Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sweet Flag/ Kalmus

 Acorus calamus


photo Gudensø: stig bachmann nielsen,
In the foreground Kalmus and højt sødgræs (Glyceria) out in the water vandpileurt (Amphibious bistort).In the background bathing guests.

Acorus comes possibly from a Greek word meaning without, chore means pupil, referring to the medicinal use of the plant. The Danish name kalmus is Latin, and the same name is used in Germany and Sweden. The name kalmus origins from  the 1200s, from the older name calamus meaning tube or pipe.  Most used English name according to Liber herbarum is Sweet Flag. Other names: Calamus, beewort bitter pepper root, Myrtle Flag, Sweet Calamus, Sweet Myrtle, etc.

Kalmus has a thick white rootstock and sword-shaped 40-100 cm long leaves, the small flowers sit in a green bulb, "like little needle-houses". The whole plant has a strong spicy scent. It's found in Denmark in ponds by lakes and water streams. It is sometimes confused in non-botanic literature with German iris and reed. Kalmus likes to grow in water, best along water streams, but the plant can easily thrive in moist soil. It rarely produces flowers in Denmark, and it is reproduced by the outlets.

The species is said to be brought from Asia minor(Constantinople) in 1557 to Europe, where it reproduces only with loose rootstocks, but it was known in Europe long before as an imported droge (medicine) from India, and it might already have been brought from Baltikum in the Middle Ages to the Danish kloster- and castle gardens. In the 1600s it was both wildgrowing and plant in fish ponds. The roots were used for medicine, and descendants from kalmus have been found in several kloster- and castle ruins.

It has been discovered that the etherial parts of the plant can cause cancer, and the plant is prohibited for internal use in Denmark today.

Today's Use: 
The dried and pulverized root is now only used as a fixative in potpourris, since it holds on  to the scent of the other dried scent herbs. Internal use of kalmus was prohibited by den danske levnedsmiddelstyrelse in 1977.

 Folk medicine:
1300s: decoct as a drink for liver and bowl disease; boiled and put in a compress upon abscesses; cures old cough.
Henrik Smid 1546: pickled roots against stomach ache and coldfever (malaria); eaten in the morning for evil and poisonous smell - and it gives a fragrant breath; it is diuretic, it heals disease in blatter and kidneys, it crushes blatter stone and promotes menses.
Christiern Pedersen 1533: decoct to drink for heart trouble; the crushed root in wormwood-water as a drink against stomach diseases; pulverized kalmus together with the juice of mullein (kongelys) against haemorrhoids.
Simon Paulli 1648: The juice works as a diuretic, helps the spleen, "which is hard from evil mucoid and salten fluids", makes impure eyes clear; the roots pickled with honey and sugar is "an extremely wonderful and good healing for cold stomach and cold head", katarr and cold diseases; furthermore against cough and heart's distress and anxiety, bad breath is driven away, in times of plague it makes the air healthy; pulverized and drank in chervil-water to drive out the sweat in order "to loosen the blood which has gathered after blow and impact".

Medicine and Good Advice:  
The rhizome is a component in an appetizing vinegar-drink, (1600s); and it was very used in stomach tonics, put on snaps against colic and used to stimulate digestion; a decoct against stomach ache and a tea from the root to regulate the gastric acid. The droge (bought at pharmacy) was still used  in the 1900s against indigestion. If it was added to snaps together with the root of elecampane (alant) and angelic, then it became "the wise man's snaps" against heartburn, the root was also used against arthritis; together with the root of European birthwort (slangerod) and angelic in rum against chest disease (tuberculosis) and cough; a wise woman let her jaundice-patient drink snaps with kalmus root, and "it had to be drunk by a full moon".

The rootstock was noted in the pharmacopoeia in 1772, and its reputation as a highly invigorating and strengthening medicine caused a big sale of the droge. Det kongelige landhusholdningsselskab ( a union of farmer households) rewarded in 1814 a man, who had gathered 1251 pounds of kalmus- and angelic roots for the pharmacies, and in the late 1800s large amounts were gathered in the river Gudenå by Randers.

If it was very cold, people did chew a piece of kalmus root and sank the juice (1789);  the root was chewed against toothache - or the sore tooth was rinsed with a decoct of water and vinegar, the last drink was also used against scurvy, and the gums around loose teeth could be rubbed with pulverized kalmus root and china bark.

If people were afraid of being infected from patient visits, they chewed a piece of kalmus root; this promoted  a large portion of saliva, "therefore it is used as a means against infection". In 1800 it was said to be enough to walk with the root in the pocket. Kalmus was chewed against infection during "The Spanish Flu" in 1919-25.

