Manataka® American Indian Council

 

 

 

 

PLANT MEDICINE...

 

 

 

Sweet Flag / Bitterroot

Acorus calamus

By Jim McDonald, http://www.herbcraft.org/index.htm

 

I probably know Calamus more deeply than any other plant I’ve worked with, yet in spite of that (or perhaps because of it…) I find it most difficult to capture what I know of it in a way that adequately conveys its essential nature; its medicine.  Perhaps this is because Calamus is not a plant that facilitates “capturing” on any level, but rather teaches us to yield to the flow of things and let go of our needs for stark outlines and delineations.  Still, this plant has clearly offered itself to me not only to learn from, but to share, and so that I’ll try to do…

 

Acorus calamus is a semi-aquatic plant that likes to grow with “wet feet”, often alongside Irises, Cattails, and other waterweeds.  It likes the edges of ponds, lakes, and rivers, but I've seen it growing in drier soil as well.  The leaves are similar to Cattail or Iris leaves, being sword shaped, and from 2 1/2 to 3 feet in length.  Calamus leaves, though, are a yellow-green in color, not blue-green, and have a slightly wavy margin (edge) and a midrib.  Easily, the most effective way to identify the plant is to break off and smell the leaves.  Ahhhh… nothing else smells like Sweet Flag.  The root is a rhizome, which is a horizontal tuber that runs across the ground.  It is marked by leaf scars above, and produces abundant rootlets, which for the most part go straight down, below.  There are no stems; the leaves rise directly from the rhizome.   The plant can easily be cultivated from a root cutting, and will grow quickly once established.  I have a few different varieties growing in a non-draining planter that I keep wet, and it thrives, producing flowers every year.  I used wild soil in the planter, and the seeds and roots that came along with have all happily sprouted, offering a little wetland ecosystem that, when I was living on the third floor of an apartment building, the birds and insects delighted in. 

 

The root is used medicinally, but the leaves can be steeped into an elegant if unusual tea or used for a unique and exquisite smudge.  They are incredibly nice to simply bruise and smell, and they’ve been long used strewn across floors to release their enlightening scent as they’re walked upon.  If collecting the plant, keep in mind that as an aquatic, it’s going to have taken up whatever’s in the water it’s growing in, which you may not want to chew on.  Ironically, the invading Mongols used to plant Calamus in any source of water they intended to drink from, believing it would purify the water in which it grew.  This act gave rise to one of its common folk names, “Mongolian Poison”… people were generally freaked out if they found it growing somewhere they hadn’t seen it before.  Coming upon it in the wild, I always quickly scan the area for any such invading Mongols, but so far haven’t seen any, so maybe this is an old wive’s tale…

 

There are many differing varieties within the species, and medicinal activity varies greatly between these; both in strength and effect.  In King's American Dispensatory it is written that "Persian and East Indian calamus is said to be of better quality than that of other parts of the world".  This is an opinion I entirely disagree with, preferring the variety native to the central plains states of America.  Indian (as in "India") Calamus contains higher concentrations of essential oils, and act more strongly on the digestion than our native species, which I feel are more balanced in their action.  This preference in the Eclectic tradition may account for the focus on Calamus as a predominantly digestive remedy, and explain why they placed less emphasis on its other virtues.  The best way to determine the efficacy of a particular species is to taste it.  I prefer “bitter/spicy/zing” to “heavy/oily/aromatic”.  If you have gas, you might disagree.

 

As far as using Calamus goes, I can only recommend chewing on the root; a few pieces to a small handful (a tablespoon or two) is usually adequate.  If you’re lucky enough to have access to whole roots, dry them that way and just nibble or gnaw off the ends.  If you’ve got a particularly strong variety, you might just break off a bit, give it a few cursory chews, and then tuck it into your cheek to suck on.  Vigorously chewing a big hunk of strong roots will make you take a step or two backwards.

 

Did I mention it’s a little bitter?  Some people just complain, complain, complain…  They’ll either spit it out at once and look at me suspiciously whenever I offer them anything (even years later), or they’ll be calling me for “more of that stuff”, realizing they’ve been craving bitter for years and never knew it.  I know lots of people who now consider Calamus the best of the chewing roots, as I myself do. 

