This sparingly branched, erect shrub is very hardy and grows up to 12 feet high. The root is thick, soft wooded when fresh, hardening as it dries. The succulent,thick stems have strongly swollen nodes, which vary in colour from green to black and large, smooth, bright green, heart-shaped leaves about 15-20cm long. The black 'Awa is the rare one. Kava produces small flower spikes, but they are sterile. The plant must be propagated by dividing the roots. The flower is an inconspicuous narrow yellow-green spike. It needs to grow for 2 to 3 years minimum to achieve usable potency. (Wagner,W.L., D.R. Herbst, and S.H. Sohmer. 1990. Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawaii.)
A soothing drink with proven medicinal effects, Kava is now available to anyone seeking to calm nerves or ease stress as well as anxiety while combating fatigue the natural way. Its special anti-depressant components fight the "blues" and bring on a happy, tranquil state. Kava is amazing for treating ailments like migraine headaches and cramps but best of all, it keeps the mind alert as the body relaxes. To prepare the 'Awa root, it is sometimes used fresh, sometimes sun-dried. It is washed clean, chopped into small pieces, and then pounded (or in modern times, blended in a blender) with water to create a suspension of kavalactones, which are lipid-soluble. Traditionally, the root pieces were chewed, usually by a young maiden. Now powdered and packaged root is often available. For over 125 years Kava root has been found valuable in the treatment of gonorrhoea both acute and chronic, vaginitis, leucorrhoea, nocturnal incontinence and other ailments of the genitourinary tract. It resembles pepper in local action. A 20 % of Kava resin in oil of Sandalwood, called gonosan, is used internally for gonorrhoea. Being a local anaesthetic it relieves pain and has an aphrodisiac effect. It has also an antiseptic effect on the urine. The capsules contain 0.3 gram and two to four can be given several times per day. As Kava is a strong diuretic it is useful for gout, rheumatism, bronchial and other ailments, resulting from heart trouble. (Grieve, M. 1931. A Modern Herbal.) Throughout Oceania, kava was used to calm nerves, cause relaxation and sleep, fight fatigue. It was drank to unclog urinary tracts, to lose weight, relieve asthma and rheumatism. Drinking Kava is thought to be good for headaches, cramps, and to cure syphilis and gonorrhea. Many islanders believe Kava restores strength, soothes stomach pains and cures such ailments as boils. In addition to drinking the pounded root, some people use Kava leaves. Fumigation with the leaves is believed to treat general illnesses. Macerated Kava as well as external application of the masticated Kava stump are other methods of cure, although drinking it in the traditional way is the most popular method of cure. (Singh, Yadhu N. 1992. Kava: an Overview. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 37: 13-45.) In Hawaii, 'Awa Awa is used principally as a sedative to induce relaxation and sleep, especially when combined with lomi-lomi massage. It is also used as a tonic when people feel weak, as it is stimulating and refreshing, unless drunk in large quantities. Over indulgence in 'Awa use for a period of time can adversely (but temporarily) affect the skin and eyes. The roots are chewed for sharp, blinding headaches. The Kava plant mixes with other plants is pounded and squeezed and the resulting juice heated is taken for chills and hard colds. Plant ashes mixed with ashes of other plants are rubbed on children for a disorderly stomach. Buds are chewed by children for general debility. Decoction of the whole plant and other plants is taken for lung and kindred troubles. Infusion of the plant mixed with other plants and coconut milk is taken for difficulty in passing urine. (Akana, Akaiko. 1922. Hawaiian Herbs of Medicinal Value.)
