Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
Flag Root, Acorus calamus
Other Names: Sweet flag, calamus, muskrat root, rat musque (French), kiwhosuwasq (Maliseet), kighaswes (Mi’kmaq), ki'kasuwasw (Mi’kmaq)
Flag root is a medicinal plant with a history of use that spans several continents and millennia. A culturally important species in northern Maine, flag root is commonly harvested each fall by Maliseet and Mi’kmaq gatherers, as well as some French Acadians.
Physical Description: Flag root is a perennial, rhizomatous herb. Long, sword-shaped leaves resemble an iris, usually have an off-center midvein, and can grow up to five feet long. Small yellow-green flowers appear from May to July, densely clustered on a spadix (a spike covered in tiny flowers). Flag root plants are supported by thick rhizomes, found just under the soil. One Mi’kmaq gatherer shares his experience harvesting flag root:
"It grows just under the ground. And just a little soil on top to make them difficult to pull out. When you’re pulling out one root, it’s got probably six roots on top of it from different angles."
Habitat: Flag root is found in wet soils, marshes, and around ponds and riverbanks. A Mi’kmaq woman describes flag root’s surroundings, as well as signs of wildlife she has noticed while harvesting:
"Where there’s mud, that’s where you’ve got to go and get it. But it’s amazing to pick and smell the freshness of it...There’s footprints of the moose around, because it’s what they eat."
Uses: Flag root rhizome is used medicinally to treat colds, sore throats and other ailments. The rhizome is quite potent, so a small amount (~ six inches) is enough for an entire season.
Preparation: Small pieces of the fresh or dried rhizome can be chewed on, or made into a tea. Note: because they are strong, even fresh rhizomes should be dried for several days before use.
When to harvest: In the fall, after the first frost.
Tips for Sustainable Harvesting/Management: Flag root is a very important and sacred medicine to Native American gatherers, and should be treated with respect. Special care must be taken when harvesting, because wet areas are particularly vulnerable to disturbance and compaction. Harvest in extreme moderation-harvesting rhizomes can kill a plant, and only very small amounts of are needed. Replant small rootlets to promote plant regeneration. In the words of another experienced gatherer:
"You try to put the root back, so that it will grow again next year."
Photo by Tony Bush, Rose Lake Plants Materials Center, East Lansing, Michigan.
Species information reference: 21
Information about medicinal plant uses is provided for educational purposes only. It should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for consultation with a licensed physician.
Last Modified: 05/24/2010