My dear friend, herbalist jim mcdonald, returns to the show to share all about the benefits of calamus root. Among its other gifts, calamus root is known as an herb that can help you clear away mental cobwebs and enhance your focus. jim is a gifted storyteller and I know you’ll enjoy hearing how an early experience with calamus root set the stage for how he approaches learning about herbs to this day.
By the end of this episode, you’ll know:
► The many gifts and medicinal benefits of calamus root.
► Does it matter what species of calamus you work with?
► Is calamus root safe?
► How you can grow calamus at home.
For those of you who haven’t already met him, in 1994 jim mcdonald's life changed when he drank tea from a wild plant he harvested from the land he lived upon. Since those first sips of strange tea, his life in the woods and meadows of southeast michigan has been centered on the plants & ecosystems of that land, and how he might share their virtues to restore wellness with those around him. jim's approach to herbcraft is deeply rooted in the land he lives upon, and blends traditional european folk influences with 19th century eclectic and physiomedical vitalism, which he conveys with story, experience, humour, common sense and lore to students, clients, random passersby and readers of his websites www.herbcraft.org & herbcraft.podia.com. He's taught classes throughout North America, is one of the organizers of the Great Lakes Herb Faire and is currently alternately writing Foundational Herbcraft and A Great Lakes Herbal, in addition to articles for journals and other publications. jim is a community herbalist, a manic wildcrafter and medicine maker, and has been an ardent student of the most learned teachers of herbcraft… the plants themselves.
I’m so happy to share our conversation with you today!
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Rosalee: Hello and welcome to the Herbs with Rosalee Podcast, a show exploring how herbs heal as medicine, as food and through nature connection. I’m your host, Rosalee de la Forêt. I created this Channel to share trusted herbal wisdom so that you can get the best results when relying on herbs for your health. I love offering up practical knowledge to help you dive deeper into the world of medicinal plants and seasonal living.
Each episode of the Herbs with Rosalee Podcast is shared on YouTube, as well as your favorite podcast app. Also, to get my best herbal tips as well as fun bonuses, be sure to sign up for my weekly herbal newsletter. Okay, grab your cup of tea and let’s dive in.
Whether or not you’ve heard of calamus root, I know you’re going to love this episode with jim mcdonald. In his usual fashion, jim not only shares some of his extensive personal experience of working with this plant, but he also shares many other stories and bits of wisdom about being an herbalist and working with herbs.
This is jim’s second appearance on the show. He has another popular episode on plantain, so definitely check that out if you haven’t already. I also want to give you a head’s up that I have a new ending to the podcast, which not only gives you a gold star for listening, but also rewards you with a little herbal tidbit. So, for anyone wanting any extra credit, this is my nudge to encourage you to stay until the end.
For those of you who don’t know jim, he is a personal friend of mine and one of my favorite herbalists to learn from. His teachings are incredibly influential in my own life and I’m thrilled to have him back on the show.
In 1994, jim mcdonald’s life changed when he drank tea from a wild plant he harvested from the land he lived upon. Since those first sips of strange tea, his life in the woods and meadows of southeast michigan has been centered on the plants and ecosystems of that land and how you might share their virtues to restore wellness with those around him.
jim’s approach to herbcraft is deeply rooted in the land he lives upon, and blends traditional european folk influences with 19th century eclectic and physiomedical vitalism, which he conveys with story, experience, humor, common sense and lore to students, clients, random passersby and readers of his websites at herbcraft.org and herbcraft.podia.com. He’s taught classes throughout North America, is one of the organizers of the Great Lakes Herb Faire and is currently alternately writing Foundational Herbcraft and A Great Lakes Herbal, in addition to articles for journals and other publications.
jim is a community herbalist, a manic wildcrafter and medicine maker, and has been an ardent student of the most learned teachers of herbcraft – the plants themselves.
Well, jim, welcome to the show again.
jim: Hey, welcome back!
Rosalee: Welcome back.
jim: I like doing that. It’s what people say, when somebody says happy birthday? You know when you say, “You, too,” and then you wait a moment while they think about it. It just makes interacting fun.
Rosalee: Well, welcome back. It’s such a pleasure. I haven’t had a lot of people back on the show for another time. I know that I will continue to have you back over and over again because you’re an okay herbalist and you’re my good friend, so… [laughs]
jim: That’s a good way to prime it, right?
jim: I’m like that too. I have not yet had my fill of you where I’m like, “I don’t want to talk to her again.”
Rosalee: Oh, I’m glad that it’s reciprocal, that we’re both still into this.
jim: I mean, what now the next time—like if it’s a really long time, people will be like, “They must have got sick of each other.”
Rosalee: Now, we have to keep up appearances. Alright, we’ll just…
jim: See how I scored more spots? Clever.
Rosalee: Very clever. Very clever. For those of you who haven’t heard jim’s previous episode on plantain, I highly recommend listening to that after you listen to this one. In there, jim tells his origin story and I thought instead of repeating the origin story, which I assume is more or less the same depending on whatever embellishments you have decided on in the last year, I thought it would be fun to do another question, and that question is – What is your calamus origin story? We’re just going to jump right into the herb.
jim: I have a good calamus origin story. So, last we left our hero in the last episode, you know I got into herbalism. I found some books. I started reading about plants and one of the things that I did right away that really shaped the way that I learned, is I didn’t start learning about plants and then go and buy capsules of things. It was just like I wanted to find the herb. I was living outside of east lansing, a town called okemos, and there was a food coop with a bulk herb section. They had some things. They had the normal Frontier and Star West Botanicals, bulk herbs, mostly Frontier, I think. I found out about this amazing shop in detroit. It’s still around. It’s called Nature’s Products and it’s run by a guy named Gary Wantaja. I think that’s the way you say his last name, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it out loud to him to be corrected or confirmed, but Gary at Nature’s Products in the very north part of detroit.
