Acorus calamus (Sweet Flag, Calamus, Vacha, Gladdon, Rat root, Sweet grass, Sweet rush, Sweet sedge)
Category: Medicines - plant based
Introduction and description
Acorus calamus, also called Sweet Flag or Calamus, is a tall perennial wetland monocot of the Acoraceae family, in the genus Acorus. Other common names include beewort, bitter pepper root, flag root, gladdon, myrtle flag, myrtle grass, myrtle root, myrtle sedge, pine root, rat root, sea sedge, sweet cane, sweet cinnamon, sweet grass, sweet myrtle, sweet root, sweet rush, and sweet sedge.
Common names in Asia include: "shoubu 菖蒲," in Japanese, "vacha"; "bacch" (Unani); "bajai," "gora-bach," "vasa bach" (Hindi); "vekhand" (Marathi); "vasambu"/வசம்பு (Tamil); "vadaja," "vasa" (Telugu); "baje" (Kannada); "vayambu" (Malayalam); Haimavati, "bhutanashini," "jatila" (Sanskrit) and "Bojho" Nepali.
In spite of common names that include the words "rush" and "sedge," it is neither a rush nor sedge. The scented leaves and more strongly scented rhizomes have traditionally been used medicinally and to make fragrances.
Ezekiel 27 A Lament over Tyre
17 “‘Judah and Israel traded with you; they exchanged wheat from Minnith and confections, honey, olive oil and balm for your wares.
18 “‘Damascus did business with you because of your many products and great wealth of goods. They offered wine from Helbon, wool from Zahar
19 and casks of wine from Izal in exchange for your wares: wrought iron, cassia and calamus.
At one time, Acorus calamus was to be found in all European countries except Spain. It was found in Southern Russia, northern Asia Minor, southern Siberia, China, Japan, northern United States of America, Hungary, Burma, Ceylon and India. It was indigenous to the marshes of the mountains of India.
At the time Mrs Grieve wrote her Herbal, it was to be found “wild on the margins of ponds and rivers in most of the English counties, and is in some parts abundant, especially in the Fen districts”. Sadly, this is no more true.
Acorus calamus is not one plant variety. The comprehensive taxonomic analysis in the Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families from 2002 identifies three distinct varieties of the single species, each with different chemical compositions and distributions:
- Acorus americanus or Acorus calamus var. americanus -is a diploid form (2n=24), . The diploid form is found in northern subarctic North America and scattered disjunct areas throughout the Mississippi Valley. Diploids are also found in Mongolia, central Siberia (Buryatia), Gilgit–Baltistan in Pakistan and northern Himachal Pradesh in India. It is extinct in some parts of the United States and Canada.
- Acorus calamus var. calamus (also known as var. vulgaris or var. verus) - is a triploid form (2n=36), - The triploid form is the most common and is thought to have arisen relatively recently in the Himalayan region through hybridisation of the diploid with the tetraploid. Probably indigenous to most of Asia, the triploid form has now been introduced across Europe, Australia, New Guinea, South Africa, Réunion and North America. Triploid plants are infertile and show an abortive ovary with a shrivelled appearance. This form will never form fruit (let alone seeds) and can only spread via the spread of the rhizomes.
- Acorus calamus var. angustatus - is a tetraploid form and is native throughout Asia, from India to Japan and the Philippines and from Indonesia to Siberia.
The rhizome of Acorus calamus contains Beta-Asarone – according to Dr Duke’s analysis 2,000 - 48,000 ppm . Beta-Asarone is a blood thinner, and is Carcinogenic; a Cardiodepressant; Genotoxic [Genotoxins are mutagens; they can cause mutations]; and Hepatocarcinogenic [can cause liver damage]. On the positive side the chemical is a Nervine [a medicine used to calm the nerves] and a Tranquilizer, as such one will feel relaxed as one passes away!
Diploid plants in North America apparently produce no or only trace amounts of b-asarone. According to one study, triploids produce a small amount, constituting around 0.3% of the rhizome in crude content, whereas tetraploids may be found in at least two chemotypes, one with 2.0%, and one with 4.0 to 8.0%. The rhizome also includes Methyl-Isoeugenol in again quite high amounts - 110 - 3,950 ppm which is both a Pesticide and described as ‘Toxic’. The plant as a whole contains Oxalic-Acid which, if consumed in high quantities can be both fatal and/or Renotoxic.
