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Kava - Piper methysticum

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by Steven Foster © 2009


Those unfamiliar with rise and fall of this herb may think that kava-kava or kava as it is also called, has something to do with coffee. It doesn't. Not even close. In fact, if we were to compare their effects, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Coffee, of course, as an herb (if you will), is a stimulant. Kava-kava is a mild relaxant. I must admit, that kava was a name that meant little more to me than a jive word for coffee until about five years ago. I found myself on a winter camping trip with a group of friends in Death Valley. A magical spot on the planet, inappropriately named, it is a beautiful dried ancient lake bed, which not too many thousands of years ago, looked much like the Great Salt Lake does today. Far from the Islands of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, where kava-kava originates, Death Valley was an unlikely setting to take part in a make-shift kava ceremony. A friend on the trip had traveled to the camp-out from Hawaii, his first leg on a one year sabbatical from a university teaching position. Near his mountain side home on the Island of Oahu, he had collected some kava root, which he shredded and dried for the journey. We pulverized the root in a crude mortar and pestle, adding water to make a thick paste. We added more water until we had a thick soupy cold decoction, which we sipped from coconut half-shells. The soupy mix had particles of the root suspended in the mix, requiring slow sipping and chewing of each small mouthful. After a few minutes, my muscles began relaxing and my mouth was numbed in a sensation similar to that produced by oil of clove, or a good high quality fresh Echinacea angustifolia root.

It was one of those memorable herbal adventures where you get to know the herb first hand, experiencing it in as an aspect of nature, rather than a finished product form from a health food store. Similarly, I was ecstatic on a trip to Hawaii last October when I saw a live kava plant for the first time. It was like meeting an old friend. It's one thing in my experience to be familiar with an herb through the literature or through knowing about herb products. It's a great thrill for me to see a plant for the first time. Since I can't grow my own kava in my Ozark home, today, when I need to relax, I turn to kava extracts, tinctures, or capsules or tablets. It's more convenient than traveling to a south sea island.

Just what is kava-kava? Botanists call it Piper methysticum. The genus Piper in the pepper family (Piperaceae) is also the group to which black pepper (Piper nigrum) belongs. This is a large plant group, with over 1,000 species of Piper including shrubs, high climbing woody vines (called lianas) and even small trees. Kava is a highly variable shrub-like herb, usually growing to about six feet tall, but it can reach a height of 20 feet given lush soil and good sunlight. The bright green, heart-shaped leaves are about six to eight inches long. It does produce small flower spikes, but they are sterile. The plant must be propagated from dividing the roots. The succulent, thick stems have strongly swollen nodes, which vary in color from green to black.

In native cultures such as Hawaii, these different variations were used to name distinct varieties, recognized by those who knew the plant well. Over a dozen types of kava were known in Hawaii, at least five in Fiji, several in New Guinea, nine in Samoa and on the island of Vanuatu, where kava culture is perhaps mostly highly developed, over 70 different varieties have been recognized by the Island's indigenous people. In short, kava embodies the concept of endless variation. The plant is actually considered a cultigen, which like garlic, has evolved in cultivation over thousands of years. It is estimated that kava has been cultivated on islands in the South Pacific for over 3,000 years. Vincent Lebot, a botanist at the University of Hawaii, believes that kava originates from Piper wichmannii, a wild species native to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. He believes that kava should be considered a group of sertile cultivated varieties selected centuries ago from Piper wichmannii.

Whatever its origins, it is certainly the most important cultivated plant from a social perspective in the history of Pacific island societies. With a resurgence of interest in reasserting culture identity, masked by 200 years of attempts by European culture to subdue centuries-old religious traditions, kava is making a come-back among Oceanic peoples. In older literature it is some times described as a "drug," however, kava use does not produce physical or psychological addiction or dependency. It does not produce hallucinations, nor does it stupefy its users. Dr. Lebot likens its cultural significance as a traditional beverage to that of wine in southern Europe.

When I was in Hawaii once, I met a kahuna, a native healer, who one afternoon took me on an herb walk to show me some of the native plants that he used in his practice. He also showed me fish on a coral reef, each with their own medicinal properties just like herbs. At the end of the day, he said, what I have shared with you today is the knowledge from my tradition, from my family and teachers. If you talk to another kahuna on the other part of the island he or she may use the plant for completely different purposes. I was struck by this importance of cultural context. So it is with kava. Each island, each society in the South Pacific that traditionally uses kava has its own myths and legends on the origins of kava use. The myths may attribute origin to gods, spirits or animals. Common threads prevalent in the origin myths which have been recorded by western observers for 200 years often include recurring themes such as kava coming from a body in the ground, an animal first observed chewing the root or a woman may be involved in its discovery.