I went to his shop and it was like 300 gallon jars or more just full of bulk herbs. He had a few supplements and a few tinctures and a few bottles of that. The kind of herb shop he has is just a bunch of bulk herbs and a lot of Chinese herbs, a lot of western herbs. Still one of the few places that I could go and look for pellitory of the wall.
jim: Yeah, right? That kind of place. I would just go in there and I’d look. I’d look at the jars and I didn’t know what some things were and I recognized what some things were. I saw calamus written, a handwritten label, and I was like, “Oh, I’ll take an ounce of that.” He gets the jar. He puts it in the bag on the triple beam scale and I leave there. I know a few things about it. I know it’s a digestive system herb but I don’t really know that much about it.
My girlfriend then, wife now, Stephanie, was with me, and I was going with her to Wayne State University where she had class. In the particular building she had class in has these rooms down—and each one is kind of themed, so there’s like Middle Eastern architecture style room where the style, the way—there was like the medieval room with stained glass and cool stuff.
Look how prepared I am. I have my Silmarillion. If you haven’t read this, I mean, obviously, obviously, everyone has read Lord of the Rings, right? And then they might want to find out more, some context and read The Silmarillion. I was reading Silmarillion and I was like chewing on some calamus because I had read that that was a traditional way to use it. I was taking a little bit of the cut and sifted herb, and chewing on them, and I was reading, and then I would look up and something’s different. Something feels different. I think the calamus is like I feel something different since I’ve started chewing the calamus, but as soon as I tried to put my finger on it and figure out what it was, it was like, no, I can’t really tell. I go back to reading and then I’d stop again and I look around. Maybe look but also not look, like feel out. It feels different and I couldn’t get something.
One time, I was a little bit—after I’ve done this three times—I was reading and it’s like something is totally different. Rather than look up and try and figure it out, I just sort of kept reading and I was like, “Wait a minute.” I’m reading the words about the valar on the paper, “These things the Valar did, recalling in their twilight the darkness of the lands of Arda,” but I realized that I’m also able to see in my peripheral vision, even I’m looking at the page, the stained glass and the little bookshelves were there, which is not normal. I was like, “Oh, wow. It’s really affecting my perception and more things are in focus.” Focus is a quality that calamus has often stated to have, but I think sometimes we think about focus as like I can focus in on that one thing, and this was more of a very broad, depth of field sort of focus.
Partially, because of that experience and more experience of walking up the woods and chewing little bits of the root—actually, technically, the rhizome—I started to get this sense of the plant. Because this was very early in my learning about herbs, one of the things that I realized later is I didn’t just learn about calamus from chewing on it and feeling how did I feel before and how did I feel after, but I also learned a way about learning about plants, which is like I’ve read all this stuff in books but what do I feel in my body? What is the visceral perception of this?
A lot of times, there were things about calamus, and afterwards, things about all these other plants that I learned more from actually ingesting them and consuming them and smelling them and feeling them and touching them than I did from reading stuff. It’s not that reading stuff is bad, but when you read stuff, it kind of primes you to think about something a certain way. Often times, you would discover different things that are just as true and just as real.
I would meet other people who are into calamus and they would say stuff that was the same as I’d never seen written down anywhere but that I had come to from walking around and chewing on calamus. I think that as you meet people who use the herbs that you use, you’ll often find some people who really know an herb well will have common experiences with it because it’s just a part of the plant, but it might not be something that everyone read in the same book. It’s not like that one quote from Grieve’s Modern Herbal that everyone knows. It’s stuff you get from interacting with it.
Rosalee: I love that story because I can see how that has played a role in your herbal path ever since. What a powerful lesson that is because it is so easy to just stay within a book and just read and learn passively, but in that way, calamus was almost teaching you, like taking your hand and being like, “Here. Here’s another way to learn about plants.”
jim: And like I said, it changed not only the way I learned about calamus but the way I started learning about all the different herbs. It’s become if I’m learning about an herb, it’s of course, I read about it. Why wouldn’t I do that? But I’m also trying to consume it in all kinds of different ways and that’s not just taking tinctures and making teas, but chewing on it, smelling, doing steam inhalation. I’ve done steam inhalations with weird stuff that it’s like, “Why would you do steam inhalation of that?” I’m like, “Why wouldn’t I?” “It’s not aromatic.” Somehow it still did something that was unique, that was different than just inhaling steamy water, so something’s coming up with the steam.
It’s adventurous, right? It’s exciting. It’s like you’re really engaging the inquisitiveness that is behind learning. I think that you can approach learning like, “I want to learn something so I know stuff,” or “I want to learn something because I’m inquisitive and I wonder stuff.” That’s my biggest desire in learning – I want to learn because I’m curious. I want to learn because it’s just fun to learn stuff that I didn’t know before or never thought before.
Rosalee: That is truly so you because when you call and we chat, I can’t ever think of—it’s rare that you’re like, “I learned this fact.” You often have wonderings to share. You’re like, “Oh, I’m wondering about that.” Even your personal Facebook page, I think is so interactive and interesting. You get so many people commenting and sharing there because you’re often sharing wonders. You aren’t sharing, “Here, I have these facts that I have memorized which you can now memorize too,” but you’re opening up one’s curiosity and wonderment which allows for all of us to participate and to see really cool things that people in all sorts of places are thinking about.
jim: I saw something on one of my old student’s pages of their website for some classes. It was a little quote. I don’t remember whose it’s by, but it said something about a good teacher teaches you how to look and not what to see, and I like that. I like that. I should figure out who said that so I can use that. Because I think it’s a good way to do it. I think that sometimes we come in to learn—actually, I would say we’re taught to learn in a certain way, which is interesting. We are taught to learn in a certain way, which is you learn information and then you know information that is correct. I mean, what correct information is if you just—if I think back over the last five decades what was right 5 years ago, 8 years ago, 10 years ago, 12 years ago, 15, 20, 25. It’s not still right anymore – social concepts, scientific concepts, physiology. There’s a whole bunch of facts that they don’t—truth is not necessarily factual, right? Truth is contextual and it has to do with what happens. A US history book is not more true than the Silmarillion.