Asarone is an ether and contributes to the scent of sweet flag. Just as you would be unlikely to decide to swill a bottle of dimethyl ether – the stuff used in aerosol spray propellants and being considered as a renewable alternative fuel for diesel engines - you would not, if you were sensible consider consuming anything with high levels of asarone in it. But as an ether it evaporates when heated and indeed is likely to gradually leech away from dried rhizomes, thus the rhizome has to be processed to make it safe for any form of consumption. When some essential oil derived from plants in The ‘Czech accessions’ was analysed the average content of gamma-asarone was 18.65% (12.52 – 25.35%) and that of the beta-asarone was 16.11% (11.34 – 21.30%), so the processing aspect is absolutely key.
Plants from India have been found to contain quite high concentrations of asarone.
Acorus calamus rhizome is called Vacha in Ayurvedic medicine. It has been used by the Ayurvedic practitioners ‘since time immemorial’ for diseases ranging from weakness of memory to being used as an anthelminthic. Reports of its use have been found in books like the Charaka Saṃhitā, and the Suśruta-saṃhitā. The Charaka Saṃhitā or Compendium of Charaka (Sanskrit चरक संहिता) is a Sanskrit text on Ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine). Along with the Suśruta-saṃhitā, it is one of the two foundational Hindu medicinal texts that have survived from ancient India. Dates of composition of the Charaka Saṃhitā are uncertain. Meulenbeld’s History of Indian Medical Literature dates it to be between fourth century BCE to the second century CE.
BUT and - this is absolutely key- a DETOXIFICATION PROCESS is used [sodhana prakriya] for Vacha BEFORE ITS INCLUSION IN AYURVEDIC MEDICINES. Shodhanaprakriya (S. prakriya) of Vacha is found in all the old authentic Ayurvedic texts.
Given the number of plants that have similar activity to this plant, there is an argument that can be put forward that in this day and age the rhizome should simply NOT be ingested. It is toxic for a reason – the rhizome is the means by which the plant survives.
The same is true for the essential oil, it should not be ingested, simply because it could be poisonous. There are sites on the Internet that are selling both Acorus calamus and Asarone oil in gelatin capsules. Promoting the ingestion of the oil as a ‘psychoactive substance’. And there are also sites that gave it a high star rating as a 'psychedelic' in this form. I suggest that they firstly have never actually tried doing this themselves and secondly may be being extremely irresponsible [or cruel] in suggesting others do so, because this is what happens.
Puking Every 15 Minutes for 4 Hours – Calamus - McGill
I ordered 25g of this stuff from a web site after hearing about its mind altering effects. I put the root in my coffee grinder and got a fine powder. I boiled this powder with water for about 30 minutes and got a kind of tea. I drank the tea (Tasted nasty) and ate the root that was left at the bottom (I had to force it down and use a chaser) and sat around waiting for the effects to kick in.
After about 30 minutes i felt kinda wierd, sort of disconected. This lasted for about another 2 hours until I threw up. As unpleasent as it was swallowing the root, it was 100 times worse on the way up! I continued to puke every 15 minutes or so for the next 4 hours or more! In between vomiting i would drink water and assume the fetal position on the floor of the bathroom shivering with fever like symptoms. I finally passed out in the early morning.
The Sweet Sedge is a vigorous, reed-like, aquatic plant, flourishing in ditches, by the margins of lakes and streams and in marshy places generally, associated with reeds, bullrushes and bur-reed. All parts of the plant have a peculiar, agreeable fragrance. It is a perennial plant.
Leaves - Its erect, sword-shaped leaves bear considerable resemblance to those of the Yellow Flag, hence its equally common popular name of 'Sweet Flag,' though it is not related botanically to the Iris, being a member of the Arum order, Araceae. The leaves are yellowish-green, 2 to 3 feet in length, few, all radical, sheathing at their bases (which are pink), narrow and flat, tapering into a long, acute point, the edges entire, but wavy or crimped. The leaves are much like those of Iris, but may readily be distinguished from these and from all others by the peculiar crimped edges and their aromatic odour when bruised.
Rhizome – the plant has a long, indefinite, branched, cylindrical rhizome immersed in the mud, usually smaller than that of the Iris, about the thickness of a finger and emitting numerous roots. The fresh root-stock is brownish-red, or greenish-white and reddish within and of a spongy texture, ‘tolerably uniform in transverse section’. It has an aromatic sweet odour and a bitterish, pungent taste. The dried rhizome appears in commerce in tortuous, dried sub-cylindrical or flattened pieces, a few inches long and from 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter; externally, yellowish-brown, with blackish patches; sharply longitudinally wrinkled, the upper surface obliquely marked with broad, dark, often fibrous leaf-scales, which are often broadly V-shaped and have sharply projecting margins
Flower stem - The scape or flower-stem arises from the axils of the outer leaves, which it much resembles, but is longer and solid and triangular. From one side, near the middle of its length, projecting upwards at an angle, from the stem, it sends out a solid, cylindrical, blunt spike or spadix, tapering at each end, from 2 to 4 inches in length, often somewhat curved and densely crowded with very small greenish-yellow flowers.
