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Sweet Flag

( Originally Published 1933 )



Acorus aromaticus, Calamus, Sweet Cane, Sweet Grass Araceae

Perennial

The sweet flag, thought to have come originally from India, grows along streams and lakes throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Root. The roots are a thickened rhizome from which numerous fleshy rootlets grow in parallel lines. The inside is smooth and white and smells like the leaves of lemon, and is more powerful when dried than when it is fresh.

Leaf. The leaves rise from a sheaf and are yellow-green, linear, smooth, shiny, terminate in a point, and somewhat resemble those of Iris versicolor. In my garden they grow to two feet or more high, but Bailey says they rise to six feet. They are one-third to three-quarters of an inch broad and have a prominent midrib a little to one side, which is raised on both under and upper surfaces. Their lemony scent is given off without touching them, and when they are crushed there is more of the lemon peel and sweetness in the fragrance. Some say it is like the scent of bay leaves; others, like violets, lemon, or apple.

Flower. The inflorescence is a green, cone-shaped spathe about three inches long, at first incrusted with little golden dots around tiny green nobs, later forming a spiral pattern as in a textile. These are the flowers, which are too small to see without a microscope. They are bisexual, come early in June, and last a long while.

Variety. A variegated form is spoken of which might be a good garden plant.

HISTORY AND LEGEND

The sweet flag is mentioned in the Bible and by Theophrastus. In Parkinson's day it was used medicinally and the leaves and roots when tied to a hive of bees were thought both to prevent them from wandering away and to attract other bees. It was in Adrian van der Donck's garden at Yonkers in 1653. Bartram listed it in 1814. In India it has been used medicinally, especially for bowel complaint in children, and there is a severe penalty upon the druggist who refuses to open his shop door at night to sell it.

In China, the rushes are hung up at the Dragon boat festival, its property of killing insects is known, and the leaves are woven into mats.

USES

The roots are laid amongst furs to protect them from moths, and also amongst books and stuffs as a protection against other insects. The rushes were strewn on the floors in olden days.

Medicine. It is a pleasant aromatic and stomachic, and is official in most pharmacopoeias, but not much employed in modern medicines. The candied roots are used medicinally in Turkey and India.

Perfumery. The essential oil from the bark of the roots is used in perfumery. The roots are pulverized and made into toilet and sachet powders.

Food. The leaves flavor custards and creams, and are said to be particularly delicious in a creamy rice pudding. The Tartars put a piece of the root in their mouths before drinking water to purify it. In New England the roots are cut into rings and preserved in sugar. It is used by country people throughout the United States as an ingredient in wine bitters. The Swedes make a spirit from the corn, and the English use the oil from the bark of the root to flavor gin and certain kinds of beer.

CULTURE

It grows wild in moist situations, yet under cultivation it will grow in fairly dry upland soil, and seems to like the sun.

Propagation is by divisions of old roots, which should be set out in the fall, one foot apart, and well covered.

Harvest. The roots are harvested in the fall, after the plant is dried. The small rootlets are removed before marketing. The roots should not be peeled, for it is the bark of the root which yields the essential oil. The annual importation of calamus root is from five to ten tons, and it comes principally from South Russia.



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