 

I really don’t use any fluid preparations, although they may be indicated in digestive complaints.  A cold infusion can be made by steeping the root overnight at the top of a jar filled with cold water, and then drinking this throughout the next day.  I consider this the preferable way to prepare a water-based preparation, though there seems to be some cultural and personal preferences towards infusions or decoctions.  The root has also been candied by boiling the transverse root slices in syrup, draining and drying, the resulting confection being freely eaten for dyspepsia (indigestion), or prepared by adding the extract to a simple syrup (Felter; Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology & Therapeutics).

 

"were all of its virtues known, one might need no other medicine..."

 

So now I’ll endeavor to cover the medicinal aspects of Calamus.  You might notice that as I go on, the virtues described become a bit more… well, you’ll see.  Also, it should be noted that as wonderful as the classic Eclectic texts are, they’re generally lacking in terms of what they tell us of Calamus.  Occasionally they’ll hint at its deeper virtues, but rarely more than that.  This is rather odd, since the Eclectics learned so much about so many of their plant medicines from the Native Americans, and the Native Americans esteem Calamus as one of the most useful, important, and Sacred of the herbs they use.

 

And rightly so.

 

Most of the available information on the traditional western uses of Sweet Flag focuses on its use as a digestive bitter and carminative used for treating cramps and flatulent colic.  As such, Calamus Root stimulates digestive secretions and peristalsis, and expels gas.  The British Pharmaceutical Codex states that "On account of a volatile oil which is present it also acts as a carminative, removing the discomfort caused by flatulence and checking the growth of bacteria that give rise to it", which notes its antibacterial properties.  Think about it in people whose deficient gut results in food fermenting inside them before it can be digested properly.  A case history:  Several years ago, a 20 year old woman came to me after being admitted to the hospital for intense abdominal pain as a result of gas.  Shortly after the visit, she felt a recurrence of symptoms, and I recommended she drink Fennel tea in the mornings and evenings, and chew dried Calamus Root throughout the day as desired.  I considered her diet rather poor (understatement), but she showed little interest in changing it.  Within a week all symptoms disappeared.  She stopped drinking the Fennel tea but continued to chew Calamus root, as she stated that she had "acquired a taste for it".  The gas had not returned as a problem for the next year or two that I ran into her.  Nice.

 

Candied Calamus Root was (and is, in some places) eaten for treating dyspepsia, heartburn, and indigestion.  The dried root can be chewed as well, and is probably preferable, and equally if not more effective.  Matthew Wood states in a draft version of his Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism that Calamus will adjust hydrochloric acid levels in the stomach either up or down, according to need, which is something I’d agree with entirely.  I’ll often suggest Calamus Root to those suffering from heartburn (now more often referred to as “acid reflux”, or more dramatically as “gastro-esophageal reflux disease”… GERD…. GERD?  Who wants to go around saying they’ve got GERD?  Does everything need an acronym?  sigh…), especially if they seem scattered and anxious, having a "nervous stomach".

 

Calamus Root is recommended by Felter & Lloyd for "feebleness of the digestive organs", and Cook for "purely atonic dyspepsia".  This is likely on account of its reported astringency, though this has never really been a property with which I’ve considered notable in the root.  There is a considerable history of folk usage for treating diarrhea and dysentery, though I've never used the plant for these purposes... though even here, I’d be inclined to think that this use was founded in its antibacterial effect, and not its supposed astringency.

 

North America Distribution: Sweet Flag - Acorus calamus L. (USDA)

As a digestive bitter, Sweet Flag has the effect of stimulating appetite, telling the digestive tract to get ready for food.  This makes it an ideal remedy for treating anorexia, because it also possesses a very effective anti-anxiety effect, and anxiety is the major instigator in eating (and most other...) disorders.  Methinks Calamus would be an invaluable ally for those seeking to overcome this disorder.