Each tiny flower contains six stamens enclosed in a perianth with six divisions and surrounding a three celled, oblong ovary with a sessile stigma. The flowers are sweet-scented and so formed that cross-pollination is ensured. In most localities the flowers are not very abundantly produced: it never flowers unless actually growing in water.
The fruit - does not ripen in Europe, and is a berry, being full of mucus, which falls when ripe into the water or to the ground, and is thus dispersed, but it fruits sparingly everywhere and propagates itself mainly by the rapid growth of its spreading rhizome.
Acorus calamus is easily distinguished by its peculiar spadix, which appears in June and July, and by the fragrance of its roots, stems and leaves.
Within a matter of a minute or so I was overcome with severe nausea and vomiting that lasted for eight straight unforgettable agonizing hours. I have never experienced such prolonged extreme nausea and vomiting in my life. I also had severe diarrhea that sent me to the bathroom every 15 minutes or so.
The waves of nausea and diarrhea were unrelenting and extreme. They lasted until I was exhausted from heaving.
I vomited a reddish liquid for hours. The taste of the Acorus essential oil was extremely unpleasant. (I can still remember that nauseous flavor with precision!)
After about eight hours the vomiting abated, but I felt extremely nauseated for another whole day. I was on the verge of throwing up all the next day. I was unable to sleep.
The impact of this ordeal left me totally dehydrated and unable to ingest sufficient food and drink for over a week. My health deteriorated to the point where I had to be hospitalized for five days to restore my fluid balances
The plants can be propagated very readily by the division of the clumps or of the rhizomes in early spring, or at the commencement of autumn, portions of the rhizome being planted in damp, muddy spots, in marshes or on the margins of water, set 1 foot apart and well covered. It will succeed very well in a garden if the ground is moist, but a rich, moist soil is essential, or it has to be frequently watered.
Whenever we hear the mention of a plant with medicinal value, we tend to think that it is ingested. But it would seem that Acorus calamus’s uses are indeed medicinal in a preventive sense, but one does not eat it. The plant is mentioned by many of the great classical writers on medicine, from Hippocrates (460-377 BC) and Theophrastus (371-287 BC) onwards.
Acorus calamus is but one plant being introduced to treat sewerage in a more eco friendly way. It is also being planted in ditches where sewerage may overflow in flood conditions [important given the climate change effects]. As we saw, one of the chemicals mentioned in the analysis by Dr Duke is Beta-Asarone and it occurs in quite high quantities in the Rhizome 2,000 - 48,000 ppm. One of the functions of Beta Asarone is that it is an Algicide - a substance which is poisonous to algae. Thus we can postulate that the extent to which it was grown and its name in part at least [as clearly it also had a pleasant smell] was to keep drinking water ‘sweet’. The rhizome of the plant contains other protective chemicals
- Camphor and Menthol – which are both ‘Vibriocides’ – gives protection against Vibrio cholera
- Elemicin – which is a Schistosomicide - Schistosomiasis, also known as snail fever and bilharzia, is a disease caused by parasitic flatworms called schistosomes
- Eugenol, P-Cymene and Menthone - are Trichomonicides - kill trichomonads - a parasitic protozoan which infests the urogenital tract or digestive system
Indeed, the generic Latin name acorus is derived from the Greek άχόρου (áchórou) which itself is thought to have been derived from the word κόρη (kóri), which means pupil (of an eye), as such its name is based on the fact it prevents 'darkening of the pupil' – one of the symptoms of bilharzia - blindness.
As the plant grows in water, whatever is in the water will get sucked up into the plant, so you could end up with quite a lot of unusual ‘foreign’ compounds in any plant which is not growing in a pure clean water supply. Just as you can get toxic effects from oysters grown in polluted waters, you can get toxic effects from calamus grown in polluted water. But, if we view this from another angle, Acorus calamus is also as a consequence an effective chelating agent, able to clean up polluted rivers and lakes and make them ‘sweet’ again. It is known from Dr Duke’s analysis for example that it can sequester a considerable number of metals and minerals - Copper, Iron, Sodium, Magnesium, Potassium, Manganese, Zinc and Arsenic. But it has also shown very promising ability to remove toxins such as pesticides.