Rosalee: So, we’ve heard how you found calamus in the bulk herb store, do you remember finding calamus out in the earth for the first time?
jim: I do. It took a really long time and it mainly took a really long time because although it does grow in my area, it’s not really common. The plant looks like a grass that grows in wet areas and there’s a lot of grasses that grow in wet areas. There’s irises and cattails and blue flags and yellow flags and tons of sedges that are more of the yellow green color that it is. There was a lot of things that I would be like, “I think I found it!” The leaves are very aromatic. They have a very particular scent to them. I would break a leaf, smell it and be like, “No.” I did that over and over and over again, and then I kind of was like, “I’m just not going to find it,” then it’s like, “I’ll try that one.” I wasn’t really expecting much and I broke it and was like, “This is totally it!”
So, that was really super cool and exciting, but even today, around here, just like in the county that I live, I maybe know three places that it grows. All those three places are the non-native, Acorus calamus, and not the native either Acorus americanus or Acorus calamus variety americanus, depending in where you look it up and where the entry is from. I know that the native species does grow in michigan. I’ve seen it in michigan, but it doesn’t seem—I, at least, haven’t found it around here yet.
I do remember one time I was at the botanical sanctuary, United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary. I went to an event there, and afterwards, we went to Paul Strauss’ land and he’s got a swimming pond. Way over on the other side of the lake, I was like, “I think that’s calamus,” and I swam in a straight line to it. I sat with it in the muck and then I swam back. Paul looked at me and he was like—he didn’t know me. No one really knew who I was back then. He’s like, “How did you do that?” and I was like, “Do what?” He’s like, “That’s the only place there’s calamus and you bee lined right towards it and came back. I know you’ve never been here before. Oh, it’s a great shade of green.” I lucked out. It could’ve been a sedge. I could’ve swam out there and it could’ve been sedges and it wouldn’t have been as cool. It wouldn’t have been a good story if I didn’t get it right, but I lucked out.
Now, it’s around. I also grow a lot of it. It grows really easily from cuttings. The ground here is frozen and even my planters are frozen, but I poured some hot water in the planter and I pulled up this little rhizome here with its little shoot. I know that’s not in perfect focus. Let’s put it over my hair since it’s got a dark background.
Basically, what I can do is put it in a planter with a bunch of kind of mucky dirt and keep it wet. It grows and it spreads and then I can harvest some. Actually, this piece, if you could see better, there’s a bigger piece of root here, and then the smaller piece of root is growing out because I harvested the end of this, and then a new piece just grew out. As long as I keep taking the ends, it just keeps growing more root. I can keep myself stocked with little slices of root that I can chew on because that’s the main way that I use this plant - almost a decoction. I don’t ever really want to do a decoction again. I could do a cold infusion that would be kind of alright. I’ve never made a tincture of it.
I used to say I never had a tincture, but I just found when I was cleaning out all of my stuff, I found this old Herbs of Light calamus tincture. On the label it says 1992, but that was before I got into herbs, so I’m going to say maybe this is from ’94 when I was first getting stuff. It’s still mostly full and I haven’t used it. When I opened it up, it doesn’t smell like calamus anymore, so there’s that. I mean, essentially, of all the ways that I have used it, I like chewing on the root. The way that I would that is real simple. Sometimes people don’t get this when they talk about chewing on plants. They think about chewing on bubble gum.
I’ll grab a piece of root and will slice there. I’ll stick it in my mouth up in my cheek and I’ll let it sit there. As my saliva softens the root, I’ll give it a couple kind of squeezes with my teeth. I’ll let it sit there and my saliva taste like calamus, and every time I swallow and it’s infusing in through the mucus membranes of my mouth.
What’s cool about chewing on plants as a way to use them, which is interesting because when you look at books on herbal preparations, they rarely, if ever, mention chewing on plants. It’s just entirely left out. I have this root in my mouth for, let’s say a piece this size might last an hour or more and still taste like calamus. For that entire hour, it just keeps infusing into my saliva and going into my bloodstream through my cheeks. Every time I swallow, my calamus infused saliva goes down the back of my throat, into my stomach. What other preparation can do that? If you drink tea, you’re not going to drink your tea—like not have straw and be like…for an hour long. A syrup may linger a little bit longer on your mucus membranes than tea will, but that doesn’t last a long time. If I made a candied calamus and you can do that, that wouldn’t last an hour, so this is just a great way to use it. It’s my favorite way to use calamus. In terms of preparation, this is pretty much the only way that I use it.
It’s not like if someone came—the other preparation of calamus that somebody gave me that was really nice and I used it until it was gone, is Sajah Popham makes a spagyric tincture of calamus. I got one from him and it was really wonderful. I used it and I passed it around in classes, and everyone loved it, and it was gone. Even though it was wonderful, I like chewing on the root. That’s my relationship with it so it’s what I keep doing.
Rosalee: It’s actually one of my first memories of you, is I want to say we are sitting on a bus at IHS doing a little teacher excursion thing and I remember you chewing. I think that’s where it was I remember. It’s one of my first memories of you chewing on calamus root.
jim: A lot of my friends will be like, “I remember meeting you. You gave me that awful tasting root to chew.”
Rosalee: It makes it a memorable experience. I don’t remember you sharing for whatever it’s worth. I just remember-
jim: Oh, my goodness.
Rosalee: But it’s okay. Our friendship survived.
jim: Here… take a nibble. By the way, this part is the rhizome and these are the actual roots that are dangling down. Rhizomes are under the stems.
Rosalee: What do you call them? Rootlets?
jim: I do, but they’re roots you know, and I still say—because they’re cute, little-
Rosalee: Yeah, yeah.
jim: I still say calamus root like a lot of people do about a lot of rhizomes. I’m sure that botanists everywhere… 7Song winces a little bit, maybe, but…He just remembers it quietly and holds it against me.
