Latin Names: Acorus calamus; Acorus graminaeus; Acorus spp.

Other Names: Wajj (Arabic); Shih Chang Pu (Chinese); Sweet Flag / Calamus (English); Akoron (Greek); Agir (Persian); Radacina Obligeana (Romanian); Vacha (Sanskrit); Raiz de Calamo (Spanish)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom; Iridaceae (Iris) family

Part Used: Rhizome, rootstock

Basic Qualities: Hot – 2; Dry – 2

Other Qualities: Loosening, opening, detoxifying

Taste: Intensely bitter, pungent and aromatic

Humoral Dynamics: Sanguine – mildly invigorates and improves the circulation of blood.  Phlegmatic – concocts and dissolves excess phlegm, especially in the stomach and middle GI tract; disperses phlegmatic vapors in the head, clearing the mind and senses.  Choleric – a bitter tonic that disperses aggravated bile and quells acid reflux.  Melancholic / Nervous – loosens constriction and spasm, loosens colic and nervous tension, subdues internal wind and convulsions, a mild sedative that strengthens the nerves.  Calamus root is a great detoxifying herb, with a detoxifying effect on all the humors.

Tropism: Calamus root has an affinity for the mind and senses, the nerves, the stomach, duodenum and biliary passages, the liver, and the smooth muscles of the GI tract.  Ayurvedic medicine claims that it has a special affinity for the throat and the Vishuddha chakra.

Constituents and Pharmacology: The phytochemistry of Calamus root is very diverse and complex, giving the root and its many chemical constituents a wide variety of different pharmacological effects, which all contribute to the overall effect of the whole herb. The root is rich in an aromatic essential oil, which in turn has a number of different constituents – beta- and alpha- Asarones, saponins, monoterpenoids, sesquiterpenoids, lectins, lignans and steroid compounds. The root is also rich in flavonoids and other antioxidants, which have an immunostimulatory, immunomodulatory and hepatoprotective effect. The antioxidants in Calamus root protect the liver against oxidative stress, as well as alcohol and NSAID damage, restoring the liver enzymes back to their normal levels. The combination and interaction of immunostimulatory and immunosuppressant constituents in Calamus root give the root an overall balancing or immunomodulatory effect. Much has been made of the carcinogenic potential of one of Calamus root’s constituents – beta-Asarone – and for this reason, the FDA and other regulatory agencies have treated it with suspicion, but this is counterbalanced by the anti-cancer activity of alpha-Asarone. Calamus root has been used in traditional medical systems for centuries, even millennia, and no carcinogenic activity has ever been reported clinically from its use. The fact is that Calamus root remains one of the most powerful and beneficial herbs there are.

Medicinal Properties: Adaptogen, antacid, anticonvulsant, antifungal, antimicrobial, antioxidant, antispasmodic, aromatic, carminative, cholagogue, emetic, expectorant, hepatoprotective, immunostimulant, immunomodulatory, nervine, sedative (mild), stomachic, tonic, virilific

Cautions and Contraindications: In large doses, Calamus root usually has an emetic effect, which induces nausea and vomiting; it is sometimes used intentionally for this purpose, for Vamana, or emetic therapy in Ayurvedic and yogic cleansing regimes.  However, this emetic effect is idiosyncratic and varies widely between different individuals, with some individuals, such as myself, exhibiting no emetic effect, even in large doses.  So, try out a little bit of Calamus root, to see whether or not it produces a marked emetic effect on you, before taking the herb in frequent or repeated doses.  Also, different species or varieties of Calamus root, genus Acorus, can differ widely in their emetic effects, even upon the same individual.  Although Calamus root does have a sedative effect, it is very mild, and is generally not contraindicated in driving or the operation of heavy machinery.

Medicinal Uses: Calamus root’s main use is in treating stomach and digestive disorders, especially acid reflux and acid indigestion.  After this, it is used as a general tonic to promote strong nerves, a clear mind and senses, better immunity and circulation, and even enjoys a reputation as being a virilific for men in some circles.  Because of its emetic effect in large doses, Calamus root can also be used in Vamana therapy, or therapeutic vomiting, as part of Ayurvedic Pancha Karma cleansing regimens.  A pinch of finely powdered Calamus root can be inhaled up the nostrils; the temporary irritation to the nose and sinuses will provoke sneezing and the elimination of phlegm congestion in the nose and sinuses.  Nasal administration of Calamus root, in both the powder form as a snuff, as well as in medicinal tincture form, also has the therapeutic benefit of clearing the mind and senses.

Other Uses: Because of its strong, robust and pungent odor, Calamus root is also used in aromatics, in making herbal or natural incenses, potpourris and perfumes, where it is used as a fixative – a substance that amplifies and increases the staying power of other aromatic ingredients in the formula.