[Right Above: Thomas Frederick Goodall, The Bow Net, 1885–6]
Acorus calamus was mentioned in the Chester Beatty papyrus VI dating to approximately 1300 BC. The ancient Egyptians rarely mentioned the plant in medicinal contexts – although the afore-mentioned papyrus mentioned using it in conjunction with several ingredients as a bandage used to sooth an ailment of the stomach - but it was instead used to make perfumes. In Exodus when God ordered Moses to make Annointing Oil, one of its constituents was Calamus. And indeed the rhizome contains a considerable number of chemicals that are perfumed including
1,8-Cineole 100 ppm;
Alpha-Humulene found in the entire plant
Alpha-Pinene 280 ppm;
Alpha-Terpinene found in the entire plant:
Alpha-Terpineol Rhizome 1,500 ppm;
Beta-Pinene 150 ppm;
Borneol found in the Plant:
Eugenol 84 ppm;
Limonene 10 - 1,400 ppm
Methyl-Eugenol 1,025 ppm;
Methyl-Isoeugenol 110 - 3,950 ppm
Alice through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll
………… there was no more conversation for a minute or two, while the boat glided gently on, sometimes among beds of weeds (which made the oars stick fast in the water, worse then ever), and sometimes under trees, but always with the same tall river-banks frowning over their heads.
'Oh, please! There are some scented rushes!' Alice cried in a sudden transport of delight. 'There really are--and SUCH beauties!'
'You needn't say "please" to ME about 'em,' the Sheep said, without looking up from her knitting: 'I didn't put 'em there, and I'm not going to take 'em away.'
'No, but I meant--please, may we wait and pick some?' Alice pleaded. 'If you don't mind stopping the boat for a minute.'
'How am I to stop it?' said the Sheep. 'If you leave off rowing, it'll stop of itself.'
So the boat was left to drift down the stream as it would, till it glided gently in among the waving rushes. ………….What mattered it to her just then that the rushes had begun to fade, and to lose all their scent and beauty, from the very moment that she picked them? Even real scented rushes, you know, last only a very little while--and these, being dream-rushes, melted away almost like snow, as they lay in heaps at her feet--but Alice hardly noticed this, there were so many other curious things to think about.
Insecticide and insect repellant
If you examine the chemical constituents of the plant using Dr Duke’s analysis, you will see that a number of them repel insects, one insect of which is fleas. In Britain the plant was cut for use as a sweet smelling floor covering for the packed earth floors of dwellings and churches. It was also used as a thatching material for English cottages for the same reason – to keep the bugs away!
[Right The Gladdon-Cutters Return by Peter Henry Emerson]
Acorus calamus constituents also act as an important fungicide against fungi that attack crops and also kill certain pests, such as crop weevils. At one time Acorus calamus was grown interspersed with for example rice crops, or in the ditches next to grain fields for this reason. It was a natural pesticide, fungicide and insecticide that did not need to be sprayed on crops, but would help to deter the predators of the crops grown.
There are a number of researchers encouraging farmers to reintroduce this plant for this reason, it is a low cost solution to pest control requiring little effort. Chemicals here that contribute to this activity include, according to Dr Duke’s analysis:
- Acoric-Acid - Fungicide And Pesticide
- Alpha-Terpineol - Mosquitofuge > Deet and Termiticide
- Beta-Asarone Insecticide; Insectiphile; Larvicide
- Beta-Pinene - Insectifuge
- Borneol Plant: - Fungicide; Insect-Repellent; Insectifuge
- Butyric-Acid Plant:
- Camphor - Fungicide; Insect-Repellent; Insectifuge
- Dimethyl-Amine Plant: - which is a Coleoptophile - a weevil killer
- Elemicin - Fungicide; Insecticide; Insectifuge; Larvicide
- Eugenol - Acaricide LD50=5.47 ug/sq cm cf DEET at 37.59 ug/sq cm; Fungicide; Insecticide; Insectifuge; Larvicide
- Furfural - Fungicide; Insecticide
- Gamma-Terpinene - Acaricide; Insectifuge
- Limonene - Acaricide; Fungistat [inhibiting the growth of fungi]; Insecticide; Insectifuge
- Menthone - Acaricide; Culicide [an insecticide that destroys mosquitoes], Fungicide; Insecticide; Larvicide
- Methyl-Chavicol Insecticide
- Methyl-Eugenol - Fungicide; Fungistat; Insectifuge;
- Methyl-Isoeugenol - Pesticide; Toxic
- Myrcene - Fungicide; Insectifuge
- Ocimene - Insecticide
- P-Cymene - Fungicide; Insectifuge
- Phenol - Fungicide; Rodenticide
- Terpinen-4-Ol - Fungicide; Insectifuge
- Terpinolene - Fungicide; Pesticide
Anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral action
Traditional indigenous cultures did not eat or drink Acorus calamus, they used it as an aromatic additive to snuff powders and snuffing tobacco. A strong decoction was also used as a bath additive in traditional medicine. The heat serves to remove the more toxic compounds whilst preserving the more medicinal chemicals which are inhaled, helping with lung disease caused by pathogens.
