Calamus (Acorus calamus) is also known as Sweet Flag, Sweet Rush or Sweet Cinnnamon although the roots taste like ginger.
Calamus (known as sweet flag) has a spicy fragrance to it with the leaves having lemony overtones. In medieavel times the dried stalks were laid on floors to act as a scented mat to walk on. It’s a forager’s treat, as you can eat the raw, partially grown flower stems of calamus. In Spring, the young stalks, with half-grown leaves packed inside them, are sweet and tasty raw in a salad. The roots are edible, with a sort of gingery, spicy, bitter, sweetness to them.
Candied sweet flag root has the aromatic spiciness of ginger, and like ginger, helps to settle the stomach. To make Calamus Candy slice the tender bases at the bottom of the stems into very thin slices. Parboil them, changing the water a few times if you want to reduce the fieriness of the taste. Then simmer them, just covered in syrup (2 parts of sugar to 1 part of water) until most of the syrup is absorbed. Drain them and dry them on waxed paper. When dry roll them in sugar and store them in a sealed jar.
Calamus is used by foragers as a spice, to replace cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg, but a little goes a long way. Chewing on a little piece is a great breath freshener.
The powdered root can be used as a natural insecticide. Put a little on window sills to keep ants out.
Food as medicine
Calamus earned its nickname ‘Singer’s Root’ for its ability to numb the vocal chords so that tired voices can carry on (although you should be carefully not to strain and damage your voice). If your voice is strained, or you get laryngitis, try gently chewing just 1 cm of root and leaving it between your cheek and gum throughout the day. It helps to increase the range of the voice and centre your energy. The latter because of it’s unusual properties of being both a relaxant and a stimulant.
Calamus is calming but not a sedative. It makes you feel chilled out and relaxed rather than drugged up. At the same time, it simultaneously boosts vitality and vigour – leaving you feeling very centred, clear, perceptive, focussed and alert. It is grounding while also increasing a sense of greater awareness. Native American Indians use it for stamina on long journeys in the same way that the South American Indians use coca leaves. So helpful for running marathons, studying for exams or driving through the night. This dual action also makes a nibble of root helpful if you are trying to give up smoking!
Traditional western herbal medicine uses Sweet Flag as a digestive bitter – yet another common name is bitterroot. It perks up the appetite. It is used for treating stomach cramps, heartburn, dyspepsia and flatulent colic, as it stimulates peristalsis in the gut and removes gas in people who have developed a very sluggish metabolism but can be overstimulating to many people. Taking too much is liable to make you vomit as it can overstimulate the stomach.
You can chew the root fresh or dried. You can also make an infusion by leaving the root in a jar of cold water overnight or adding hot water to half a teaspoon of powdered calamus. It is also used to settle nausea, especially in travel or motion sickness. However, as large doses can cause vomiting, always try just a little bit at a time.
Modern herbalists have used it to treat PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), people who experience flashbacks. Some have also used it as an adjunct in the treatment of anorexia, autism and epilepsy.
In Ayuvedic medicine it was used to keep the voice going when reciting the Upanishads. It is called vacha meaning literally ‘to speak” but also referring to the way it connects the heart to the voice, helping anxious people feel able to speak up about things on their mind.
More recently clinical studies suggest that it can cure and reverse diabetes – something the American Indians tribes have known for a very long time!
Amount you can eat
The dose varies from person to person. Some Native Americans’s would set the limit as – a root as long as your little finger. Bearing that it can be overstimulating start with just a nibble. A tiny bit may suit you just fine.
There are unsubstantiated reports that large pieces (my little finger is about 3 cm) are hallucinogenic. However, there is no real evidence of it being psychedelic any more than it is psychotropic. TMA (trimethoxyamphetamine) which is similar to Ecstasy can be synthesised from calamus although, in its natural state, it cannot convert into TMA in your body. But it is pleasantly psychoactive and it is probably the heightened sense of awareness felt, while feeling very calm and relaxed at the same time, that is being reported.
In herbal medicine, the maximum dose that is generally recommended is 4g of the dried root (about 3/4 of a teaspoon), 30ml of a decoction and 4ml of 1:5 tincture up to three times a day.
An essential oil is also distilled from the root and used in medicine and perfumery.
Please note that British calamus is not the same as American calamus (Acorus calamus var. americanus) which is banned by the FDA in the US. The American variant is a fertile diploid strain, the British one a sterile triploid. This can be confusing for people when trying to check sweet flag’s safety on the internet. There has been contention over whether or not β-asarone in calamus could cause cancer. This is because baby rats in a lab test were given extremely high doses of β-asarone extracted from the concentrated essential oil of Asian calamus (the tetraploid strain). More recent studies show that β-asarone actually inhibits colorectal cancer and colon cancer. Its cultural history has always associated it with life and vitality not death!
Importantly, calamus has been shown to be neuroprotective against cancer-causing acrylamides. These are found in foods that are processed at high temperatures. The worst culprits are chips, crisps, bread, biscuits, coffee (in some studies over 54% of acrylamide intake) and cigarettes (which triple blood acrylamide levels). Although we hear little about this in the news, in 2005 Heinz, Frito-Lay, Lance and were sued for endangering public lives by providing foods with high acrylamide content and they settled for $3 million out of court. McDonalds and Burger King settled in 2008, and in 2010 an action was filed against Starbucks requiring them also to warn the public about the dangers of acrylamides.
Calamus is not, as stated on some websites, a member of the Araceae family (like Jack-in-the-pulpit and Lords and Ladies). It is a member of the Acoraceae family.
Wild iris Iris versicolor (poisonous – with blue petalled flower), sweet flag (edible – with tiny yellow flowers on a spike (spadix)) and the acrid yellow water iris Iris pseudacorus (False acorus) quite often grow side by side. Once the flowers are out it is easier to identify them but make sure you separate them as otherwise you may poison yourself.
And finally – don’t be greedy. A little goes a long, long way and in this case, if your eyes are bigger than your stomach, it may be your stomach that lets you know!