Preparation and Dosage: Calamus root is a fairly potent herb; therefore, it doesn’t need to be taken in large doses to be effective. The most common way to take Calamus root, especially in the treatment of digestive disorders, is simply to chew on a piece – or two or three pieces, according to your tolerance level; once the desired relief is obtained, you may stop chewing. Calamus root can also be boiled up in herbal decoction formulas, generally in equal parts with other roots, or in slightly smaller doses. Calamus root is also a common ingredient in alcoholic extracts, or medicinal tinctures, again in equal parts, even with many ingredients to the formula; it is seldom taken by itself, but in combination with other herbs. The usual dose for an alcoholic tincture is ten to fifteen drops.

Herbal Formulation: Calamus root combines well and works best usually in combination with other tonic and digestive herbs, which can be of a bitter, aromatic, sweet or pungent character.

Classic Combinations: Because of its ability to induce nausea and vomiting in sensitive individuals, and in excessive doses – and what is excessive can vary considerably from one individual to the next – perhaps the most useful and beneficial combination is with Ginger root (Zingiber officinale).  With this combination, you have two herbs that greatly benefit the stomach and digestion, with the Ginger being able to allay or neutralize the potential of the Calamus root to provoke nausea and vomiting, and therefore greatly increase the tolerance level of individuals for the Calamus root.  Alternatively, Calamus root can be combined with a close relative of Ginger, Galangal (Alpinia galanga), which is the hot red Ginger used in Thai restaurants; the combination is especially good at stimulating a cold stomach and digestion, and removing deep seated obstructions and gas from the GI tract.As a nervous tonic or nervine herb, Calamus root can be combined with Ashwagandha (Witthania somnifera), Gotu Kola (Hydrocotyle asiatica), or even Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis); this latter combination is especially effective for a nervous stomach.  As a digestive bitter for chronic indigestion, Calamus root combines well with Gentian root (Gentiana lutea).  The ancient Egyptians were quite fond of a formula called Kyphi, which they used both as an incense or aromatic mixture as well as a medicinal tonic.  The ingredients were: Cinnamon, Valerian root, Laurel leaves, Calamus root, Juniper berries, Peppermint, Galangal root, Cyperus or Nutgrass rhizome, Myrrh, Frankincense, Lemon Grass, Pine resin, raisins, honey, red wine and Mastic Turpentine, or Terebinth de Chio.

Description: Calamus root, commonly known in English as Sweet Flag, or Sweet Sedge, is the root or rhizome of a semiaquatic rush-like plant that frequents lakes and marshes; it is a member of the Iris family, and has a lot in common, medicinally speaking, with other Irises and their roots.  Because Calamus lives and thrives in a wet, marshy environment, it is generally well-suited to treating conditions involving turbid or stagnant phlegm and dampness in humans, which is evident from its pungent, warming nature and energetics.  Although the FDA and other regulatory agencies now treat Calamus root with suspicion, and downplay its therapeutic value, Calamus root has been greatly valued and used in traditional medical systems the world over, mainly for its value in treating acid reflux and other chronic digestive disorders, as well as a general tonic to clear and calm the mind and senses, strengthen the nerves, and as an adaptogen to increase overall fitness, immunity and resistance to disease.  The name Calamus derives from the Greek word for a reed, which is Kalamos. 

Although Calamus is commonly known in English as Sweet Flag, there’s really nothing very sweet about it; it is one of the strongest tasting roots there are in the herbal kingdom, being at once intensely pungent and/or acrid, intensely aromatic and intensely bitter.  Suffice it to say that for many, chewing on pieces of Calamus root is definitely an acquired taste – and for many, even the intense and overwhelming flavor of it may provoke a little giddiness or nausea.  In my experience as an herbalist, there are many varieties of Calamus root, with some being more acrid or pungent, some more bitter, and others with their intense aroma as their keynote.  If the flavor and aroma of a batch of Calamus root is not intense, then it is probably not of very high quality.  For me, the hallmark of good quality Calamus root is definitely an intense aroma above all other considerations.  And there are different ways of preparing it as well; after the initial cleaning and drying, the Chinese slice the root up into long, thin slices, whereas in Western herb stores it is usually available in small chunks or pieces.