In a traditional context, there were three major kinds of kava ceremonies, including those held on very formal occasions such as to honor royalty. Second were kava ceremonies performed at community meetings, such as elder's councils, and third, more informal kava ceremonies, such as for a Friday night social occasion. Cultural context dictated who prepared the drink, usually a specially designated individual or group of individuals in the community. Historically, preparation of kava beverage involved chewing the root. Today, the root is ground in mortar and pestles, or powdered mechanically, if commercially available powdered root is used. Socially regulated moderate consumption of the beverage is considered soothing to the temperament, helping to ease moral discomfort, allaying anxiety, relieving nervous tension, and leading to a serene state of mind. Heavy consumption can cause users to appear as if intoxicated. While in control of their minds, they can lose control of muscle movement of the limbs, as well as the eyes. Such as state is achieved with ingestion of inappropriate excessive amounts of the herb.

Traditionally, kava was considered to be a beneficial herb for healthy individuals, but should be avoided by the sick or infirm. It was considered a medicinal plant in cultures were it was also consumed as a ceremonial beverage. In Fiji, a tea of the root, considered a diuretic was used for kidney and bladder ailments. It was also used to treat coughs and colds and sore throat. After giving child birth, mothers were given a root decoction to help keep them from getting pregnant again. The leaves were also chewed and as a contraceptive. Externally, a juice from the fresh leaves was used as an embrocation on wounds. Fresh leaves were then used as a Band-Aid. Kava has also been used historically to treat gonorrhea, rheumatism, bronchitis, asthma, as well as treat stomachache and backaches. The root tea was used to relieve pain in cases of muscle aches and headaches.

Kava was adopted as a medicinal plant by Europeans, soon after its discovery in the Pacific Islands. It was used in Germany for treating urinary tract ailments and gonorrhea as early as 1850. The first kava products appeared in Europe as early as the 1860s. Kava extracts were common in German herb shops by the end of the last century. The first pharmacy preparations were found in Germany in the 1920s, offered as a tincture for use as a mild sedative and hypotensive herb. Much of the modern chemical, pharmacological, and clinical research on kava has been conducted by German scientists.

A group of at least nine compounds known as kavalactones or kava pyrones are responsible for biological activity associated with kava. Among the more important kavalactones are kavain, dihydrokavain and dihydromethysticin. The analgesic or pain-reducing effect of the latter two compounds has been compared with that of aspirin. A localized numbing-sensation or anesthesia produced in the mouth by chewing the root is primarily produced by kavain. While often called muscle relaxants, unlike most muscle-relaxing plant constituents that have a sedative effect on the central nervous system, the kavalactones have a direct action on muscle contractility. In other words, the compounds directly relax muscles rather than blocking neurotransmitter signals in nerve tissue.

Preparations of the rootstock of kava, like so many medicinal plants are better known in Germany than they are in the United States. It is only within the past couple of years that kava has begun to gain popularity here as a dietary supplement. In Germany, kava phytomedicines products are widely used for cases of nervous anxiety, stress, and unrest. Kava is also recognized for its diuretic and anti-inflammatory qualities and is often combined with pumpkin seed and used in the treatment of irritable bladder syndrome. The German regulatory monograph on kava cautions against used of the herb during pregnancy and lactation. It is also contraindicated in cases of depression. Since it is considered to be somewhat sedative, use should be avoided when consuming alcohol and when operating machinery or vehicles.

Kava is certainly the most important non-food plant of the South Sea islands. Well known in European herbal medicine for nearly 150 years, kava emerged as an important herb in dietary supplement markets in the United States. Alas, it was associated with liver toxicity, right or wrong, which severely impacted the kava market, now a shadow of its former self.


  1. Akana, A. (trans.) 1922. Hawaiian Herbs of Medicinal Value. reprint. Rutland, Vermont: Charles, E. Tuttle, Co.
  2. Cambie, R. C. and J. Ash. 1994. Fijian Medicinal Plants. Australia: CSIRO.
  3. Lebot, V. 1991. Kava (Piper methysticum Forst. f.): The Polynesian Dispersal of an Oceanian Plant. in P. A. Cox and S. A. Banack, eds. Islands, Plants and Polynesians: An Introduction to Polynesian Ethnobotany. Portland, Oregon: Dioscorides Press, pp. 169-201.
  4. Lebot, V., et al. 1992. Kava: The Pacific Drug, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  5. Whistler, W. A. 1992. Polynesian Herbal Medicine. Lawai, Kauai, Hawaii: National Tropical Garden.