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Calamus is found all over the world. It use dates back to biblical times when it was cited as an ingredient in incense recipes. It is a semi-aquatic perennial cultivated in damp marshy places in India and Burma. Calamus, or sweet flag, is exceedingly common in Manipur and the Naga Hills of India, and on the edges of lakes and streams.

Calamus essential oil is frequently used for aromatherapy due to its powerful, spicy aroma. It is believed to induce feelings of calmness and grounding. However, pure essential oil of calamus must be used with caution, and full strength contact with skin should be avoided.

In China, calamus root is considered to have anti-arrhythmic, hypotensive, vasodilatory, anti-tussive, anti-bacterial and expectorant properties. Calamus root has also been used in the Indian Ayurvedic tradition as well as in Greek medicine. Historically, it has been used for lack of mental focus, stomach problems, acidity, and as an aid to quit tobacco smoking.

Generally speaking, in Western alternative medicine, calamus is used primarily as a digestive bitter to stimulate appetite and facilitate healthy assimilation, digestion, and elimination. While clinical human trials are required to confirm the efficacy of calamus in all of the aforementioned areas, some studies have indeed confirmed some promising bio-chemical properties of calamus root.
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 Other Names
 Traditional Internal Uses
 Traditional Topical Uses
 Constituents / Nutrients
 Pharmacological Summary
 Scientific Research / Actions
 Precautions / Contraindications
 Interaction with Medications
 Possible Side Effects

Common Name
Botanical Latin Name / Classification
Acorus calamus
Parts Used
Roots and rhizomes.
Other Names
Calamus Root, Sweet Flag, Rat Root, Sweet Sedge, Flag Root, Sweet Calomel, Sweet Myrtle, Sweet Cane, Sweet Rush, Beewort, Muskrat Root, Pine Root, Racha (India), Shih-ch'ang pu (China), Makan-ninida (Omaha and Ponca), Mankan-kereh (Winnebago), Kahtsha itu (Pawnee), Sinkpe-ta-wote (Dakota), Sanka ce (Lakota), Pexe boao'ka (Osage), Wi'ukh is e' evo (Cheyenne), Moskwas'wask (Algonquian), Muskwe s uwesk (Penobscot), Weekas (Cree).

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Calamus (sweet flag) is a grass-like, rhizome forming, perennial that can grow to 2 meters high, resembling an iris. This species inhabits perpetually wet areas like the edges of streams and around ponds and lakes, in ditches and seeps. It often shares habitat with the common cat-tail.

The plants have long creeping roots that spread out just below the surface of the soil. These roots spread horizontally and can grow to almost 2 meters in length for old, well established specimens. The thick, erect leaves are very similar in appearance to those of an iris, but with edges that are crimped.

Plants very rarely flower or set fruit, but when they do, the flowers are 3-8 cm long, cylindrical in shape, greenish brown and covered in a multitude of rounded spikes. The fruits are small and berry-like, containing few seeds. Flowers from early to late summer depending on the latitude.

Calamus is associated with the muskrat in many native American cultures as the rodent consumes copious quantities of the root.

Calamus is native to Northern Latitude countries around the World. May have been widely dispersed around the United States by Native Americans who planted the roots along their migratory paths to be harvested as needed. Calamus can often be found growing close to the sites of Indian villages, camping areas or trails.

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Traditional Internal Uses
Calamus has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks, when it was recommended for support of optic/eye health.

Calamus has been used in the Indian tradition of Ayurvedic medicine. According to Ayurvedic principals of health, calamus helps maintain healthy cognitive and memory processes stimulating the central nervous system.

The Cree Indians of Northern Alberta use calamus for a number of medicinal reasons including an analgesic for the relief of toothache or headache, for oral hygiene to cleanse and disinfect the teeth, the fight the effects of exhaustion or fatigue, and to help cure/prevent a hangover.

Other Native tribes used it to treat a cough, made a decoction as a carminative and as an infusion for colic.

The Dakotas use calamus to treat diabetes, and there are several reported cases where of the root had cured people who had been given up by Western medicine. Legend has it that when calamus root was chewed regularly by the Indians, they would be miraculously cured of this disease within a matter of months.

The Sioux used the whole plant, making aromatic garlands from the leaves and using the root as a tea for bowel pains, or rubbed the chewed root on the skin for a general illness cure.

Calamus has been used in Asia for at least the last 2000 years for a number of beneficial reasons. The ancient Chinese used it to lessen swelling and for constipation. In India, Ayurvedic medicinal practice has used the magical root to cure fevers, for asthma and bronchitis, and as an all around sedative. The root was also used by the ancient Greeks and included in the traditional remedies of many other European cultures.

During the middle ages calamus was an admixture in several of the ancient, psychoactive, "witches flying ointments", often being mixed with solanacious herbs.