Rosalee: So, we’ve talked about chewing on calamus root and opening the doors of perception for you. What are other reasons people might want to work with calamus root?
jim: If you go back into western herbalism, which is largely what I’m into, really what they have to say about calamus is pretty boring. It’s that it’s an aromatic bitter. I mean, that’s not boring but is limited, is maybe what I’m looking for. It’s an aromatic bitter. You can use it as a carminative, for cramps or gassiness. You can think about using it for sluggish digestion.
One of the things that it seems to be good for is helping with reflux and issues around stomach acid. I have read—and as I’m saying this, I’m worrying that it’s in my handout too probably—I’ve read and heard and probably said myself, because I learned it, that calamus seems to adjust your stomach acid to what it needs to be. I don’t know. That’s kind of a nebulous statement, right? I’ve phased out some of those statements. It’s not that I disagree with it or I think it’s wrong. It’s just I don’t know that saying that is really clear, but it does seem to help with a lot of reflux issues or a lot of issues where acid is getting into places that it should not be.
Sometimes people think reflux just means heartburn, that acid from your stomach is getting up into your esophagus and causing irritation that must mean you have too much acid. It can mean you have too much acid or too little acid. Really, what it means, say this is your stomach here and this is your esophagus. You’re supposed to have this lower esophageal sphincter that closes tight and it keeps the acid in here and not up in your esophagus. If this is cracked or off-kilter, it doesn’t matter whether your stomach acid is high or low, when you lay down at night it’s going to spill it out.
I think that there’s not a lot, but a little bit of astringency to calamus. It’s not a prominent thing where like as I’m chewing it my mouth is so tightened with the astringency, but bitters also have this sort of tonifying action to tissue, specifically in the digestive tract, and maybe it’s because bitters stimulate peristalsis. Peristalsis, basically, exercises the tissues since you’re getting increased muscle tone more than increased mucosal tone, like you associate with astringents. Bitters also have this downward action, stuff moving down as opposed to up, and so it seems to be good for reflux. That from western herbalism is a lot of what we get.
The volatile oils are anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. Chewing it is really good for maybe a protective and a way to treat respiratory conditions or throat colds or infection or contagion. I will sometimes, if I know I’m going into a situation where people around me appear to be sick, like grocery stores or other places, I’ll just chew on some calamus. If I have a consult coming up and I know that people are very sick, I might be chewing on calamus. There’s other herbs I could be chewing, but calamus might be one of the herbs I can chew on, basically thinking, “I may as well just have this in my mouth because my mouth is a port of entry into my body. I’ll be talking and inhaling and that’s kind of protective.” That’s something that comes from western tradition and there are studies that show it’s antimicrobial.
When you get into other traditions, in Chinese medicine, which I’m not an expert on, but they will talk about it as dispersing phlegm. I remember one time going into a different herb shop near detroit, north of detroit. It was a Chinese herb shop, and I wanted to compare and contrast the calamus that they use. There’s this medicine with Acorus calamus that I was getting locally. I think there’s this Acorus gramineus, if that’s the right pronunciation. It’s a smaller specie. It has smaller rhizomes but used similarly. The woman who was there was asking if I knew the Chinese name, which I told I did not, but I was like, “It’s that one.” She’s like, “How did you know that?” I’m like, “Because it’s not all chopped up. I can tell just by looking at it,” and then she was really interested. She’s like, “What are you using this for? You clearly don’t know anything about Chinese medicine.” I’m like, “It’s good for my thinking and my perception.” She looked at me and I think she said—and this is my memory talking—I think she said something like, “We use it to disperse phlegm.” I was like, “Brain phlegm! It’s good for dispersing my brain phlegm.”
Aromatic plants, in general, a lot of aromatic plants are good for when your thinking is kind of congested and sluggish and cloudy, which is why you always see words like, “clarifying” on essential oil bottles. It’s just the nature of essential oils that’s really good for calamus. It’s stimulating and relaxing, more in the stimulating direction, so if you’re feeling tired and unclear, and your thought is muddy and cloudy, it helps with that. You can chew it like that. A lot of people use the tincture like that. They will take small doses of the tincture to have the clarifying thing. I know that 7Song says that if he’s looking around the class and he sees people zoning out, he’ll pass around some calamus tincture. It helps people to tune back in, so that’s another virtue that it has.
Ayurvedic medicine, like Chinese medicine—I am, by no means, super knowledgeable about Ayurvedic medicine—their name for it is “vacha.” v a c h a, which is always the way that I thought you pronounced it, but then I had a student named, Aleina Vacha, and then she told me, “No, it’s vakka.” Ever since then I’ve been wondering whether it’s vacha in Ayurvedic medicine and I just haven’t asked anyone who would know. You can ask KP, right? You could maybe text him while we’re talking and then see if he responds when we’re done.
Whichever it is, that means “to speak.” There’s a tradition in Ayurvedic medicine that also carries over into a lot of indigenous communities, especially north american native communities. They would use this to help sustain your voice. In a lot of, at least, this region of the United States where I live, the different tribes will use it when they’re singing a lot to sustain their voice. In Ayurvedic, that’s also true, but I think that we can carry that understanding of it too and we can think about its ability to affect your perception and say what I think is it.
Calamus helps us connect our voice with our truth. Calamus could be helpful for—I’ve had some people that were going to therapy and they really felt stuck in their therapy. They felt stuck so there’s congestion. They’re stuck and aromatic plants are moving and bitters are moving. I like the way that all that ties in. They got to a point where there’s like, “There’s something that I need to say but I don’t want to say it because if I say it, it makes things real, and that seems just really hard and overwhelming to me,” and so they feel stuck. I would say, “Take some calamus with you. Try chewing on some calamus,” and they would be able to say that thing and get it out and create movement. Movement not just physiologically, but movement emotionally and movement cognitively or spiritually or mentally, where there wasn’t something before. There were some kind of blockage and this facilitated movement. You can think about it as helping people be able to speak and express their truth. I don’t know whether I said it or someone else said it, but it helps to connect your heart to your voice. I think it’s something that fits well for it.
