Calamus: The herb that is known as sweet cinnamon and myrtle root

Image via

by Sudhir Ahluwalia | |

Biblical scholars are divided on the true identity of calamus. Acorus calamus and Cymbopogon are popular candidates. Both the species are monocots, both prefer moist habitats and both are a source of aromatic essential oils. Others, such as Benet (1967) have posited a less popular theory that cannabis is the sweet calamus mentioned in the Bible. The name calamus derives from the Hebrew word qaneh, which in English translates into “cane.” Biblical scholars also interpret “sweet” as an attribute of perfection and purity.

Acorus Calamus

Calamus is distributed across many parts of the globe and has many common names: sweet cinnamon, sweet cane, myrtle grass, myrtle flag, and myrtle root. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the plant is native to India, China, Japan, Korea, southeastern and central Asia, Mongolia, Russia, and North America. It grows close to streams, lakes, and other water bodies.

In ancient times, the plant was probably exported in dried form from Asia to the Mediterranean, where it was used as a substitute for ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The Ayurvedic literature, including the Sushruta Samhita, lists two species of Acorus in the family Acoraceae as medicinal plants: A. calamus and A. gramineus. A. calamus was discovered in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen of Egypt. Theophrastus in his Plants IX and Pliny in his Natural History (25.157) reference an aromatic reed found growing in Lebanon and India called Calamus odoratus. Pliny states that the product from India was superior to that found in the Arabian Peninsula. Dioscorides refers to it as Indian calamus.

Because the use of Holy Anointing Oil was originally exclusive to clergy, it makes sense that the most valuable and expensive ingredients would be sought and imported, if necessary. Verses from the Bible support this claim. For example, Jehovah, through his prophet, reproved the sinful Israelites for “having bought” (in Hebrew, qani′tha) no “cane” (qa·neh′) for his temple service (Isaiah 43:24). Also, Jeremiah 6:20 refers to cane received from a “land far away,” whereas Ezekiel 27:3, 19 includes cane among the products that the wealthy traded at the port of Tyre, a key Mediterranean port of that time. As Roman culture and then Christianity spread across Europe and beyond, calamus was introduced to people across the world. Its linkages with history, culture, and religion added to the mystery of these plants.

Today, the fragrant oil from the rhizome is used as a flavoring agent in alcoholic beverages, fragrances, perfumes, and sacred oils. According to a 2012 Department of Agriculture and Agri Food Canada report, the sweet flag oil used by the North American fragrance industry is worth $30 million. However, this industry diminished greatly after the discovery of carcinogenic chemicals in sweet flag rhizomes. A. calamus is still cultivated in parts of India, both as an intercrop with rice and as a monocrop. Mixed with long pepper and ginger, the aromatic property of the plant is used as a food additive. The average yield of A. calamus rhizomes is estimated to between 10–12 metric tons of rhizomes per hectare. Some exports of A. calamus rhizome to Singapore and other markets have been reported, mostly for use in herbal medicine. The use of calamus in anointing oil also continues.

About Sudhir

Sudhir Ahluwalia is a business consultant. He has been management consulting head of Asia’s largest IT outsourcing company Tata Consultancy Services, business advisor to multiple companies, columnist and author of upcoming book on herbs-Holy Herbs. He has been a member of the Indian Forest Service. His webpage is: