheduled by the DEA.

Calamus has been banned by the FDA as a food additive and within the last few years many herbal shops have stopped recommending or dispensing it.

Orders for very large quantities of Calamus root or extract might arouse suspicion as Asarone is fairly easily converted by amination to TMA-2, which is scheduled.


Stafford, Peter, Psychedelics Encyclopedia, 1992, Ronin Publishing, Berkeley California. ISBN 0-914171-51-8

Kindscher, Kelly, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, 1992, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-0527-4

Ott, Jonathon, Pharmacotheon, 1993, Natural Products co., Kennewick, Washington. ISBN 0-9614234-3-9

Version 1.6, ( 01-07-97 )

Copyright © 1997, Klaus Trenary