 

Chewing Calamus can effectively allay the nausea of motion sickness - car or air or whatever; anything characterized by what I call a "dizzy/queasy" feeling in the stomach - this is a primary indication for its use.  I've used it myself driving through the Appalachian Mountains from Tennessee to North Carolina, when the roads were either all up and curvy, or all down and curvy.  Chewing just a little bit (perhaps a 1/2 tablespoon) promptly brought relief.  For a “nervous stomach”, or nausea associated with panic and anxiety attacks, it is the first herb I would think of, and in my experience, unrivaled in its virtues.

 

Chewed, Calamus serves as a wonderful breath freshener (or so I think…).  My wife once fell asleep with a root in her mouth and woke up without a hint of morning breath (I’m afraid I’ll keep my means of discerning this to myself…)

 

Calamus is also a strong deterrent to those dreadful insects that people so dislike.  Its use as a strewing herb (as in “strewn all over the floor”) was likely practical as well as spiritual; it’d keep the bugs away.  I had the unpleasant experience of living in a flea infested house in college, and used the root powder on my ferret to repel fleas.  I have also applied the essential oil to my windowsill to scare off the big black ants that thought my old apartment was a grocery store, with complete success.

 

Traditional western herbalism offers little information on Calamus that extends beyond what’s been covered here.  Now we must turn and honor the Native peoples who still use this plant widely, most often referring to it as “Bitterroot”.  Of course, many other plants are called by this name and some of them certainly shouldn’t be chewed on (Dogbane comes to mind).  Below you’ll notice I start using Sweet Flag, Bitterroot and Calamus interchangeably. 

 

Kelly Kindsher reports in his "Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie" about the use of Bitterroot by contemporary Native American tribes curing adult onset diabetes:  “When diabetics chewed the root regularly, they were reported cured within a few months.  In the 1950s when Howard reported this use of calamus, he cited cases of Indian diabetics who had been “given up” by white doctors, but who were later cured by calamus.”  Here, again, I’ve not got the slightest bit of experience, but can say that I talked with a woman a few years ago who told me that on the Pine Ridge Reservation, they used a decoction of Bitterroot and Marshmallow roots with good success in diabetes.

 

Bitterroot excels in addressing throat colds, sore throats, irritable coughs, chest colds, and head colds.  It is also considered an effective antihistamine; clearing stuffy sinuses and helping dispel mucous.  If the congestion is all packed up in your head, your nasal passages are totally blocked and you feel enveloped by a hazy dullness, chew on some root and it’ll help disperse both the congestion and the haze.  Bitterroot is strongly antimicrobial; chewing the root not only fights the infection (especially for throat colds), but is also stimulating and helps to overcome the run down feeling that you get with a cold (though, of course, it should not be used as a means to “keep going” when you really need to stay under the covers for a day or two).  I chew Bitterroot when I’m around other people who are sick so I don’t get sick, and so far it’s never failed me.  Stephen Buhner, in Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, recounts the tale of a Penobscot Medicine Man who has a dream in which the muskrat shows him what plant he should use to cure the affliction killing his people; that plant being Bitterroot.  In one of those few exceptions in which western herbalism saw past the digestive tract, Salmon’s Herbal proclaims it “a peculiar thing against poison, the Plague and all contagious disease.”

 

In the Inipi Ceremony, or "sweat lodge", Bitterroot is chewed when the voice becomes hoarse from singing, and also in reverence to the plant's immense spiritual virtues. Michigan herbalist Joyce Wardwell elaborated nicely on this once:

“At a Pow-Wow, a singer may sing for hours. Voice gets tired, and a little root is chewed. Calamus helps numb the vocal chords to allow the singer to continue. Have to be careful - have met a couple people who strained their vocal chords enough to cause permanent damage. Calamus also helps center and focus the energy to sing well, without clouding the mind or spirit. A little piece is chewed (usually no more than one inch root total for the whole week-end) and held in the mouth between cheek and gum for a long time even after the flavor is more or less gone. Sometimes, people don't even chew the root, they just hold a piece in their mouth a few minutes. Then it will help increase saliva, increase range (yes it actually does - especially for high notes) and center ones energy.” 

 

Laryngitis, caused or aggravated by speaking, yelling or singing is a specific indication for its use. 

