Calamus – History
Calamus (Acorus calamus, Acoraceae), also known as sweet flag, is an aquatic plant, often found in marshes, reminiscent of a cat-tail, with reed-like stems, sword-shaped leaves and long-branched, cigar-shaped rhizomes often immersed in mud, that prefers full sun. 1,2 The tiny inconspicuous, yellow-green flowers appear off a long, thick, fleshy spike (spadix). Examination of the DNA has shown that this calamus is the oldest living lineage of the monocots.2
The scent, while found in all parts of the plant, is most aromatic in the rhizomes. It has been described as sweet with a sharp tang and “a delicate combination of green leaves, roses, and orris with nuances of a clean, fatty odor.” 2 Calamus was included in Egyptian perfume formulations and may have been an ingredient in their premier perfume Kyphi.3 The Greeks included calamus in their Kyphi versions. No evidence exists that it was grown in Egypt, making it a costly import from India and Syria. Rekhmere, the vizier to Tuthmosis III (1465 BCE), oversaw the pharoah’s storehouses and included scenes from his position on his tomb in Thebes. Included twice are stacks of bound reeds, one between jars of incense and another with a known perfume ingredient, with the hieroglyphic inscription kenen, thought to be calamus.
According to Pliny, the plant grew in Arabia, Syria, and India, with Syria having the superior quality. He describes the Syrian variety as having “a particularly fine scent which attracts people even from a long way off…Inside the tube there is a sort of cobweb which is called the flower, the plant containing most of this is the best. The remaining tests of its goodness are that it should be black…and it is better the shorter and thicker it is and if it is pliant in its breaking.”
The blades were scattered as rushes in medieval and Renaissance establishments, by both the gentry and the serfs, and was highly prized by the churches.2 One of the charges brought by the Crown against Cardinal Woolsey was his excessive use of the rushes which had to be transported to London from Norfolk and Suffolk.
The Greeks used it to treat eye disease, from whence the plant gets its name; akore is the Greek word for “without pupil”. The dried rhizomes were widely used in bitters, vermouths, liqueurs, and sweets. In Europe, calamus decoctions were used to treat indigestion, flatulence, and acidity.3 Calamus has been included in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, and the Vedic seers held it in high esteem.4
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1Lawless J. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press; 2013.
2Tucker AO, Debaggio T. The Encyclopedia of Herbs – A Comprehensive Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2nd edition;2009.
3Maniche L. Sacred Luxuries – Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. London: Opus Publishing Ltd.; 1999.
4Frawley D, Lad V. The Yoga of Herbs – An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press; 1986.