An herbalist I knew and respected once called Calamus root the great healer of the stomach and digestion, and the more I experience this herb and its marvelous healing effects, the more inclined I am to believe it.  In my opinion, it is the best herbal remedy for acid indigestion and acid reflux – so much so that it could even be called “the herbal purple pill”.  I have even seen Calamus root heal a case of extreme gastric distress and stomach spasm – in this case, it was my own.  The taxi driver wanted to take me to the emergency room, I was doubled over in pain and agony, but I knew I had some Calamus root in my hotel room to chew on, so I told him to let me off at my hotel.  And surely enough, within ten to fifteen minutes or so, the healing juice of the chewed Calamus root started to relax all the tension and obstruction in my stomach, and before long, I could go to sleep.  Your own results may not be that dramatic, but this just goes to show what Calamus root can do under the right conditions – check with your holistic physician first.  I have even heard of a case of chewed Calamus root bringing someone out of a full-blown convulsion, and I wouldn’t disbelieve it.    

Digestively, Ayurvedic medicine sees Calamus root as an herb that kindles the digestive fire – Deepan – as well as an herb that digests and cleanses the body of toxins, which is Pachan.  That’s what Calamus root does – it kindles or stimulates the Digestive Fire so it can burn off more toxins that have accumulated from a poorly functioning digestion.  Chinese herbal medicine says that it purifies and expands the stomach and the Middle Burner.  But even more than this, Calamus root, or Vacha, is seen in Ayurvedic medicine as an herb to clear the mind and senses, and to strengthen and calm the nervous system.  Calamus root has a drying and warming nature that also helps to concoct or burn off excess phlegm, whether it is bogging down the stomach and digestion, or whether it is bogging down the brain, making the mind and senses sluggish and groggy.  Ayurvedic medicine also sees Calamus as a Lekhan herb – an herb that scrapes accumulations out of the vessels and subtle channels of the body; it not only thins the blood and improves its circulation; it can also clear the subtle mental channels as well. 

Avicenna, in his Canon of Medicine, sees Calamus root as a carminative that helps dispel the accumulation of gas in the stomach and intestines, as well as keeping it from forming.  It has the power to open up and remove obstructions from the digestive tract, purifies the stomach, softens the spleen and protects the liver, removing the pain of cold obstructions from it.  Modern medical research has also confirmed the hepatoprotective abilities of Calamus root, and its antioxidant properties to reduce oxidative stress on the liver.  Avicenna also says that Calamus root is good for treating abdominal and menstrual pain, as well as painful urination; it is used for treating urinary gravel in Ayurvedic medicine, and for treating cloudy urine in Chinese herbal medicine.  Calamus root also treats toothache as well as sluggishness of the tongue, a use that it also has in Ayurvedic medicine.  Modern research has confirmed Calamus root’s usefulness in stimulating the immune system, and it was an important ingredient in the Rose Pills that Nostradamus, who was also an herbalist, used successfully in treating plague victims, along with Rose Hips and their vitamin C.

In short, in spite of the suspicious attitude of the FDA and official regulatory agencies in most developed nations towards Calamus root, it has been one of the most valued and effective remedies in the herbalist’s therapeutic arsenal, especially where acid reflux and other forms of chronic indigestion are concerned.  And maybe that’s the real reason for the suspicious attitude – if Calamus root were widely known and used, there would be far fewer digestive problems in this world, and it could even put the purple pill of the pharmaceutical companies out of business.

Related Species:

Calamus root is a semi-aquatic plant of the Iris family, and as such, is closely related to other Irises, which also have their own medicinal uses.  Generally speaking, these relatives of Calamus in the Iris family are also moderately heating and drying in their basic nature and temperament, and share an opening, loosening and detoxifying action and character.  Orris root (Iris florentina) is the root of the Florentine Iris; it has medicinal uses as a digestive and metabolic stimulant, and as a diuretic and an anti-rheumatic.  Like Calamus root, the aromatic properties of Orris root make it much used and sought after in the field of aromatics and perfumery, where it is also used as a fixative.  Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) was a favorite herb of the old Eclectic herbalists; its uses were to powerfully cleanse a torpid liver, as well as to improve intestinal function and patency in cases of chronic gastroenteritis and chronic colitis.  Blue Flag was also used as a blood cleanser in eczema and other chronic skin diseases, often in combination with other alterative herbs like Oregon Grape root (Mahonia aquifolium) and Prickly Ash bark (Zanthoxylum americanum).

1.  Wikipedia - Acorus calamus
2.  ScienceDirect - Acorus calamus
3.  Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice by Sebastian Pole, pp. 284 – 285.  @2006 by Elsevier Ltd., Philadelphia, PA, USA
4. The Canon of Medicine, Vol. 2: Natural Pharmaceuticals by Avicenna / Ibn Sina, pp. 1063 – 1066.  Translated and compiled by Laleh Bakhtiar, @2012 by Laleh Bakhtiar.  Published by Great Books of the Islamic World, Inc., distributed by Kazi Publications, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA.

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.