The root was also well known in Biblical times and mentioned in Exodus 30: 22-25 as one of the ingredients of the "holy anointing oil".

Calamus was also known to many early American settlers and used for a number of folk remedies. Walt Whitman even wrote poetry about his beloved herb in "Leaves of grass".

Calamus was also widely used by Canadian Trappers working for the Hudson Bay Company, using it as a stimulant, chewing a small piece whenever tired.

The unpeeled, dried rhizome was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia until 1916 and in the National Formulary until 1950, for medicinal use on humans.

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Traditional Topical Uses
Calamus causes increased dilation of spleenic vessels, an important factor in regulating blood pressure. Calamus oil is aromatic and antiseptic. The rhizome has an expectorant action, due to the presence of the essential oil. Calamus oil has a powerful spicy aroma that seems to appeal more to men than women. Emotionally, it elicits feelings of calming and grounding. Added to the bath, calamus quiets the nerves and induces a state of tranquility. From a perfumery standpoint, it is a base note on which to add additional blended essential oils. Tincture of Calamus is useful as a parasiticide when directly, and frequently, applied to lice and scabies infestations.

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Primary Indications: Appetite (Increased or Decreased)

Other Indications: Asthenopia (Eyestrain), Asthma

Primary Indications: Bad Breath / Halitosis

Primary Indications: Bloating

Other Indications: Brain / Cognitive Function, Bronchitis

Other Indications: Cold, Common (Rhinovirus)

Primary Indications: Colic, Constipation

Primary Indications: Cramps

Other Indications: Diabetes (Type I / Type II) Support

Primary Indications: Dyspepsia

Other Indications: Eye Disorders

Fatigue, Fever

Primary Indications: Flatulence

Primary Indications: Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), Gastrointestinal Disorders

Other Indications: Hangover

Primary Indications: Indigestion


Other Indications: Menstruation Problems

Secondary Indications: Migraine Headache Support

Primary Indications: Nausea

Secondary Indications: Nervous System Health

Other Indications: Smoking / Tobacco Addiction Support

Stress / Anxiety

Other Indications: Tooth Decay (Cavities / Caries)

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Anti-Arrhythmic, Anticonvulsant, Antifungal, Antiparasitic, Antispasmodic, Antitussive, Antiveratrinic




Hypotensive (Anti-Hypertensive)


Nauseant, Nervine


Stimulant, Stomachic


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Constituents / Nutrients
Amines: Dimethylamine, methylamine, trimethyl amine and choline.

Volatile Oil: 1.5-3.5%. Beta-Asarone content varies between genetic species: 96% in tetraploid (Indian), 5% in triploid (European) and 0% in the diploid (North American) species.(1-4) Other identified components include calamenol (5%), calamene (4%), calamone (1%), methyl eugenol (1%), eugenol (0.3%) and the sesquiterpenes acolamone, acoragermacrone and isoacolamone. Considerable qualitative and quantitative differences have been reported between the volatile oil from different genetic species, and between the volatile fraction of an alcoholic extract and the essential oil from the same variety (European).(3,4)

Tannin: 1.5%.

Other Constituents: Bitter principles (e.g. acorin), acoric and palmitic acids, resin (2.5%), mucilage, starch (25-40%), sugars.

The dried rhizome yields 1.5 per cent to 2.7 per cent of a neutral, yellow, aromatic, essential oil. The fresh aerial parts yield about 0.123 per cent of the volatile oil. The unpeeled roots yield the most - from 1.5 to 3.5 per cent.

The essential volatile oil of Acorus Calamus is yellowish-brown, and is found to be composed of asaryl aldehyde, free normal heptylic and palmitic acid, eugenol, esters of acetic and palmitic acids, pinene, camphene, sesqui-terpene, calamene, and a small quantity of phenol, Eugenol, Methyl Eugenol, Cilamenenol and Calameone.

The chief constituents are heavily dependent upon the chemical strain (di-, tri-, tetraploid); beta-asarone (cis-isoasarone), alpha- and gamma-asarone, beta-gurjuns, acorone (bitter), ZZ-Deca-4,7-dienal (odor-determining)

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Pharmacological Summary
Calamus has been shown to be of low toxicity in animals, and adverse reactions are rare. Though recent studies have revealed the presence of B-asarone, a carcinogen, the American variety is considered superior to the European because it seems to lack this ingredient. Calamus has exhibited anti-fungal, anti-parastic, anti-convulsant, and sedative actions, to name a few, within the confines of animal and in vitro studies. Nevertheless, additional research, including human trials, needs to be undertaken to confirm efficacy as an herbal medicine.

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Scientific Research and Pharmacologicial Actions
In Vitro and Animal Studies

Numerous documented studies have concentrated on activities associated with the oil. The pharmacology and toxicology of calamus oil have been reviewed.(5) Unless specified, all of the following actions refer to those exhibited by the oil.