 

There are numerous references to the use of Calamus as a stimulant, helping to boost the stamina of weary travelers.  It has been noted that Sweet Flag is used similarly to the way Coca leaves were used by South American Indians. It increases energy and allays hunger (even though as a bitter it is used to stimulate hunger).  I've chewed it while backpacking when it's dusk and I've been walking all day and my pack is heavy and I'm a mile away from where I need to be to set up camp, and found that it gave me extra vigor with which to continue my trek.  In North America, Sweet Flag appears to have been wild cultivated along trade roads by Native Americans, presumably to be used for this purpose.  This is also anagalous to the use of Coca leaves, which were essential to messengers traveling the Inca roads along the Andes Mountains.  It was common throughout North America for Native American elders to chew the root to restore and maintain vitality and vigor.  As the oft quoted citation goes, the size of the root chewed was often approximated by the sized of the persons finger, but dosage varied considerably from tribe to tribe.  Certainly, though, the more root is chewed the more the stimulation is manifested physically.

 

Though it may seem odd, Calamus also excels as a relaxant, despite its stimulating properties.  It’s not a nervine (it won't put you to sleep), but is incredibly effective in treating anxiety.  Incredibly effective.  It is this virtue of the plant that has really stood out to me, and set it wholly apart from any other remedy I might consider to ease anxiety.  While seldom cited in any herbal literature, there is evidence of this virtue if one looks for it.  Waller writes in his British Herbal that "It is of great service in all nervous complaints, vertigoes, headaches and hypochondriacal affections."  Culpepper notes that it "strengthens the stomach and head".  There’s not much reference from Native cultures, but probably because: a.) they didn’t write stuff down, and b.) they might have preferred to keep this information to themselves.  While enthobotanists and friendly settlers were told much about many medicinal plants, there were some plants and some things about some plants that was kept close a sacred knowledge.  Personally, I learned about this virtue through years of study with the plant, and later stumbled upon this or that comment that verified what I’d learned.

 

Hmm… some words to describe the effect of Sweet Flag: Calming. Centering. Perspective.  Joyce Wardwell once used the word “Resolution”… that’s a good one.   It’s tempting to say that it instills “focus”, but focus isn’t really the right word.  “Focus” implies fixing the perception on a certain aspect of something, and Sweet Flag tends to open one’s awareness so that they’re able to take in what’s going on around them (or within them) with great clarity, without singling out any one aspect.  So perhaps saying it instills clarity of perception is more accurate.  It puts your energy into balance, and gets you energetically resonating as a whole.  I like to say it "unscatters" energy.  For this reason it is almost without equal as a treatment for panic and anxiety attacks, not only for full-fledged episodes, but for the "little daily anxiety attacks" that most of us can relate to.  It is especially good when an intense/traumatic situation occurs, and you handle it excellently, but after its over you're all strung out and a nervous basket case. 

 

I've used the plant extensively with a woman suffering from flashbacks of childhood abuse to push away the flashback, quell the panic, and return to the present moment.  Feelings of dizziness, nervous queasy stomach, "leaving the body", panic, looks like a scared animal in the headlights, doesn't know which way to go, frozen by fear, wants to run, but which way?, disassociated... all these are good indications.  Have the person chew on Calamus and breathe deeply, fully and slowly and the anxiety and panic will fade… I think the bitter flavor helps “bring the person back.”  I know of no other plant that is so effective.

 

Incidentally, this is the reason why it was used for quitting smoking, not just because it causes a "distaste for Tobacco" (it has been smoked with Tobacco for treating headaches; although I don't think the two blend together that well... like oranges and tomatoes, if you had one, would you really want the other?).  The intense anxiety associated with "Nicotine fixes" is very much like the anxiety picture that Sweet Flag is good for.  However, it should not be assumed to be a magic bullet for the Tobacco habit, but rather an effective tool to supplement and enhance determination and will power.  Quitting smoking requires… well, a long write up of its own.

