Sweet euphoria from bitterroot
Tucked away inside Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1860) are 45 poems entitled Calamus that sing of euphoria, love and lust. Whitman, possibly America’s greatest 19th century poet created these sensuous poetic delights using the calamus flower as metaphor for love expressed. Whitman and his friends also regularly chewed and consumed calamus root—or sweet flag as it was more commonly called—for enjoyment clearly revelling in its psychoactive effect.
Calamus, well known a century ago, having a long history in both Native American and European (as well as Asian) pharmacopoeia, is poorly understood today. Much of the confusion stems from the fact that in North America calamus refers to a number of different species. American calamus (Acorus americanus) is a semi-aquatic hardy plant found in just about every state/province in North America, from Nova Scotia to Alaska to Florida. But today the European calamus (Acorus calamus) introduced in the 18th century has the same range. Furthermore, a dwarf Asian calamus (Acorus graminus) has also been introduced and is rapidly spreading. Nonetheless, it is the American variety, which interests us, and the other two should be avoided.
Despite being common, this plant—its chemistry and pharmacology of the various psychoactive components—has not been well studied, and few are aware of its subtle entheogenic potential. Here’s a plant truly worthy of greater juggernaut exploration. Sweet flag (Acorus americanus) is found in the same habitat that cattails are found. It has long linear sword-like leaves and stands one to two meters high. Despite looking like grasses, Sweet flags belong to their own family and they are the oldest surviving monocots. Until flowering, the plant can be difficult to differentiate from the plants it associates with. In bloom, the plant is unmistakable as the 2- to 4-inch long flower looks like a penis (and thus provided Whitman with a great metaphor). What interests the shaman most, though, is its creeping underground root rhizome.
In bloom, Acorus americanus is unmistakable as the 2- to 4-inch long flower looks like a phallus (above). Harvested and dried calamus roots (below).
To distinguish A. americanus from A. calamus and A. graminus is not easy. They look quite similar. A. graminus is the dwarf variety and the easiest to differentiate. The leaf of A. americanus has a more pronounced raised midvein in addition to one to five additional raised veins. A. calamus has only one less pronounced raised vein. The leaves of A. calamus also are longer and wider than A. americanus. The best way to actually see these differences would be to examine live plant specimens. Both plants are cheaply available on the Internet if you wish to experiment and do not live near a good garden centre.
While a full chemical analysis of A. americanus still awaits undertaking, it most certainly contains ∂-asarone but does not contain ß-asarone—a known carcinogen—that is found in the other species of calamus. (This would be the reason for avoiding the non-native calamus.) Asarone - 1,2,4-trimethoxy-5-propenylbenzene or 2,4,5-trimethoxy-1- benzene is an MDA-type compound and is a precursor to TMA-2 2,4,5-trimethoxyamphetamine (a properly scheduled phenethylamine compound). Asarone appears to break down by aminization in the liver to TMA-2, a most delicious entheogen. TMA-2 was first discovered to be psychoactive by Dr. Alexander Shulgin in 1962, and is characterized as mescaline or MDMA-like. As a phenethylamine, it should never be taken with a MAOI, a contraindication that applies to the calamus plant too. (If you are on MAOI medication you should NOT experiment with calamus.) However, since ∂-asarone alone does not give the effect described by those properly dosed on calamus, the thought is that there are other, as yet undiscovered, psychoactive substances present in A. americanus. The chemistry and pharmacology of this exciting plant awaits further research.
American sweet flag is fairly safe given its long worldwide association with human pharmacopoeia. One can document long association with numerous Native American groups as well as early European colonists. Calamus was and still is used among the Cree, Sioux, Dakota, Algonquin and other tribes for oral hygiene, digestive problems, diabetes, and as an analgesic and a stimulant. The Canadian trappers of the Hudson Bay Company used it to combat fatigue. While more anthropological research is needed, there does appear to be some evidence that the Native Americans utilized the root at larger doses as an entheogen. The anthropologist June Helm found such evidence among the various northwest Canadian Indians. The Cree today still note that eating the root will “allow one to travel great distances without touching the ground” and Ojibwa of the Great Lakes region utilize calamus for introducing their psychedelic mushroom rituals. Given that these magic mushroom rituals were hidden until only a couple of decades ago, it would seem possible that future research will affirm calamus as a known Native American entheogen.
The Cree today still note that eating the root will “allow one to travel great distances without touching the ground” and Ojibwa of the Great Lakes region utilize calamus for introducing their psychedelic mushroom rituals.
The best time for harvesting the rootstock is in the spring or fall, when pulling the rhizomes from the soft soggy earth is the easiest. Remove any small rhizomes that are attached, as they are particularly bitter. A good size section will be 2 to 5-cm thick but dry to the thickness of a pencil. Fresh or dried material must be chewed well and then swallowed. Dried roots will deteriorate after a year and should be tossed. A 5-cm section of dried root generally gives one a stimulating and lightly euphoric experience. While some have described dosing on a 25-cm root as LSD-like—the effect, in truth, is subtler.
There are reports of people vomiting off the root, and as the medicinal effect of calamus is to aid dyspepsia and digestive troubles, these individuals either obtained the wrong plant or ate the root too fast. Start off slowly—with a small amount of root and work from there. Don’t let the bitter taste rush the chewing. Interestingly, the most common Native American name for calamus was “bitterroot.” Calamus stimulates the digestive tract, so if you take in too much too quickly you will overstimulate the stomach and possibly puke. Chew calamus root slowly and breathe deeply. Calamus magic isn’t given to the impatient.
Now for cannabis users, calamus has an added plus. While this shaman believes cannabis to be a fine addition to most entheo-events, smoking a wee bit of calamus with cannabis is truly a divine experience. Try smoking them together or additionally you can chew a bit of root for a while and then smoke a bit of cannabis—thus producing a lovely syncretic experience.
In closing, it should be mentioned American calamus, both live plants or dried plant material can be easily bought online. Care should be taken to buy from a reputable place to ensure one actually gets the desired A. americanus. In addition, since an active ingredient of calamus, asarone can be used in the manufacturing of the scheduled TMA-2, one should take care not to order an overly large amount of the plant or rootstock, which might possibly alert the authorities to one’s entheo-interests. While possession of calamus is totally legal, the consumption of such for its psychedelic quality would most certainly be suspect. The wise shaman is a safe shaman.
Never consume any psychoactive substance unless you are not 100% sure of its identification. All experimentation with hallucinogens should be done in a safe environment with the presence of an experienced trip sitter. This article should therefore only serve as an initial guide for further exploration of entheogens.
For additional entheogen resources: www.iceers.org
Muraco Kyashna-tochá is a cultural anthropologist with over 50 years of experience exploring the nether regions of her mind with entheogens. She is an award-winning educator and a recognized medical cannabis advocate with extensive experience working on medical cannabis legislation in Washington State.
For more from Muraco Kyashna-tochá go to: www.muraco.org
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