Spasmolytic action in vitro versus various spasmogens in different smooth muscle preparations including tracheal, intestinal, uterine, bronchial and vascular has been reported for European and Indian varieties.(5-8) In one study activity was associated with a lack of Beta-asarone,(6) whereas oils with either low or high levels of Beta-asarone have also exhibited activity.(5,7) The pattern of spasmolytic activity has been compared to that of papaverine, and a direct musculotropic action has been proposed.(8) Unlike papaverine an acetylcholine-like action has also been observed with low dilutions of the oil and asarone.(8)

Inhibition of monoamine oxidase activity and a stimulation of D- and L-amino oxidase has been reported.(5) The mechanism for this activity, involving serotonin and adrenaline, has been disputed, and an alternative mechanism involving depression of hypothalamic function has been proposed.(9)

In vitro oil rich in Beta-asarone has been reported to reduce phenylbutazone-induced ulcers in the rat by 5-60%, although no effect was observed on stress- or ethanol-induced ulcers.(7) No spasmolytic activity was reported for oil free from or with low levels of Beta-asarone.

A sedative action and a potentiation of barbiturate effect (increased sleeping time, reduction in body temperature) have been described in a number of small animals (mice, rats, rabbits and cats) following intravenous or intraperitoneal administration of European (alcoholic and aqueous extracts) and Indian varieties.(5) Dexamfetamine has been found to block the potentiating action of the Indian variety on barbiturate sleeping time.(5) Potentiation of morphine activity has been reported for the European variety.

The Indian oil has been reported to deplete levels of serotonin and noradrenaline in the rat brain following intraperitoneal administration.(5) The mechanism of action was suggested as similar to that of reserpine, and a potentiation of the amfetamine-detoxifying effect of reserpine has also been described.(5) In contrast, the central action of the European variety has been stated to not resemble that of reserpine.(5) Anti-adrenergic activity demonstrated by antagonism of dexamfetamine-induced agitational symptoms has been reported for the Indian variety in various small animals.(5)

Anticonvulsant, anti-arrhythmic (like quinidine) and hypotensive (apparently not due to a nervous mechanism) activities in small animals have also been reported for the Indian variety.(5) Alpha-Asarone, isolated from Asarum europaeum (Aristolochiaceae), has a local anaesthetic activity similar to that of benzocaine.(10)

Antifungal activity has been documented for Beta-asarone(11) and for the oil (weak).(5) Insecticidal and leech repellant properties have been reported for the oil and may be synergised by synthetic pine oil.(5) Antibacterial activity primarily versus organisms responsible for gut and throat infections has been documented,(12) although a lack of antibacterial activity has also been reported.(5)

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"Calamus: Sweet Flag For Optimal Digestion"

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Precautions / Contraindications
In India, calamus powder has been taken for thousands of years with no reports of cancer arising from its use. This suggests that use of the whole herb may be safe, but more research is needed. However, Indian calamus is considered unsafe for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration due to the fact that massive doses given to lab rats over extended time periods has proven to be carcinogenic.

FDA studies have shown that only calamus native to India contains the carcinogen Beta-asarone. The North American variety contains only Asarone and is considered safe for humna consumption.

The toxicity of calamus oil has been associated with the Beta-asarone content.(16) It has therefore been advised that only roots free from, or with a low content of Beta-asarone should be used in human phytotherapy.(16) In foods and beverages, the level of Beta-asarone permitted in the final product is restricted (see Food use).

Use of the isolated oil is not recommended. External contact with the oil may cause an irritant reaction in sensitive individuals.

Calamus may potentiate monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) therapy (in vitro MAOI activity, amine constituents), although the clinical significance of the in vitro action has not been established.

Pregnancy and Lactation

In view of the toxic properties associated with calamus, it should not be used during pregnancy or lactation. It is not known whether Beta-asarone is excreted into the breast milk. In general, the topical application of any undiluted oil is not recommended. Application of preparations containing calamus oil may provoke an irritant reaction and is therefore best avoided.

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Interaction with Medications
None documented.

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Possible Side Effects
Concerns over the toxicity of calamus centre around the volatile oil and in particular on the Beta-asarone content. The level of Beta-asarone in the oil varies considerably between the different genetic species of calamus.

Feeding studies (rat) using the Indian oil (high Beta-asarone) have shown death, growth depression, hepatic and heart abnormalities, and serous effusion in abdominal and/or peritoneal cavities.(13,14) A two-year study involving diet supplemented with calamus oil at 0, 500, 1000, 2500 and 5000 ppm, reported growth depression, and malignant duodenal tumours after 59 weeks at all levels of dietary supplementation.(13,14) Tumours of the same type were not noted in the controls.