 

Sigh… where to fit this in…

 

Currently, the FDA considers Calamus root to be carcinogenic.  This assertion is the result of lab studies that involved supplementing the diets of lab animals massive doses of isolated chemicals (beta-asarone) over a prolonged period of time.  The animals developed tumors, and the plant was labeled carcinogenic.  Again, these tests were Lab tests of isolated chemicals in massive doses over an extended period of time.  If water were to be tested in the same way, it would be deemed dangerous because people drinking too much of it would drown.  If Oranges were tested this way, they’d be considered a caustic poison because of the Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) they contain. As a reaction to this assertion, many herbals make reference to using only American Calamus, which supposedly doesn't contain the "carcinogenic" beta-Asarone in its essential oil (it was, after all, the Indian Jamu strain they used to extract the Beta Asarones...). 

 

Errrrrr… for your sake (and so I don’t lose my generally pleasant authorial tone), I’ll refrain from going off into a tirade about extracting chemicals from plants and making assumption about the plant based on the effects of the extracted chemicals.  Foolishness.

 

I don't believe the plant is carcinogenic.  There’s no evidence of this, not a single shred that connects the whole plant with carcinogenesis or tumors, and I don't worry about this AT ALL (although I would recommend the use American Calamus because I prefer its medicinal effects).  In all indigenous cultures, Calamus is credited as a plant that preserves life and increases vitality.  It has been used daily by many cultures to ensure long life.  But of course, the good thing about holistic medicine is that we all take responsibility for our own well being, and so its up to you to make your own decisions about whether or not you’ll worry about this.  As for me, I’ve already given the issue more time than it deserves.  Let’s get back to what counts…

 

An accurate account of Sweet Flag cannot be given without addressing its role as a Sacred plant.  This is a rather daunting task, methinks, but I’ll do my best to convey what I’ve come to know about it without getting too flakey.  What’s especially interesting is that most of the impressions that follow I learned from chewing on the root for the past 10 years or so... after I'd developed a number of ideas about what it did, I began to, here and there, run into other people who used it, and the impressions they had about it were usually the same as mine... on more than a few occasions I've heard the same words, the same phrases... people who use Calamus never seem to talk about it as a digestive bitter or carminative, they talk about what it does energetically.  That's where its most potent virtues reside.

It should be understood that all plants – indeed all things that are upon this Earth – possess virtues, possess medicines that define their character and the role they play in the unfolding of Creation.  While all things are in some way teachers to us, there are some in whose medicine more deeply lies this task of Teaching.  Some plants are Teacher Plants.  Tobacco is a Teacher Plant, as are the Teonanacatl.  Many of the Artemisias are Teachers.  And Calamus, too, is a Teacher Plant.

 

Calamus is best understood as a plant whose spirit teaches those who make relationship with it how to live in a good way upon the Earth; to live gently, lucidly, perceptively.  She is subtle, and teaches a subtlety of perception, a subtlety of awareness… those who do not perceive such subtleties will likely find little in her of merit (though they could most benefit from such teachings).  But make no mistakes: the plant is incredibly wise & quite sentient.  If perhaps you cannot feel what she is putting out, she can certainly feel what you are.

 

It is impossible to really describe what my relationship with this plant is like.  How would you describe an orange to someone who had never tasted one?  The best that can be done, I suppose, is to offer such descriptions as strike near the mark.

 

There’s something about Calamus I’ve always likened to the song of crickets.  If I were to describe her using the idea of resonance, of sound, I would think of the long, slow undulating rhythm of crickets, and the way you come to feel if you sit out in the evening and just let that music wash over you… the way your tension dissipates, the way your mind slowly lets go of its many errant simultaneous thoughts, one by one, till you’re just there, right where you’re at, and perfectly contented to be there.  Tibetan “singing” bowls create a similar effect in me, if they continue for a long enough time… but they don’t quite compare to crickets, or the rustling of leaves in the wind, or the running of water over stones. 

 

Someone once asked on Henriette Kress’s herblist: “When you take it, what thoughts run through your mind?” and my friend Art Sackett replied, "Personally, what's remarkable is the thoughts that don't run through my mind."

 

Exactly.