The Cheyenne used Calamus roots as incense in their sweat lodge ceremonies. They also add pieces of calamus leaves to smoking mixtures or mix it with tobacco.
Several evangelical churches in Lutheran parishes burned calamus in the 1950s as an incense during Easter. Calamus root is often found in Tibetan incense mixtures. The Blackfeet would burn a mixture of ground root and tobacco and inhale the smoke. It was used in the sacred incenses of the Sumerians. According to Dioscorides the smoke of Acorus Calamus, if taken through a funnel, relieves a cough.
Making alcoholic drinks
At one time, Acorus calamus was used by ‘rectifiers’ to produce Rectified spirit, also known as neutral spirits, or rectified alcohol. It is highly concentrated ethanol that has been purified by means of repeated distillation in a process called rectification.
[Left: Peter Henry Emerson - Life on the Norfolk Broads, “Ricking the Reed”]
Neutral spirits can be produced from grains, corn, grapes, sugar beets, sugarcane, tubers, or other fermented plant materials. The Neutral spirits can then be used in the production of blended whisky, cut brandy, some liqueurs, and some bitters. It can also used to make homemade liqueurs, such as limoncello or cassis. Rectified spirits are also used for medicinal tinctures.
Calamus root was a popular botanical in 19th century aromatic bitters such as Stockton bitters as well as American wine bitters. It is a key element in Campari and some gin recipes, calamus also features in the formulas for a few ales and vermouths.
Calamus is used in the manufacture of liqueurs such as Altvater, Benedictine, some gins eg Monkey 41, vermouth and both yellow and green chartreuse. Raspail is a French liqueur containing angelica, calamus and myrrh.
Note that A. calamus and products derived from A. calamus (such as its oil) were banned from use as human food or as a food additive in 1968 by the United States Food and Drug Administration.
References and further reading
- Antibacterial properties of volatile principles from Alpinia galanga and Acorus calamus. - CHOPRA IC, KHAJURIA BN, CHOPRA CL. Antibiot Chemother (Northfield). 1957 Jul;7(7):378-83. PMID: 24544484
- [Indian drugs with antibacterial action: Alpina galanga & Acorus calamus]. ROCCHIETTA S. Minerva Farm. 1957 Jul;6(7):177. Italian. PMID: 13493119
- The mechanism of the tranquillizing action of asarone from Acorus calamus Linn. Menon MK, Dandiya PC. J Pharm Pharmacol. 1967 Mar;19(3):170-5. PMID: 4382337
- Studies on Acorus calamus. VI. Pharmacological actions of asarone and beta-asarone on cardiovascular system and smooth muscles. SHARMA JD, DANDIYA PC. Indian J Med Res. 1962 Jan;50:61-5. PMID: 13911365
- Anticonvulsant, antiveratrinic and antiarrhythmic actions of Acorus calamus Linn.--an Indian indigenous drug. MADAN BR, ARORA RB, KAPILA K. Arch Int Pharmacodyn Ther. 1960 Feb 1;124:201-11. PMID: 14419654
- Yao Xue Xue Bao. 2004 Oct;39(10):836-8. [Pharmacokinetics of beta-asarone in rats]. [Article in Chinese] Wu HB1, Fang YQ.
- Ying Yong Sheng Tai Xue Bao. 2016 Jul;27(7):2084-2090. doi: 10.13287/j.1001-9332.201607.037. [Water purification of four aquatic plant species with the presence of iron-carbon interior electrolytic substrates.] [Article in Chinese; Abstract available in Chinese from the publisher] Zong XX1, Min MY1, Sun GF1, Li N1, An SQ1, Leng X1.
- Hospital (Lond 1886). 1914 Nov 21;57(1483):181-182. Duty-Free Rectified Spirit in Hospitals: Objections Answered and New Points Urged. PMID: 29823661 PMCID: PMC5228965
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