Kava: Piper methysticum

General and Botanical Information

external image kav_plnt.jpegKava, also known as its family name Piperaceae, is a plant that is found in mainly in the Pacific Islands of Oceania (South Pacific). The name Piper methysticum, is translated as "intoxicating pepper". A close relative of the family would be black pepper. The name attributes to its characteristics as Kava has been used for many years in the South Pacific and was brought to Hawaii by early Polynesian settlers. The active principle in Kava are lactones which physiologically act as a depressant. 10 of these lactones have been identified with 6 showing importance. With eighty-two varieties in Kava, each different strain contains varied amounts of the lactone compound.

The height of the Kava plant usually reaches 2 meters with roots growing up to 60 cm to 2 feet. The leaves are green and heart shaped that alternate from the base of the stalk. The male flowers are known to grow in "solitary, auxilary, greenish white spikes up to six inches long." The female flowers are unknown so reproduction "can only spread through direct human involvement and action. Female flowers are especially rare and do not produce fruit even when hand-pollinated. Its propagation is entirely due to man's efforts by methods of striking." Because of this the exact origin of the Kava plant is debatable. However, the Republic of Vanuatu calls it their own since they have the most cultivars. The fruit produced by the Kava plant are one seeded berries.

There are many medical uses for Kava but originated as a social and ceremonial ingredient to drink. The process to drink Kava requires grinding the root, adding water to the grinds in a container (traditionally a bowl), stirred, strained to remove pulp and consumed in a container (traditionally a coconut). Today the root is finely ground and can be found in various forms such as powder, gels and capsules. The root is the main ingredient consumed by individuals and to harvest the root it is suggested that the Kava plant grows and spreads for 2 to 3 years. It is suggested that the best root to use is from Kava plants that have been in the ground for about 20 years.

Geographical Use

"Oceania" - The South Pacific
"Oceania" - The South Pacific
Geographically, Kava is found in the 3 main regions of Oceania. Those 3 regions are Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanasia. Included in the South Pacific region is Hawaii as well. It has been thought that Hawaii acquired the Kava plant from the Polynesians. Today Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu still drink Kava in social gatherings.

History of the Human Use of Kava

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Kava plants have been used in various forms from the islanders of the South Pacific. Kava has been used for ceremonial, sacred and social uses such that it was used at meetings to settle arguments. The process was more traditional where children would chew the root in their mouth to create the basis of the mixture. The reason for having children do this is because their mouths have experienced less germs and disease. With the combination of the spit it is put into a wooden bowl where water is added, then strained into a coconut bowl. Today it has been used to help medicate excited and those exhausted. It has even been used as an organic alternative to Prozac. A popular and recommended buyer is the Kona Kava Farm

Potential Side Effects

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  • the effects of Kava depends on the dosage taken and is recommended to 70-210 milligrams of the kava lactones
  • study shown that can produce liver damager if the preparation of the kava is done differently than traditionally used (ie. with roots)
  • muscle relaxer
  • works in 10-30 minutes with effects lasting to 2-3 hours
  • can induce a calm, alert state
  • good to induce a relaxed sleep
  • over comsumption can lead to the following: shortness of breath, changes in blood cells (palates, red and white), dry and discoloration of skin, potential numbness in the mouth however consumption of Kava has never led to death or addiction

*it should be noted that there has been no accounts of death or severe illnesses.

Sources Used:
-Levetin, Estelle, and Karen McMahon. Plants and Society. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2007. Print. pgs 360-361