In the old days, it is said that the chiefs and priests were the principal users of 'Awa, but in more recent times it has been taken to use by all the people. Those who perform strenuous work especially appreciate its properties as a relief for stiffness, tenseness and fatigue in the muscles. 'Awa is a muscle relaxant to weary farmers, fishermen, hunters and paddlers. Spiritual leaders use 'Awa ceremonially at appointed times, such as at a ritual following a canoe race-meet. It is a social tradition and an offering of gratitude to the divine, both before and after events and festivals in the life of the people. The traditional herbal drink made of Kava still plays a key role in Fijian, Samoan, and Tongan societies where it is drank in ceremonies meant to honor visitors, unite participants and validate their social identities. It is valued as an intoxicating drink and as a medicine. 'Awa is also a sedative, used as a sacred plant for prayer, as well as appreciated for pleasure, especially in the south Pacific islands. It assists in opening communication channels with others and with the elements. Kava can be found in recreational and social gatherings. It has been used as a social drink for high-ranking chiefs and elders, drank as a form of welcome for honored guests, consumed for preparation and completion of an event or of work, to validate status, observe births, marriages and deaths, to relieve stress, remedy illnesses etc. In Hawaii, Kava is drank during divination ceremonies, naming of children aged one years old, the consecrating of a male child, or initiating of young girls into traditional hula and chanting. When 'Awa cups are filled, a prayer of gratitude is offered. 'Awa is usually gulped rather than sipped, with some of the liquid being left in the container and poured upon the earth, with thanksgiving. In Tikopia, it affirms sacred symbols and can be used as a religious libation and poured onto the ground instead of drunk. Kava is drank in kinship and chiefship rituals, for public atonement of misdeeds. Many people were pardoned for their crimes after a Kava ceremony. Sharing a Kava bowl allows for socialization and friendship to occur. Fears are allayed and friendships cemented. On Wallis Island, official decisions are made during the Kava ceremony, and enemies are reconciled and goodwill is restored. Those who committed crime are often allowed to go free, thanks to the Kava ceremony. Kava has a key role in social ceremonies. It is usually the only way to welcome honored visitors. Former First Lady Mrs. Johnson drank it as well Pope John Paul II upon their visit to the Pacific. Drinking Kava is not the only way for relationships to be cemented. sometimes, presenting others with a Kava root is a sign of welcome and peace. (Turner, James W. 1986. The Water of Life: Kava Ritual and the Logic of Sacrifice.) (Information for this species compiled and recorded by Camelia Cirnaru, NTBG Consultant.)
'Awa is one of the plants brought in their sailing canoes by the earliest Polynesian voyagers arriving in Hawai'i. 'Awa, a member of the pepper family, grows in the wild now and is also cultivated increasily throughout the Pacific Islands. This plant grows well at low elevations where there is constant moisture and partial sun. More than a dozen varieties of 'Awa were known in old Hawai'i.
The Hawaiin word "'awa" means "bitter". Kava is an age-old herbal drink that was the beverage of choice for the royal families of the South Pacific. Believed to originate from Melanesia, Kava grows abundantly in the sun-drenched islands of Polynesia. Although drank for centuries by the islanders, it was only during Captain Cook's voyage to the Pacific in 1768-1771 when white man first encountered the plant and its consumption in sacred ceremonies. According to Cook's account, natives chewed or pounded the root and mixed it with water to produce a brownish, often bitter brew which they then consumed for its psychoactive properties. (Lebot, Vincent et al. 1992. Kava: The Pacific Drug.)
The promise of Kava as a culturally benign, economically viable model of village-based development came to an abrupt halt when FDA raised unscientifically proven warnings about the safety of Kava products. In none of the interviews with traditional healers or with Western-trained care professionals was a linkage reported between Kava drinking and liver dysfunction despite nearly universal participation by adult males in Kava ceremonies or informal Kava use. Based on the uniformity of these reports and the complete lack of any diagnostic symptoms of liver damage reported among the Samoans who are heirs to thousand of years of knowledge and experience with Kava, the assertion by the FDA and other groups that the moderate consumption of Kava may result in liver dysfunction should be subjected to rigorous testing and verification. Given their economic state in Kava production, Pacific nations would likely welcome research applications to study the effects of Kava on liver enzymes and liver function among traditional Kava consumers. (Tavana, Gaugau and all. 2003. Lack of Evidence of Kava-Related Hepatotoxicity in Native Population in Sawaii, Samoa. HerbalGram 59: 29-32)
Constituents of Kava: Oil cells often contain a greenish-yellow resin, termed kawine. It is strongly aromatic and acrid. The entire plant contains a second resin less active than the first, a volatile oil and an alkaloid termed Kavaine Methysticcum yangonin, and abundance of starch. (Grieve, M. 1931. A Modern Herbal.)
We currently have 40 herbarium specimens for Piper methysticum in our collection. Click on any specimen below to view the herbarium sheet data.