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Calamus Root Used For Indigestion, Bronchitis, Endurance, Colic, Gas and More
Latin name: Acorus calamus
Botanical family: Araceae (arum family)
Chorus is Latin for “aromatic plant”, and calm down means “cane”. Flag comes from the middle English word flag, which means “cane”. Indeed, these highly aromatic canes were highly sought after for weaving seats, ropes, mats and baskets. This is also the famous “calamus root,” used for pain relief in classic Deep South folktales, Uncle Remus.
Sweet flag, muskrat root, 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 in the world that live mainly in humid regions. Its close relatives are jack-in-the-pulpit, dragon green, arrow arum, golden club, and skunk cabbage in the Northeast. When the calamus is not in flower, it resembles the blue flag, and like the latter it has been a highly prized root medicine among the Indians of the eastern forest and other tribes throughout its wide range for a beautiful piece
The arum family, Araceae, includes more than 115 genera, and many of its species are cultivated ornamentally from the tropics. The native perennial Calamus is found in wetlands, often in water along streams and rivers in southern Canada from James Bay to Nova Scotia, south to North Carolina, and west to Texas and the Oregon coast. Its long, sword-like leaves are bright pale green, with a stiff midrib along the entire length. The plants can grow up to five meters in height.
Mature stems may produce a midway club-shaped spadix (a fleshy cylindrical flowering structure) between May and August bearing small clusters of yellow-green flowers. These ripen into small gelatinous berries that quickly dry up and disappear. All parts of the plant are fragrant when brushed or bruised, especially the highly aromatic underground roots so prized in Native American medicines.
The long, creeping roots, with many tiny roots along their lower half, are usually dug out of wet sand or mud, where these plants grow in dense colonies. The old colonies of Calamus can take an entire eco-niche in low and wet pastures or marsh areas, removing almost all other plants. Transplanted in the garden, it becomes a delicious, slow-growing ornament.
Some observers speculate that native peoples brought these valuable roots with them, establishing new stands of Calamus near their settlements as they moved and traded. The plant was so valuable to the American Indians, possessing countless medicinal and spiritual qualities, that it was a primary commercial commodity.
The roots are hot, aromatic, pungent and bitter, and much better infused in water than in wine or spirit, as they resist the latter. Indian children especially loved the calamus root, and chewed a small piece, which was excellent for relieving colic, upset stomach, even teeth. Calamus root was an early export from the colonies, being much sought after in England and China
The Cheyenne called calamus wi’ukh is e’evo (bitter medicine), and they traded with the Sioux to obtain the plant. They tie a small piece of calamus root on their children’s collars, clothes or blankets to ward off night spirits and bless their dreams. Men and women in many different tribes wore the long leaves as garlands and to adorn their hair. The tribes of the Great Lakes used calamus extensively. Small pieces of the root have been chewed and kept in the mouth to numb toothaches and other mouth problems, and to treat stomach aches, other digestive problems, sore throats, and colds Infusions of calamus root are also erase to deal with these same problems. Calamus water was often sprinkled on sacred items and throughout the dwelling while prayers for renewal were offered.
Hudson’s Bay Cree called calamus pow-e-men-artic which means “fire or root of bitter pepper”. The Penobscot and Nanticoke called it muskrat root, and in the early 20th century it was noted that calamus was perhaps the most important herb in Penobscot pharmacology. A Penobscot legend said that a plague of disease was sweeping the Indians and no one knew how to cure the people. Then one night a man was visited by a muskrat in a dream. The muskrat told him that it was a root and where to find it. The man woke up, looked for the muskrat root, made a medicine out of it, and cured the people of the plague. Sections of the dried root were cut, strung, and hung for preservation in almost every house. Stan Neptune, a contemporary Penobscot artist, woodcarver, and historian, recalls the importance of eating muskrat in the winter, after the animals fed on the Calamus root and its meat tasted “like It’s a sweet medicine.”
Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Mohegan medicine woman, noted that the Delaware and other Eastern Algonquians made a Calamus tea that was used to treat coughs, colds, and suppression of menstruation. Calamus was combined with sassafras root for intestinal pains among the Delaware and other eastern Algonquians. She describes the practice of the Eastern Algonquian who carry a piece of muskrat root as a disease prevention, to chew in case of sudden illness, and just to ensure good health. Gladys also listed muskrat root as one of eleven botanicals she put together for a spring tonic. The Connecticut Mohegan also used small pieces of calamus root to treat rheumatism and colds. From talisman to sophisticated compounds, Calamus continues to be a most valued health aid.
The Pawnee name is kahtsha itu (medicine lying in the water), and they have songs about the calamus in their mystery ceremonies, as these plants were considered to have mystical powers. The long blades were used ceremonially for garlands and attached to important objects to bring good luck and power. The Osage called this pexe boao’ka (flat grass), and the Omaha and Ponca call it that makan-ninida; the roots were chewed to treat diabetes, especially among the Dakotas. Potawatomi powdered the root as a styptic.
Calamus is found all over the world, especially in northern latitudes, and has an ancient history of uses. The peeled and dried rhizome has been officially listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1916 and in the National Form from 1936 to 1950. Doctors prescribed it for indigestion, stomach ailments and gas, and as a general tonic.
Extracts and bitters made from calamus root continue to be taken to relieve stomach cramps and indigestion. Calamus has long been appreciated as a flavoring and tonic agent, especially in aromatic bitters, and as a stimulant and carminative. Calamus continues to be a very valuable addition to many American Indian healing formulas, ceremonies and health care practices, and is still used, only, in essential ways of healing from tribe to tribe. Many traditional American Indian singers take the dried root to chew to improve their singing.
Calamus is an important component in Chinese, Ayurvedic and Western herbalism. The rhizome, or root, is a popular remedy for digestion and a tonic for the nervous system. It stimulates appetite, relieves gas and colic, and is formulated into tinctures and decoctions as well as powders. The aromatic qualities make the leaves a valuable insect repellent.
Some Asian varieties have been labeled as unsafe because they have been associated with tumors found in some laboratory rats. The carcinogenic agent is considered asarone, a constituent in the volatile oil. Apparently this is not present in the American species.
Growth and propagation needs:
In nature, Calamus can form dense and woven mats in little water. Spring or autumn is a good time to dig and gather the tips of the external roots, from three to six centimeters long. Place them about two inches deep in garden soil. Young sprouts can grow quickly, sending out many white hairy roots. These plants are beautiful garden additions, since their foliage is impressive.
Calamus grows well in the company of blue flag, cardinal flower, golden thread and jack-in-the-pulpit. It will also grow quite well with other moist soil loving herbs.
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