The aromatic underground stem or rhizome of the perennial herb known from Biblical times, Acorus calamus L. is also referred to as ‘calamus', or as the ‘sweet flag'. Children suffering from colic or adults who suffer from various kinds of indigestion have been known to take calamus for quick relief of their symptoms. The calamus, which closely resembles the iris in appearance, belongs to the family Araceae, and it grows abundantly under moist conditions, such as near a pond or a stream or swamp. This perennial herb is found in Europe, North America, and also in Asia.
At one time, the rhizome was used extensively in either powdered form on in chewable bits by people who wished to break their smoking habit, because the herb helped destroy the craving for tobacco that these people felt. American Indians also used calamus for the treatment of a wide variety of ailments like stomach-ache, toothache and fever, and also for menstrual problems of several kinds. The rhizome was so very popular with the indigenous Indians that it was used as a medium of exchange and most Indians treasured it as a valuable commodity of various uses. However, in the year 1968 the US Food and Drugs Administration found that an Asian variety of calamus was capable of producing cancerous tumors in rats on which the herb was tested. This meant that the drug was banned and declared ‘unsafe' for use.
The aromatic rhizome is often used as a real alternative spice in cooking, and the flavor that it lends to the food in which it is used is legendary. In fact, most modern experts on cooking recommend using this herb for treating digestive disorders, and also for relief from certain fevers and dyspepsia. Calamus infusions were regularly used as one of the primary flavoring agents in commercial products such as tooth powders, tonics, beer, and also in bitters. The medicated oil that can be made with calamus is stated to be quite volatile, and its taste and flavor and odor unique to the herb. The oil generally occurs in the range of amounts ranging from 1.5% to more than 3.5%. There can be no doubt that calamus has great therapeutic and medicinal value, but the fact is that several years ago, one of the main ingredients of the oil of calamus beta-asarone (cis-isoasarone) was used on rats, and researchers found that calamus gave rise to malignant tumors in the duodenal regions of the rats. This meant that the use of calamus in food or as a flavoring agent was prohibited thereafter, at least within the U.S.
Today, the spotlight is back on Acorus calamus, and experts have now revealed the truth that there are in actuality four varieties of the plant, each growing in different regions of the world. Drug Type I was found growing in North America and its oil was found to be isoasarone free, while the oil of Drug Type II, found growing in Eastern Europe, from where it is taken to Western Europe to be processed contained less than 10% isoasarone. Drug Types III and IV were of the variety that contained more than 96% cis-isoasarone in its volatile oils.
Several pharmacological tests have been conducted on the four varieties of the calamus, and it was found that the isoasarone-free oil of medication type I was found to be extremely effective in the treatment of spasmodic activity, as a spasmolytic or in other words, an antispasmodic. This was definitely more than the activity shown by Drug Type IV or Type II, whose oils were found to be isoasarone-rich or isoasarone-poor respectively. What this in effect meant was that the calamus found growing predominantly in North America (Type I) was found to be the most effective for treating dyspepsia or other similar symptoms where anti-spasmodic treatment was necessary to provide relief to the patient, although it is a fact that the exact ingredients in the oil that provide this relief is yet to be established by researchers. However, the fact that Type I does not contain the harmful carcinogenic isoasarone, which the other three types are found to be carrying makes it suitable for medicinal purposes, while the others cannot be used for similar purposes.
Calamus has been used as an aphrodisiac in ancient Egypt and in India, for more than 2,500 years today. 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 tooth ache. 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.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
Calamus is reported to have originated from India, and it now grows in several parts of the world, in marshy and swampy areas where the soil is wet and damp. Calamus grows in abundance near ditches, near lakes, ponds and marshes. Calamus is propagated by dividing the clumps of the rhizome and re-planting them in shallow waters. The best time to carry this out is spring or early autumn. Harvesting can then be done as needed.
Much attention has been focused on the ingredient asarone in the volatile oil, which has been proved to be carrying carcinogenic properties when isolated. However, the variety that is found growing in the United States of America, known as A. calamus var. americanus does not contain this ingredient, and can therefore be used in various preparations, and in India, the herb has been supposedly used for thousands of years today, and there have been no reports of cancer arising from the usage of the herb to date. This can be taken to mean that although the plant may be safe to use, more research is absolutely necessary before it can be promoted popularly.
As an infusion, calamus can be prepared this way: pour a cup of boiling water onto 2 teaspoonfuls of the dried calamus and leave this herbal tea to infuse for about 10 -15 minutes, then drink half a cup an hour before food.
Collection and harvesting
The rhizome of the calamus must be harvested during the months of September and October. A sharp hook can be used to extract the calamus from the muddy soil where it grows, and then the rhizome can be freed from its roots and leaves. After calamus is thoroughly cleaned, the rhizome must be split in half along its length and then dried thoroughly in the shade, before it can be used.
Calamus is effective when used in combination with other herbs. For example, for the treatment of flatulent colic, calamus can combine with ginger and wild yam. In the treatment of gastric conditions calamus can be effectively combined with meadowsweet and marshmallow.