Calamus true identity is disputed by biblical scholars.. Acorus calamus and Cymbopogon are popular candidates. Both species are monocots, prefer moist habitats, and are sources 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 (Sweet Cinnamon, Sweet Flag, Sweet Cane, Myrtle Flag, Myrtle Root)

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, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, Russia, and North America. It grows close to streams, lakes, and other water bodies. It is a perennial monocot that looks like grass, grows up to two meters tall, and makes a swishing sound in the wind. Four varieties are classified by natural polyploidy: diploid, triploid, tetraploid, and hexaploid. The rhizome grows horizontally just below the surface in lengths up to two meters. The blooms are yellowish-green, tiny, and inconspicuously attached to the spadix. The leaves and the rhizome are scented. The citrus aroma is strongest in the rhizome, which is whitish pink and contains aromatic oil. It has a bitter taste. When the rhizome is dried, it loses 70–75 percent of its weight, but drying enhances the aroma. The rhizome can be stored for up to three years before it loses its aromatic oil.

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 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 the 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.” In contrast, 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 Christianity spread across Europe and beyond, calamus was introduced to people worldwide. Its linkages with history, culture, and religion added to the mystery of these plants.

Acorus calamus has been introduced in many European nations; for example, the Tatars introduced it to Poland (14th Century AD). The famous botanist Clusius cultivated it in Vienna in 1574 from a root obtained from Asia Minor. Leaves were used for thatching roofs and weaving baskets. From there, it expanded to France, Germany, and England around the end of the 16th century. Imports to Europe from India and other regions continued until the 18th century. 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 discovering 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 be 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 the calamus in anointing oil also continues.

Book link: Holy Herbs: Modern connections to ancient plants

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