One of the ways that I’ll use it personally for myself, going back to the way I started learning about it, is if I feel stuck about something in my life, I just might be like I need to go out for a walk. I might take some calamus with me and the whole walk be like chewing on calamus and considering my life, pondering my life, wondering about my life, and then see what I come back with when I’m done walking around. Sometimes I may have an insight and other times, I might just feel a little bit less stuck without having a big, “Aha! This is what I need to do.”
I think that it’s easy sometimes to think plants are going to give you a lesson. It’s going to be this concise saying or phrase or statement and you’re going to be like, “There’s the thing and now I know!”
Rosalee: I love the calamus walk. Now, I just want to go on a calamus walk. So, it’s been nice chatting with you.
Rosalee: But I really do though. That sounds like a fun, insightful—and I like it’s a tradition of yours. It’s one of your—a technique you have for pondering your life.
jim: And maybe that can get us into two different things. One, is someone’s going to read at some point in time, but wait a minute. Calamus--isn’t that carcinogenic?
Rosalee: Oh, man. I was going to ask that question.
jim: Oh, really?
Rosalee: I wanted to say, “But jim, don’t you know-
jim: Do you have any questions?
Rosalee: I do. I’m going to ask that question right now. You preempted it, but now we’ll just rewind, pretend you didn’t say that. What I wanted to say was – But jim, can’t calamus kill you? Isn’t it toxic?
jim: I have thoughts about this.
jim: This particular calamus is Acorus calamus. It is the European or Asian species that is introduced to this world, this continent and has spread around. It’s a non-native plant. This particular plant has a family of compounds and they’re called “asarones.” Some of those asarones are beta asarones. If you take this plant and you extract the essential oil from it, and then you take the essential oil and you extract asarones from it, and then you take the asarones and you extract beta asarone from it, and then you purify the beta asarone, and you either inject it into little rodents with a needle or you feed them large quantities of pure beta asarone, they will get sick. They will get tumors and they can die.
Rosalee: So, not recommended? I feel like we should be clear.
Rosalee: Not recommended.
jim: Don’t take your calamus and then take the essential oil, take the asarones out, and then purify the beta asarones and eat massive quantities of it. Probably you can’t do that. I know that someone out there is like, “I’m a pretty good chemist. I could probably do that,” but that might not be a good idea and I also don’t know why you would do that. I would also say don’t just take the essential oil internally. That can cause major digestive distress, like you’ll be vomiting for hours. I’ve heard. People will also hear, and actually, this particular bottle, this Herbs of Light bottle says that it has—it’s extracted from the rhizome of the diploid asarone-free american variety, Acorus calamus variety americanus. The written down story is calamus is safe if you use the native american species because it doesn’t have beta asarone. I feel pretty strongly they’re all totally safe.
In India, where the strain—I think it was like jame, j a m e strain that they did the testing on that showed it was carcinogenic. It’s a revered herb. It’s a tonic herb. Rasayana is something you would use for longevity, right? They’re using the whole plant. They weren’t clueless. This is not to say sometimes that there isn’t a tradition of using something that turns out to have some safety issues. Maybe pyrrolizidine alkaloids or other constituents in plants, but the quantities of actual plant material you would have to ingest for the beta asarone to even remotely be an issue are undoable. I consume a lot of calamus and I can’t get to those levels.
The native species of calamus, which actually, because Acorus is the genus name and calamus is the specie name. If we say that the native species is Acorus americanus, then it’s actually not calamus, but the native species of Acorus or the native species of sweet flag or the native species of sway or muskrat root or whatever name you use for it, doesn’t have beta asarones. It’s maybe when I’ve tasted it a little bit hotter, like the flavor is a little bit sharper. They have overlapping qualities. I’ve used them both. I don’t think one is “better than the other” or more effective than the other. I will use both depending on what I have. I grow both of them. I like both of them, but I don’t worry about any of them because I’m chewing it. The beta asarone is not an issue.
One of the things about the beta asarone is that beta asarone can be extracted from the essential oil and it can be used as starting material to make a hallucinogenic compound called “TMA-2.” That’s something that this guy named Alexander Shulgin did. Alexander Shulgin—his hobby, his profession, his passion in life was to make psychoactive compounds that never existed before. You might also read in books that calamus is very hallucinogenic or that it’s like LSD or psilocybin or mescaline, or that your body can make a chemical called TMA-2 out of it. Your body can make a chemical called TMA-2 out of it if your body is in a laboratory with a bunch of equipment, but your physiology cannot make TMA-2 out of it.
I do think that calamus is psychoactive, but I think that everything is kind of psychoactive. I think that anytime you consume anything, it interacts with our body and it affects our perception. Some things very subtlety. Some things more overtly. I mean, obviously, there’s a range between eating rice and drinking coffee and taking psilocybin mushrooms in large doses… There’s a spectrum.
I don’t think that hallucinogenic is really quite the right word to use for calamus because I think a lot of people think, “I read in a book that I need to get an eight-inch piece of rhizome, chew up the whole thing and then it’ll be like LSD.” Most people probably are not going to chew up the whole eight inches because it’s got an intense flavor. It will take a long time. Although it will affect your perception and change your perception, you’re not going to be seeing little geometric patterns. The walls aren’t going to be breathing. It’s just different. It has its own quality and it doesn’t need to be the same. It’s more subtle. A lot of people who tried that then they’re disappointed because it wasn’t this other thing. They don’t appreciate what it is. They don’t appreciate the going out for a walk chewing on calamus your whole walk and getting that perception, insight, instead of just openness. It facilitates instead of openness where you can see—almost like I said, about your visual perception, where more things are in focus. You have a greater, a broader depth of field. It does that with your thinking too. You can consider instead of more options and get more insights and then not be like—and lot of times we try to figure out problems in our life by focusing on the one thing rather than taking the step back and looking at the big picture. This is a take-a-step-back-and-look-at-the-big-picture. Just take it in and not be having to take it in and fix it all at one time.