Cattle and Horse.......
If the root is thrown into the water, the animals stay healthy. The kalmus root is included in a complex cure "from ancient times" against cattle diseases, and especially if the cattle is bewitched. If the cow is able to stand up in spring, kalmus root and pepper is put into a scratched wound; kalmus was used against abortion of the calf, used together with juniper or the root cooked with juniper and resin in beer. If the cow gave blue milk,  it was given kalmus and cumin in chalked water, and if the milk was without cream, the cow had a powder of kalmus and lovage root, mixed with slaked lime dissolved in water.

A horse who has "stepped over" = sprained the hoof joint, is bathed with a spirits-extraction of the root cut in  cubes, the extract is also poured over the bandage (ab. 1900). It was given for the pig's vomiting, and was the part of an advice against defects in geese. The veteranians used the root as a stomach and appetizing tonic.

Other use:
In order to protect the harvested corn and the heaps against mice and rats, fresh cut kalmus roots or leaves were placed upon the barn floor and/or between each layer of sheaf. It was recommended to plait a cornband of the leaves, since the mice could not cut them; the root or leaves could also be placed in rooms and spread on the floor against fleas, or put into the mattress to keep away the fleas. "Who did not sleep in kalmus root in the old days?" This plant was extremely popular as a bedstraw, and it was harvested in numbers and sold to the citizens. Kalmus mixed with carbamate (hjortetaksalt) was used to drive out ants. Many Jutlanders chewed the root instead of chewing tobacco.  "He's smelling of kalmus root, of smoked lard and fish",  is told in an old song. The children gathered the bittersweet rootstocks to chew them.

The hay bundles were tied with kalmus band, which could last for 10 years, reed mats made from the kalmus leaves had a strange smell. Sour beer would be welltasting, if kalmus root was put into the barrel, (1600s). The root was also used for smoking against bad smell in rooms.

Food and Drink:
A jam from the root is mentioned from the 1500s till the 1800s. It was often put into snaps as an extra taste and it was the part of many herbal snaps, stomach bitters and liqueurs.  (like Benedictine liqueur and chartreuse).

If you put a piece of the root into a wash bowl or a water tank, it could rinse the water from toxic substances. The root was also used as a sacrifice to the gods.

Source: V. J. Brøndegaard, Folk og Flora, Dansk etnobotanik, Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1980; Anemette Olesen, Danske Klosterurter, Aschehoug  Dansk Forlag, 2001.
photo Gudensø: stig bachmann nielsen,
photo and photo copy: grethe bachmann

From wikipedia: 
Use in other countries:
In Britain the plant was also cut for use as a sweet smelling floor covering for the packed earth floors of medieval dwellings and churches, and stacks of rushes have been used as the centrepiece of rushbearing ceremonies for many hundreds of years. It has also been used as a thatching material for English cottages.
In antiquity in the Orient and Egypt, the rhizome was thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac. In Europe Acorus calamus was often added to wine, and the root is also one of the possible ingredients of absinthe. Among the northern Native Americans, it is used both medicinally and as a stimulant. It is believed by some that calamus is a hallucinogen. This urban legend is based solely on two pages of a book written by Hoffer and Osmund entitled The Hallucinogens. To date there is no solid evidence of any hallucinogenic substances in calamus. Acorus calamus shows neuroprotective effect against stroke and chemically induced neurodegeneration in rat. Specifically, it has protective effect against acrylamide induced neurotoxicity.The essence from the rhizome is used as a flavor for pipe tobacco. When eaten in crystallized form, it is called "German ginger". It's also used in bitters.

Zephyrus and Chloris

The kalmus has long been a symbol of love. The name is associated with a Greek myth: Kalamos, son of the river-god Maeander, who loved the youth Karpos, of Zephyrus, (the West Wind) and Chloris (Spring). When Karpos drowned in a swimming race, Kalamos also drowned and was transformed into a reed, whose rustling in the wind was interpreted as a sigh of lamentation. The plant was a favorite of Henry David Thoreau,  (who called it "sweet flag"), and also of Walt Whitman, who added a section called the  "Calamus" poems, to the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860). In the poems the calamus is used as a symbol of love, lust, and affection. The name Sweet Flag refers to its sweet scent (it has been used as a strewing herb) and the wavy edges of the leaves which are supposed to resemble a fluttering flag.  


Gerry Snape said...

great post ! I shall look up the whitman poems on calamus...thankyou!

Thyra said...

Hej Gerry! I have looked up the calamus-poems, have you seen them now? There are 45 in Leaves of Grass! (as far as I can see from the info right now, it will take time to choose one). I'd like to put one calamus- poem on my poetry blog, maybe you'll use one for your Thursday poem, Gerry?

Michael and Hanne said...

A Wonderful Post Thyra!

Thyra said...

Tusind tak, kære Michael og Hanne!
Grethe ´)