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S W E E T S E D G E
(ACORUS CALAMUS, FAM. ARACEAE)
Synonyms : Calamus, Sweet Flag, Sweet Root, Sweet Rush, Sweet Cane, Gladdon, Sweet Myrtle, Myrtle Grass, Myrtle Sedge, Cinnamon Sedge.
PART USED ROOT
It is found in all European countries except Spain, and becomes more abundant eastward and in southern Russia, northern Asia Minor and southern Siberia, China and Japan. It is also found in the northern United States of America, where it appears to be indigenous.
The Sweet Sedge is a vigorous, reed-like, aquatic plant, flourishing in ditches, by the margins of lakes and streams and in marshy places generally, associated with reeds, bulrushes and bur-reed.
Its erect, sword-shaped leaves bear considerable resemblance to those of the Yellow Flag, hence its equally common popular name of 'Sweet Flag'. All parts of the plant have a peculiar, agreeable fragrance.
Formerly, on account of its pleasant odor, it was freely strewn on the floors of churches at festivals and often in private houses, instead of rushes. The specific name, calamus, is derived from the Greek calamos (a reed). The floors of Norwich Cathedral until quite recently were always strewn with calamus at great festivals.
Though now common throughout Europe, there is little doubt that the Sweet Flag is a native of eastern countries, being indigenous to the marshes of the mountains of India. It is said to have been introduced into Poland by the Tartars, but not till 1588 is it recorded as abundant in Germany.
Calamus was largely grown from time immemorial for its rhizomes in the East and the Indian rhizomes were imported extensively long after it was common in Europe. The Indian rhizome is said to have a stronger and more agreeable flavor than that obtained in Europe or the United States.
If the Calamus of the Bible is this plant, Exodus xxx. 23, Canticles iv. 14, and Ezekiei xxvii. 19, are the earliest records of its use. It is cultivated to a small extent in Hungary, Burma and Ceylon, and is common in gardens in India.
The Sweet Sedge is a perennial herb, in habit somewhat resembling the Iris, with a long, indefinite, branched, cylindrical rhizome immersed in the mud, usually smaller than that of the Iris, about the thickness of a finger and emitting numerous roots.
The erect leaves are yellowish-green, 2 to 3 feet in length, few, all radical, sheathing at their bases (which are pink), sword shaped, narrow and flat, tapering into a long, acute point, the edges entire, but wavy or crimped.
The leaves are much like those of Iris, but may readily be distinguished from these and from all others by the peculiar crimped edges and their aromatic odor when bruised.
The scape or flower-stem arises from the axils of the outer leaves, which it much resembles, but is longer and solid and triangular.
From one side, near the middle of its length, projecting upwards at an angle, from the stem, it sends out a solid, cylindrical, blunt spike or spadix, tapering at each end, from 2 to 4 inches in length, often somewhat curved and densely crowded with very small greenish-yellow flowers.
Each tiny flower contains six stamens enclosed in a perianth with six divisions and surrounding a three celled, oblong ovary with a sessile stigma.
The flowers are sweet-scented and so formed that cross-pollination is ensured, but the plant is not usually fertile in the British Isles, as it is in Asia, the proper insects being absent here.
The fruit, which does not ripen in Europe, is a berry, being full of mucus, which falls when ripe into the water or to the ground, and is thus dispersed, but it fruits sparingly everywhere and propagates itself mainly by the rapid growth of its spreading rhizome.
It is easily distinguished from all other British plants by its peculiar spadix, which appears in June and July, and by the fragrance of its roots, stems and leaves. In most localities the flowers are not very abundantly produced: it never flowers unless actually growing in water.