Rosalee: Again, I love that. So, thanks for being here and I need to go find my calamus root and go on a walk. I actually do have some more questions for you though, so…
Rosalee: You mentioned the different—mainly, two different species that people might encounter here in north america and I was wondering if you had any identification tips of telling those apart.
jim: So…they look pretty similar and the key differences that I’ve seen in plants that I’ve grown that I know to be the different species is that Acorus calamus tends to be a little bit taller, maybe a foot-ish taller, six inches to a foot taller, and the leaves tend to be a little bit wider. I’ve read botanical descriptions that say the Acorus americanus has multiple midribs, whereas the Acorus calamus has the one main midrib. When I’ve looked at that, I’ve not really seen that. What I have seen is that there is a wavy margin, like a ripple, like a washboard effect. When you look at the edge of the leaf, it is present in the Acorus calamus and doesn’t appear to be present or present commonly in Acorus americanus.
The absolute best, like, “Oh, my gosh. How come it took so long for someone to do this?” Picture both of them where there’s a picture of one next to another, is in Sam Thayer’s book, Nature's Garden. Sam Thayer has written three wonderful books on edible plants. One is The Forager’s Harvest, one is Nature’s Garden, one is Incredible Wild Edibles. He’s currently in the midst of just being about to publish a much larger field guide with shorter entries on the plant. In the Nature’s Garden book, he has side by side pictures of both of them and it’s really just incredibly helpful. That’s sort of the thing that I would look for. The flowering spike--so there’s a leaf that sticks up and there’s essentially the…get the right angle… The spike just sticks out of the leaf like that. You know there’s a spike sticking out.
Rosalee: This is great.
jim: Say it, don’t say it. Say it, don’t say it. Say it, don’t say it.. Are you going to ask me about the doctrine of signatures? The spike, the fluffing spike of the Acorus americanus is a little bit shorter and a little bit thicker than the spike of the Acorus calamus, which is a little bit longer and a little bit thinner. If you hadn’t seen both, if you didn’t have plants growing next to each other that might be harder to tell, but I’ve got plants and planters growing next to each other and I’ve consistently seen that as they flower over the years. The Acorus americanus sets out fertile seed and Acorus calamus does not appear to set out fertile seed, at least largely. It’s mainly propagated by root divisions instead of cloning itself, a piece of the root gets eaten or carried off by a beaver somewhere then it goes off down the river, hits a patch of dirt and then starts growing. It’s really easy to cultivate.
I could stick it in most places that aren’t super dry, that have a mucky kind of dirt. I could take this root and I could stick it in the mucky kind of dirt and provide it some kind of river dwelling or pond dwelling mammal. It doesn’t go like, “Oh, I love that!” and eat the whole thing. It will just grow into new plants and then spread and have an extensive rhizomatic system that you can break off and harvest from. It’s really easy to grow if you’ve got a planter that you can either keep wet or that doesn’t drain at all. You keep it muddy and wet and stick this in the mud, or even in just water it’ll grow for a long time just being underwater.
It’s an easy thing to cultivate. You can get plant starts from a bunch of different nurseries. I know that Richo at Strictly Medicinal sells cuttings. What I would suggest is if you have a native plant nursery or nurseries in your state, try to get whatever your native variety of that is and plant that out. If you plant it out in the wild, again, you have to watch out for water edge dwelling mammals because they really like to eat it. You might plant it and it might just be gone the next day, but if you can get it established—what I often do is I plant it in planters by my house, and then I take cuttings from the planter and then I can move the native species, at least, out to different places to try to reestablish it. If it gets eaten, I can just try again.
Rosalee: I think the planter is a great tip for your personal growing. I live in a very dry environment and I have it growing in a little indentation area that couldn’t actually collect more water, but I’m looking forward to putting some in a planter this year.
jim: I think that you can also from specialty nurseries, you can get the Acorus gramineus, which is the Chinese variety that is used and sometimes will be variegated, other times it won’t be. I had some of that for a while, but then that one didn’t survive a dry spell, not one year. Not because it can’t survive dry spells, because calamus is pretty good at doing that, but I think that it was too young and it was in too small a pot. It wasn’t just established enough to tolerate it.
Rosalee: Was there anything else that you’d like to share about calamus?
jim: Calamus, calamus, good things about calamus. I know in a bunch of different places in this country—and you could be watching from any other places, right?—but there are places where consuming cannabis is legal. There are other places where it’s not, people do it anyway. There’s all things to be said about cannabis and whether it’s the greatest thing ever and fixes everything, that’s probably not true. Whether it’s a cool plant with a lot of utility, whether it’s a cool plant with a lot of utility that’s gotten kind of weird because it’s so strained out and they don’t grow in soil anymore, but one of the things that can happen when people consume a lot of cannabis and certain strains of cannabis, is they can feel—they can have that kind of cloudy, foggy thinking. If you have that effect, you can clear that up to a degree by chewing on calamus.
I had met people who have really chopped really finely bits of calamus and mixed it in with their cannabis when they’re smoking it to sort of clear it up. I had met people who were long-time smokers who decided that they wanted to quit and then they used calamus, chewed on it. Some people use tinctures. One person I know was like, “But it’s a root. I’m going to make a decoction.” I was like, “Have fun with that,” because I like the way this tastes, but not a decoction of it. It can be helpful for helping with that sluggish thinking that can come from being overstoned or overaltered. What else?