 

When preoccupations drop away, a clarity of perception is revealed.  It becomes easy for the mind and senses to perceive; yet do so without narrowing our perception.  Chewing on Calamus seems to sharpen vision noticeably, but ironically, this effect is more pronounced when you’re just taking things in, and less so when you try to focus on something specific.  When you do try and focus, the clarity diminishes somewhat; to return when again you return from “looking” to “seeing”.  This effect seems to extend, as well, into its more energetic effects.  It's also interesting and insightful to look at how the plants more overtly medicinal effects mirror its more energetic ones.  As a gastrointestinal tonic Calamus stimulates digestion while also having a relaxant effect; or said differently it stimulates assimilation and resolves resistance.  This paradigm, methinks, extends beyond the digestive tract and into more esoteric facets of our beings. 

 

Clearly, given such suggestive descriptions, it would be easy to assume that Sweet Flag is a hallucinogen, which indeed has been done.  This opinion has been widely popularized by Hoffer and Osmund’s The Hallucinogens, which briefly covered its use and said that it produced an experience comparable to LSD.  More suggestions were made because Calamus Root can be used in the synthesis of TMA-2, a synthetic hallucinogenic phenothylamine that is similar in structure to Mescaline.  It has been erroneously reported that the body converts the asarones in Calamus into TMA-2 as they are metabolized, and that Calamus contains hallucinogenic compounds similar to (and more powerful than) Mescaline, and that it produces “strong visual hallucinations”.  Web searches on Calamus will turn up as much information on its purported hallucinogenic activity as they will on its medicinal actions... more, perhaps. 

 

Most often, they depict accounts of (presumably) adolescents consuming very large quantities of the root along with beer, Mountain Dew, corn chips and doobies because they are “pyschonauts” looking for a “plant ally” to teach them all about life; emesis is often the result.  This misguided course of action (which, incidentally, definitely does not impress plant spirits) is rather ironic in that Calamus can indeed serve as a “Plant Ally”, and you can indeed learn a lot of interesting things from chewing on it. 

 

But I don’t consider Calamus to be psychedelic.  It certainly, though, is psychoactive, and can produce subtly profound insights.  But everything is psychoactive, no?  Everything we ingest affects not only our body, but our mental, emotional and spiritual faculties as well.  Take Basil, for example.  Eat a bunch of fresh Basil on an empty stomach, and you’ll be walking around with a Basil buzz, to be sure.  Does that make it psychedelic? 

 

Such words are best left behind, as they tend to predispose one to looking for a certain kind of effect, and in doing so one may miss the effect they’re actually experiencing.  As my friend Art Sackett once said (wrote): “It is what it is, and naming it too concretely might just diminish the effect -- those who come after might be so focused on trying to experience "the right effect" that they miss the experience they're having.” In other words, have no expectations. If you want to make relationship with a plant, you can't go projecting your ideas about it onto it. And don't go expecting anything profound, Calamus just clears out the clutter and gives you a good mindset from which to ponder what's causing your clutter. But you have to be a part in this... if your thoughts are racing around like crazy, you'll not be able to "hear" what the plant is saying... it’d be like trying to listen to crickets at a rock concert. So, you have to settle down your racing thoughts in order for the Calamus to help you settle down your racing thoughts... Sounds contradictory, but its like... walking up an escalator… you go faster than if you were taking the stairs, and faster than if you just stood on the escalator.

 

I know lots of people who have just been looking too hard for some dramatic effect to see what it does do. And they try it a few times, and when they don't get bowled over, they lose interest. There’s a lesson there, even though they don’t see it. Remember: subtlety of perception, subtlety of awareness, subtlety of self awareness...

 

And be aware, as well, that Calamus (and any plant, really) offers the most benefit when you work with it over a prolonged period.  You get to know it; you develop a relationship with it, just like you do with people.  And just like with people, a good relationship gets deeper and richer with time.  To make relationship with a plant is an ongoing process of patience, humility and respect.  If you approach Sweet Flag with this attitude, and without expectations of what fruit will be born of this endeavor, you will likely benefit in ways you cannot imagine.

 

© 2000-2008 jim mcdonal

 

 


 

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