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Acorus calamus. Flowering branch (yellow). Hertford County, North Carolina. Araceae

Exodus 3: 2325, Song of Solomon 4:14, Isaiah 43: 24, Jeremiah 6:2, and Ezekiel 27:19 are the only references to an unusual plant translated as "sweet cane", "calamus", "sweet myrtle" and in other ways indicative of the confusion over which plant is intended. The Hebrew word, qaneh, indicates a fragrant plant with an upright aspect.

The verses in the prophets (op. cit.) clearly indicate the value of calamus and the fact that it was widely traded with nations in Asia. Two plants have been suggested. The first is a widespread plant of wetlands in the northern hemispheres of both the Old and New Worlds, Acorus calamus L. (Araceae). The rhizome has a peculiar sweet, lingering aroma suitable as a "carrier" in a perfume. Motley (1994) suggests that A. calamus is the calamus mentioned in Exodus 3 for the anoint ing oil applied to priests and objects in the tabernacle. Milne and Milne (1967) state that A. calamus was found in the tombs of the Pharaohs but cite no reference. Acorus calamus is not listed in a modern treatment of perfumery (Calkin and Jellinek 1994) but is still used in medicine and cosmetics (Leung and Foster 1996).

The second candidate is lemon grass. These are species of the genus Cymbopogon (Poaceae), most likely C. citratus (DC) Stapf. although several species are widely grown in tropical regions for their aroma and flavor. As the oil of lemon grass can be sensitizing to the skin (Leung and Foster 1996), it seems a less likely candidate for the biblical calamus than A. calamus.

Song of Solomon 4:14 indicates that "calamus" was grown as a garden plant. Acorus calamus is a plant of wet areas, scarcely the setting of this garden and not native to Israel. This is easily explained by the fact that this is a poetic expression of fragrant plants, including those that are not native in the Middle East.

 Acorus calamus. Hertford County, North Carolina. Araceae