Rosalee: You talked about it, when you were in the Chinese shop. I like how you said like, “It clears the phlegm in my brain.” Just that idea of sluggish thinking, I think there’s so many applications that calamus could be chewed on to see how that goes.
jim: Another thing about is if you look at the ethnobotany of the way the plant was used in this country, there are parallels. I’m not saying the two plants are similar. They’re not pharmacologically similar, but they’re parallels with the way that this plant was used and the way that cocoa leaf was used in south america. In that you can find plantings or wild populations of calamus that are remnants of plantings that were done along trade routes because calamus does have a sort of energizing, stimulating effect.
If you were walking from michigan to minnesota along some trail, you’re probably going to get tired along the way, and then if you have some calamus with you or if there’s calamus planted along the way, you can stop. You can gather some calamus and you can chew on it and get an extra oomph. I’ve used that when I’d been out backpacking. I’ve used that on long car trips like I’m driving.
One time, I taught a class for Althea Northage-Orr, who’s incredible, in Chicago, and then I had dinner at our mutual friend, Anne’s house. My friend Kotay was there and everything was wonderful. Chicago was five-ish hours away from where I live. I was like, “I should get going,” and I lingered and then I lingered and I lingered. I should get going and I lingered, and then it was like after 11:00 before I left and then I had to drive home. Somewhere in southern western michigan, I was just pretty tired and I didn’t want to stop and sleep in my car. I’m not averse to that but I didn’t want to, so I pulled over at a gas station and I walked around a little bit just to—that’s just a good strategy anyway. I had some calamus and I chewed on some calamus.
Rosalee: You went into the gas station and they had a jar of calamus on the counter and you’re like, “I’ll take an ounce.”
jim: It’s the one thing that they don’t have next to the ginseng and royal jelly vials that they have at gas station counters, right? They got the NoDoz, the ginseng and royal jelly vials and all of the energy drinks that aren’t energy drinks. They don’t give you energy. Calamus is stimulating and invigorating like that, so it is something you’d use if you’re into mountain biking or into backpacking, if you’re doing any kind of long travel and you just need something to give you some pep and sustain you; it can be helpful in doing that.
Rosalee: I do feel like I want to be everybody’s mom right now and be like, “and please drive safely, folks.”
jim: Yes, right.
Rosalee: jim can be the fun one. I’m going to be the…
jim: This is where we also need to say it’s not so psychoactive that if you chew on a little disk like I have, that you’re going to be driving like, “whoa,” I mean, that probably not going to happen. Unlikely.
jim: Unlikely. Pharmacologically unlikely.
Rosalee: Pharmacologically unlikely. Thank you for that. You’ve been working with calamus for a couple of years now.
jim: A couple-
Rosalee: A couple of decades, and I know you have an extensive writings on calamus on your website, so I’m going to put a link to that, so if people are like, “Give me more calamus. I can’t get enough of jim, can’t get enough of calamus,” I totally get it. You can find more of jim and more of calamus there with the handy-dandy link.
jim: My calamus page is probably the most popular page on my website and maybe I’m going to preemptively-
Rosalee: Oh, really?
jim: I’m going to preemptively say I do not sell calamus. If you want a bunch of calamus—actually, it’s pretty hard to get it chopped up in little disks like that or to get whole roots. Most cut and sift it. You can try and cut and sift the root, but it’s nicer to have a bigger piece. I like having—if I had a piece like this, I could just gnaw on the end of it. Gnaw on the end of it. It can be fresh too. It’s just yummy. I’ve got the fresh and the dried intermingling.
Rosalee: Oh, that’s interesting formula – same plant, different preparations. Well, jim, what do you have got going on herbally these days? What are you excited about?
jim: Let’s see. I have several different things. I will have in michigan a whole bunch of walks, all through the spring--winter, spring, summer and fall, so if you want to come up the woods or fields with me or swamps or wetlands or wild places or semi-wild places or just neglected places, we can go and look at plants and talk about them. That’s always fun. I have both an in-person and an online version of my lindera course, which is my herbal intensive course where we really focus on a way of thinking that we call energetics.
Going back to what we talked about earlier, although this course is filled with information, the purpose of the course is less about learning. Like if you learn 90%+ of the information, you did a really good job and you got an A. It’s more about learning a way to think about plants that help us use them more effectively for ourselves and for others, and that could be like if you’re wanting to be a clinical herbalist, it’s helpful. If you’re going to be a family herbalist, it’s helpful. You just wanted to use herb for yourself, it’s helpful.
I always call it foundational herbcraft. It’s like everything builds on our understanding of using herbs with these patterns of energetics in mind. Energetics isn’t like the woo-woo stuff about plants, unless you don’t believe any of this, then it’s all woo. It’s about looking at patterns of hot and cold which we can say more active and less active, dryness and dampness, tension and laxity, and how they intermingle to affect the way that we have the different patterns and conditions and illnesses and problems, and the way that we experience life together and to support our body to actually go through their own natural processes more efficiently by keeping our constitution balanced. If you want to learn about that, my course is really good. There’s also a pretty good book called…who’s that by?
Rosalee: Are you thinking…
jim: Alchemy of Herbs.
Rosalee: Alchemy of Herbs.
jim: And you could probably Google the author. It also touches on this topic.
Rosalee: And I would offer that the reason why my first book does touch on that is herbal energetics is how I think of herbalism. I don’t really think of take-this-for-that. It’s not that it never works, but it’s limiting. Also, you have had a profound influence on my own herbal path. Learning from you was just so much fun. It brings the herbs to life. Like you said, it’s the wonderings. It’s the magic of wonderment rather than just the memorization of facts. I just want to give homage to you as having a big influence on the way I look at herbs. Also, another thing I deeply appreciate about you is your playfulness, and it’s just always…
jim: I’m playful?
Rosalee: You are playful and it’s just always fun to be in your presence. I’ve also taken some of your online courses from a distance, and those are also playful and fun and always insightful.
jim: Yeah, we try to carry the playful over. There’s pool noodles, make frequent appearances in the classes.
Rosalee: Your props are always topnotch for sure.
jim: They could be all—the pool noodle can be so many different things in the body. They could be ureters. They could be blood vessels. They could be your digestive tract.
