Teaching Tuesday- Calamus Root

Calamus Root, also called Acorus calamus, Sweet Flag, Cinnamon Sedge, Sweet Myrtle, Acorus, and Sweet Rush is a sharp-edged perennial. It is a semi-aquatic plant that grows in marshes and on the muddy banks of streams. Although experts usually say the plant has been used in herbal medicine as long as 4,000 years ago, the first mention of the plant as a medicine is in the Divine Husbandman's Classic of the Materia Medica, a Chinese medical text that dates  to about 2837 BC. The traditional use of the calamus was to "open the orifices"  to allow the inner spirit to reach out to the world. Chinese physicians (of old) reported that calamus "vaporized phlegm," but the word they used refers to not just physical phlegm, but to the "residues" of difficult emotions. Calamus was also used to treat winter-time joint pain, wounds, and sores.

In the United States and Canada, calamus was used to make calamine lotion, which was used to relieve skin inflammation, mostly from poision ivy, oak and summac. It was considered a sacred incense by the Sumerians and the Egyptians, and was planted by Native Americans along their migratory paths so that it could be harvested at later times, where it was commonly used as an antiseptic, mostly for headaches and toothaches. Oddly enough, it was also used as an attractant for muskrats, who voraciously ate the root, and often collected it and stored it in their nests for future meals. Native Americans would plant it on the edge of  their villages so that they could trap the muskrats as they came for the root.

The rhizome is dried and either chopped or ground, where it is typically and traditionally used to make a tea. Varieties of calamus that are traded in the United States (and all the varieties of calamus permitted for import by Health Canada) are most effective when used externally. Theses varieties are best used as bath additives, gargles, lotions, or washes, unless they are combined with other herbs from Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine.  As a bath additive, calamus helps with circulation and joint pain, used as a gargle, calamus relieves sore throat. In the United States and Canada, calamus has been used for many years to make calamine lotion, and to relieve skin inflammations of all types.

 Although we may best know calamus root because of calamine lotion, if you look at Walt Whitmans famous work, Leaves of Grass, he wrote 39 poems that referred to Calamus!  Even today, Ayurvedic medicine uses it as a rejuvenator of the brain and nervous system, as well as a remedy for digestive disorders. In modern Chinese medicine, calamus is used with platycodon to treat laryngitis, turmeric to treat deafness, magnolia to treat any kind of chest congestion, and is mixed with lychii fruit and chrysanthemum flowers to make a tea that is sold for use as an eyewash. It is, however, rarely found as a capsule or extract.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration in the USA) strictly prohibits the use of calamus in food products. They have regulated this herb for external use only. Its internal use as a medicinal herbal product should only be administered by someone with experience in using this botanical. Although global cultures have, for a great many centuries, associated the consumption of calamus with a long life and good health, the American government prohibits its use in that manner. 

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