The Hebrew qa·nehʹ is the original source of the English word “cane” (as well as of the word “canon”), and qa·nehʹ is often translated as “stalk” (Ge 41:5, 22), ‘branch’ (Ex 25:31, 32), or “reed” (1Ki 14:15). In certain texts, however, either the context or a modifying word indicates that an aromatic plant is referred to, and qa·nehʹ is thus translated “calamus” (Ex 30:23) and “cane.”—Ca 4:14; Isa 43:24.
Among the ingredients used in preparing the holy anointing oil was “sweet calamus,” the sweetness referring to its odor, not its taste. (Ex 30:22-25) The Song of Solomon (4:14) includes “cane” among other odoriferous spices. Jehovah through his prophet Isaiah (43:24) reproved the sinful Israelites for ‘having bought’ (Heb., qa·niʹtha) for his temple service no “[sweet] cane” (qa·nehʹ), thereby making a play on words in Hebrew. Jeremiah (6:20) refers to cane received from a “land far away,” while Ezekiel (27:3, 19) includes cane among the products for which wealthy Tyre traded.
The English word “calamus” is derived from the Greek kaʹla·mos, used by the translators of the Greek Septuagint to render the Hebrew qa·nehʹ. Like the Hebrew word, kaʹla·mos also has the basic meaning of reed or cane, whereas the English word “calamus” today is used principally to refer to the sweet flag (Acorus calamus) or its aromatic root.
Regarding the sweet cane, or calamus, of the Hebrew Scriptures, many scholars prefer to identify it with an aromatic reed grass of India, such as Cymbopogon martini, a perennial grass whose leaves when crushed produce a fragrant oil known as ginger-grass oil. Other varieties of these Indian grasses produce citronella oil and lemongrass oil. The view that one or more of such sweet-scented grasses is represented by the sweet cane, or calamus, is based mainly on Jeremiah’s reference to the product as coming from a “land far away,” which in this case would be India. Other areas, however, may have been producers of the aromatic cane, or calamus, as is indicated by Ezekiel’s prophecy (27:19). Thus, while some kind of aromatic reed or cane is meant, the plant’s precise identification remains uncertain.