Rosalee: They’re like the polycrest herb. That’s the polycrest crop. Love it.
jim: Yes, it is.
Rosalee: Polycrest meaning something that does many things, so…and I love that lindera is now available online too because it used to be like this very needed—well, people would come from all over but you are michigan-based and people would come from michigan and nearby states, but the online aspect of it really does open it all up so that we all get to learn from your-
jim: You know people came to the course from Colorado. People came from Texas. People did come from faraway places, but it’s pretty hard if you live in Lebanon.
jim: Or if you live in New Zealand or Vietnam, it’s harder. Not impossible but it is harder. It’s not practical.
Rosalee: Thank you for opening that up. jim, to drive us to a conclusion, because I am wanting you to help with the calamus root, to go on a walk, I do have one last question and it’s the same question I’m asking everybody in Season 7, and that is – What advice to do you have for folks who are just starting out on their herbal path or their continuing path?
jim: I have many different pieces of advice, but I’m going to choose this one right now – Don’t feel like it’s a competition. Don’t feel like, “Oh, my gosh. There’s all of this stuff and I need to learn it all as fast as possible.” Otherwise, somehow you’re being left behind and other people are learning better than you. I think that, again, we too were taught to learn in certain ways. I think that we were taught to learn that learning is a competition and the faster you learn something, the better you’ve learned it. But that’s not true.
I have learned a lot from other people. I’ve never completed anyone’s structured course of training, so in a lot of ways, even though I’ve learned from other people I’m self-taught. There’s a whole bunch of things that took me a long time to learn. It’s a whole bunch of things that I’m still learning or other people know better than I do. Sometimes students or clients ask me questions and I think, “Oh, wow. That seems like something I should know but I don’t really know it,” and there’s this amazing thing you can do. You can say, “You know, that’s not something that I know about or have a lot of experience with,” and then you can take the extra step. Maybe if you do, you can say, “But I know someone who knows that thing really well.” When you do that, it’s empowering. It’s not like a fault. It’s not you’re not good enough. You know other things and other people know things you don’t know.
Learning shouldn’t be competitive. Learning shouldn’t be like a race where you feel pressured. I think that sometimes—not all the time—some people learn a lot of stuff really fast and retain it really well, but a lot of times when people try to learn a bunch of stuff all at once, they don’t retain it well. Or they retain the facts and the information without the context and the understanding. If you’ve ever given yourself a hard time for not picking up something fast enough, there’s no reason to do that. Just think about all the stuff that you have learned and think like, “I’ve got my whole life to just keep learning more and more and more and I’m willing.”
I feel so confident in saying if you talk to anyone in any kind of field who is really knowledgeable about that field, they will tell you, unless they’re arrogant—there are those—they will tell you, “Oh, wow. There’s still so much I don’t know” or “Oh, wow. This other person knows so much more and I’m completely blown away by them.” So, don’t rush. Don’t give yourself a hard time. Just be in a state of don’t just wonder but be in a state of wonderer and just enjoy all the stuff that we get to learn, especially about plants because they’re so fun and beautiful.
Rosalee: I love how that ties back into calamus as well because I can picture you continually learning from calamus even in your plant wonderings and continuing to just learn more about what calamus has to show you along the way. It’s opening up. It’s perceptions. That’s the beautiful thing about herbalism, is that there is so many layers of learning there. Something that I really appreciate about your teachings consistently is the experience of the plants themselves and really thinking about it so it’s not just memorizing facts, but wondering how much deeper we can go through wondering and also experience.
jim: Wouldn’t it be weird if I thought the degree to which I knew you was based on how much I knew about you?
Rosalee: Yeah, that would be weird.
jim: That would be a strange way to relate with someone.
Rosalee: I was a series of facts, you’d be like, “She likes Tori. She likes cats.”
jim: I know more facts about Rosalee than you do.
Rosalee: Funny enough, Tori fans are often like that, but that is another story. jim, thank you so much for being here again. I really appreciate you taking time to share about calamus and about herbal teachings and about the wonderments of life. I hope that you’ll make it back to the show again one day.
jim: I would love to do that. I think I assured that by my introduction early in the show. It’s always wonderful to talk to you and it’s always wonderful to talk to all of you there. Hi Jen! I think I say that because there’s always going to be someone named “Jen.” Wow! I love your blue rug!
Rosalee: Thanks, jim.
Rosalee: Thanks for being here. Don’t forget to scroll back above this transcript to get handy links for the resources we discussed in this episode, including more information about jim’s intensive herbal energetics course, lindera, which is available both in person and online. And at the bottom of this page, you’ll also be able to sign up for my weekly newsletter, which is the best way to stay in touch with me as well as get the full transcript. You can also visit jim directly at herbcraft.podia.com.
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Okay, you’ve lasted to the very end of the show which means you get a gold star and this herbal tidbit. Your tidbit this week is a story I’m not super proud of, but it definitely shows the fortitude of calamus.
Many years ago, I’ll say 15 or so, a friend gifted me a calamus rhizome, and in this moment of indecision, I put it in a plastic bag and then I put it in the bottom of my fridge where it stayed for months. Again, not super proud of this. By the time I found it lurking behind some vegetables, it was mushy and very moldy. I was so bummed because I’d just been careless and thoughtless and I just wasted this gift of a plant, so I decided to bury it in my garden, kind of gifting it back to the land as compost.
Well, that following spring, I noticed these strange leaves. I just didn’t recognize them. They were just strange leaves peeking out of the ground. I almost weeded them. All my thoughts of the calamus root had been totally forgotten. I watched as the leaves began to grow taller and taller, and when I realized what it was, I just could not even believe that this moldy, mushy rhizome that had just somehow survived for months in a plastic bag in my fridge had actually come back to life, and I’ve been growing it from that same calamus rhizome ever since.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Healand co-author of the bestselling book Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and has taught thousands of students through her online courses. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.