Genotoxic activity (strong induction of chromo somal aberrations, slight increase in the rate of sister chromatid exchanges) has been exhibited by Beta-asarone in human lymphocyte cultures in the presence of microsomal activation.(15) Mutagenic activity (Ames) has been documented for root extracts, a tincture and Beta-asarone in one (TA100) of the various Salmonella typhimurium strains (TA98, 100, 1535, 1537, 1538) tested, but only in the presence of a microsomal activation mix.(16) Lack of mutagenicity has also been reported for an organic extract, when tested in the above Salmonella typhimurium strains (except TA1538) with and without activation.(17)

Acute toxicities (LD50) quoted for the volatile oil from the Indian variety (high Beta-asarone content) include 777 mg/kg (rat, oral), >5 g/kg (guinea-pig, dermal), 221 mg/kg (rat, intraperitoneal).(5) The oleoresin is stated to be toxic at 400 and 800 mg/kg (mouse, intraperitoneal).(5) The LD50 of asarone in mice is stated to be 417 mg/kg (oral) and 310 mg/kg (intraperitoneal).(9)

Generally the oil is considered to be non-irritant, non-sensitising and non-phototoxic.(5)However, bath preparations containing the oil have reportedly caused erythema, and dermatitis has been reported in hypersensitive individuals.(5)

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Rhizome: 1-3 g or by infusion three times daily.

Dried Extract: While values vary dramatically, capsule strengths ranging from 400 mg to 600 mg are most commonly recommended. Calamus is often added to an herbal digestive blend in significantly smaller quantities. One capsule should be taken three times daily.

Liquid Extract: 1-3 mL (1 : 1 in 60% alcohol) three times daily.

Tincture: 2-4 mL (1 : 5 in 60% alcohol) three times daily.

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Use with CAUTION. Calamus will irritate skin if used full strength directly onto the skin. Some consider calamus a hazardous and experimental oil and should be avoided until more is learned about its properties.

Calamus in bath water is, however, considered safe usage of this essential oil. To use in a bath, add 250 to 500 g of calamus to the bath water.

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1. Stahl E, Keller K. Zur Klassifizierung handelsblicher Kalmusdrogen. Planta Med 1981; 43: 128-140.
2. Keller K, Stahl E. Zusammensetzung des „therischen ™les von Beta-asaronfreiem Kalmus. Planta Med 1983; 47: 71-74.
3. Mazza G. Gas chromatographic and mass spectrometric studies of the constituents of the rhizome of calamus. I. The volatile constituents of the essential oil. J Chromatogr 1985; 328: 179-194.
4. Mazza G. Gas chromatographic and mass spectrometric studies of the constituents of the rhizome of calamus. II. The volatile constituents of alcoholic extracts. J Chromatogr 1985; 328: 195- 206.
5. Opdyke DJL. Calamus oil. Food Cosmet Toxicol 1977; 15: 623-626.
6. Keller K et al. Spasmolytische wirkung des isoasaronfreien kalmus. Planta Med 1985; 6-9.(PubMed)
7. Keller K et al. Pharmacological activity of calamus oil with different amount of cis-iso asaron. Naunyn Schmiedeberg's Arch Pharmacol 1983; 324(): R55.
8. Das PK et al. Spasmolytic activity of asarone and essential oil of Acorus calamus, Linn. Arch Int Pharmacodyn 1962; 135: 167-177.
9. Calamus. Lawrence Review of Natural Products. St Louis, MO: JB Lippincott, 1989.
10. Gracza L. The active substances of Asarum europaeum. 16. The local anaesthetic activity of the phenylpropanoids. Planta Med 1983; 48: 153-157.(PubMed)
11. Ohmoto T, Sung Y-I. Antimycotic substances in the crude drugs II. Shoyakugaku Zasshi 1982; 36: 307-314.
12. Jain SR et al. Antibacterial evaluation of some indigenous volatile oils. Planta Med 1974; 26: 196-199.(PubMed)
13. Taylor JM et al. Toxicity of oil of calamus (Jammu Variety). Toxicol Appl Pharmacol 1967; 10: 405.
14. Gross MA et al. Carcinogenicity of oil of calamus. Proc Am Assoc Cancer Res 1967; 8: 24.
15. Abel G. Chromosome damaging effect on human lymphocytes by Beta-asarone. Planta Med 1987; 251-253.(PubMed)
16. G”ggelmann W, Schimmer O. Mutagenicity testing of Beta-asarone and commercial calamus drugs with Salmonella typhimurium. Mutat Res 1983; 121: 191-194.(PubMed)
17. Riazuddin S et al. Mutagenicity testing of some medicinal herbs. Environ Mol Mutagen 1987; 10: 141-148.(PubMed)

Our thanks to the following information resources: HerbalShaman.com, Medicinescomplete.com, Herbcraft.org.

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Calamus   (Read all about Calamus.)

Botanical Latin Name: Acorus calamus
Plant Part: Roots and rhizomes.

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