Calamus root used for indigestion, bronchitis, stamina, colic, gas and more


Latin name: acorus calamus

Botanical Family: Araceae (arum family)

acorus is Latin for “aromatic plant”, and Quill means “cane”. Flag comes from the Middle English word flag, which means “cane”. In fact, these highly aromatic reeds were highly sought after for weaving chair seats, ropes, mats, and baskets. This is also the famous “calamus root”, used to relieve pain in the classic Deep South folk tale, 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 worldwide that live mainly in humid regions. Its close relatives are jack-in-the-pulpit, green dragon, 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, has long been a prized root medicine among the Eastern Woodland Indians and other tribes throughout its wide range.

The arum family, Araceae, includes more than 115 genera, and many of its species are ornamental plants grown in the tropics. The native perennial Calamus is found in wetlands, often standing in water along streams and riverbanks in southern Canada from James Bay to Nova Scotia, south to North Carolina, and west to Texas and the Oregon coast. Its long, sword-shaped leaves are glossy pale green, with a stiff midrib running the entire length. The plants can grow up to five feet tall.

Mature stems may produce an outwardly protruding club-shaped spadix (a fleshy cylindrical flower structure) midway between May and August that produces small clusters of yellowish-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 root stems so prized in Native American medicines.

Long, creeping rootstocks, with many tiny rootlets along their lower half, are usually dug out of moist sand or mud, where these plants grow in dense colonies. Former colonies of Calamus can take over an entire ecological niche in low, moist grasslands or swampy areas, displacing almost all other plants. Transplanted into the garden, it becomes a beautiful slow-growing ornamental plant.

Traditional uses:

Some observers speculate that native peoples took these valuable roots with them, establishing new stands of Calamus near their settlements as they moved and traded. The plant was so valuable to American Indians, possessing innumerable medicinal and spiritual qualities, that it was a primary commercial commodity.

The roots are warm, aromatic, pungent and bitter, and much better infused in water than in wine or spirits, as they resist the latter. Indian children were particularly fond of calamus root and would chew a small piece, which was excellent for relieving colic, upset stomachs, and even toothaches. The calamus root was one of the first exports of the colonies, being much sought after in England and China.

The Cheyenne Called Calamus wi’ukh is e’evo (bitter medicine), and traded with the Sioux for the plant. They tied a small piece of calamus root on their children’s necklaces, dresses or blankets to ward off the spirits of the night and bless their dreams. Men and women of many different tribes wore the long leaves as garlands and to adorn their hair. The Great Lakes tribes used the calamus extensively. Small pieces of the root were chewed and kept in the mouth to numb toothaches and other mouth problems, and to treat stomachaches, other digestive problems, sore throats, and colds. Infusions of calamus root were also drunk to treat these same problems. Quill water was often sprinkled on sacred objects and throughout the dwellings while prayers of renewal were offered.

The Hudson Bay Cree called the Calamus pow-e-men-arctic meaning “fire or bitter pepper root”. The Penobscot and Nanticoke called it muskrat root, and in the early 20th century, calamus was noted to be 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 what a root was and where to find it. The man woke up, found 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 from almost every house. Stan Neptune, a contemporary Penobscot artist, woodcarver and historian, recalls the importance of eating muskrats in winter, after the animals have been feeding on calamus root and their meat tastes “like sweet medicine.”

Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Mohegan medicine woman, noted that the Delawares and other Eastern Algonquians made a tea from calamus that was used to treat coughs, colds, and suppressed menstruation. Calamus was combined with sassafras root for intestinal pains among Delawareans and other Eastern Algonquians. She described the Eastern Algonquian practice of carrying a piece of muskrat root as a preventative of illness, to chew in case of sudden illness, and simply to ensure good health. Gladys also registered muskrat root as one of eleven botanicals combined for a spring tonic. Connecticut Mohegan also used small pieces of calamus root to treat rheumatism and colds. From talismans to sophisticated compounds, Calamus continues to be an invaluable health aid.

The name Pawnee is kahtsha itu (medicine that lay in the water), and they have songs about the calamus in their mystery ceremonies, since these plants were considered to have mystical powers. The long leaves were used ceremonially as 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 called it makan ninida; the roots were chewed to treat diabetes, especially among the Dakota. Potawatomi powdered the root like a styptic.

Calamus is found throughout the world, primarily in northern latitudes, and has an ancient history of use. The dried unpeeled rhizome was officially included in the US Pharmacopeia from 1820 to 1916 and in the National Form from 1936 to 1950. Doctors prescribed it for indigestion, upset stomachs and gas, and as a general tonic.

Modern uses:

Extracts and bitters made from the calamus root are still taken to relieve stomach cramps and indigestion. Calamus has long been valued as a flavoring and tonic agent, especially in aromatic bitters, and as a stimulant and carminative. Calamus continues to be a highly valued addition to many American Indian healing formulas, ceremonies, and health care practices, and is still used, alone, in essential forms of healing from tribe to tribe. Many traditional American Indian singers carry the dried root to chew in order to improve their singing.

Calamus is an important component in Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Western herbalism. The rhizome, or root, is a valuable remedy for digestion and a tonic for the nervous system. It stimulates the appetite, relieves gas and colic, and is formulated in tinctures and decoctions, as well as powders. The aromatic qualities make the leaves a valuable insect repellant.


Some Asian varieties have been labeled unsafe because they have been associated with tumors found in some laboratory rats. The carcinogenic agent is considered to be asarone, a component of the volatile oil. Apparently this is not present in the American species.

Growth and Propagation Needs:

In the wild, Calamus can form dense, interlocking mats in shallow water. Spring or fall is a good time to dig and collect the outer root tips, three to six inches long. Place them about two inches deep in the garden soil. Young shoots can grow rapidly, sending out many white, hairy roots. These plants are beautiful additions to the garden, as their foliage is striking.


Calamus grows well in the company of the blue flag, the cardinal flower, the golden thread and the cat in the pulpit. It will also grow quite well with other herbs that love moist soil.

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