Kava: The Peace Plant of Paradise

The island communities of the South Pacific, from Hawaii and the Mariana Islands along the Tropic of Cancer down to New Zealand below the Tropic of Capricorn, form an area known as Oceania, which includes the three distinct cultural regions of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. The Marshall and Solomon islands, New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Tahiti are all found within Oceania, whose diverse island people are a pan-cultural, multi-ethnic mélange.

Oceania offers some of the most exotic island life on Earth. The swaying palm trees, volcanic landscapes, glistening sandy beaches, vast coral reefs, and indigenous native cultures represent an archetypal notion of paradise. Fantasies of escape from over-developed civilization conjure images of Oceania, where time is slowed down, and where the hot sun, warm tropical winds, lush green foliage, and sparkling blue waters of the South Pacific conspire to relieve the mind and body of the pressures and anxieties of modern life.

In the Western Hemisphere, coffee, chocolate, tea, guarana, kola nut, and yerba maté are widely consumed and directly affect the nervous system.

In Oceania, kava occupies a central place in culture and custom. Kava is the name of both the plant Piper methysticum and a pungent beverage prepared from its roots. A robust and attractive perennial shrub with smooth, heart-shaped green leaves, kava is a member of the Piperaceae, or pepper family, whose two thousand or more diverse species have been widely distributed throughout Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia since antiquity.

A small number of Piper species are used as spices and medicines, including Piper nigrum, from whose red berries both black and white peppers are prepared, and Piper betle, whose leaves and nuts, which contain a stimulant known as arecoline, are chewed with lime throughout much of Southeast Asia.

My early investigations into kava revealed a treasure trove of diverse literature, historical accounts, scientific and medical studies, and vast botanical research into this plant and its use, stretching back in time to the I770s. The first reference I found on kava was a brief mention in Plants of the Gods, co-authored by Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hoffman.

Yadhu Singh's 1986 "Kava: A Bibliography" gives hundreds of kava references and yet still isn't all-inclusive. "Kava, The Pacific Drug", coauthored by Vincent Lebot, Mark Merlin, and Lamont Lindstrom, stands as the best researched and most complete of all academic works on kava. The time, energy, study, and investigation that have gone into kava research over the past couple of centuries speak amply for the effects, broad appeal, and cultural significance and virtues of kava.

Piper methysticum, or cultivated kava, is a descendant of wild kava, Piper wichmannii. Botanists believe that at one time all kava was Piper wichmannii. But as the legend at the beginning of this book described, cultivated kava is greatly preferred over wild kava, which is only rarely used as an "extender" when cultivated kava is in short supply. Thus our focus is on Piper methysticum, the cultivated kava at the heart of Oceanian society.

The lush, leafy green kava plant grows densely and is harvested when it is approximately six to eight feet in height. Kava is planted in a manner similar to that of sugarcane. Sections of kava stalks are laid in trenches of mud, where they sprout. Once sprouted, the stalk sections are planted in shallow trenches, where they grow to maturity in five to seven years. By that point, kava roots have typically become thick, knotted masses, and are suitable for the preparation of the kava beverage. Once planted, kava roots continue to grow, sending up new stalks. Thus kava gardens and plantations grow perennially, and are typically passed on through successive generations.

As is true with countless plants used for human consumption, including tomatoes, bananas, apples, coffee, and rice, there are numerous varieties of kava under cultivation. The various cultivars of kava are distinguished by both their physical characteristics and by their effects upon body and mind.

Physical characteristics of kava plants may vary widely. Various kava cultivars or varieties are distinguished by the colors of their leaves and stalks, the thickness of stalk joints, stalk length between joints, the presence of spots, and other visible factors.

Certain plant cultivars are more highly prized than others, and almost every kava grower has favorite cultivars which are preferred for their effects. In 1902 western botanists identified nine varieties of kava in Samoa. In 1935 twenty-one varieties found in the Marquesas were listed in botanical literature. In 1940 fourteen Hawaiian varieties were known, and in 1984 over seventy-two varieties were reportedly cultivated on the islands of Vanuatu.

To understand kava and its place in society is an endeavor in ethnobotany. Unlike botany, which is the study of plants and their characteristics, ethnobotany refers to the uses of plants in primitive or indigenous native societies. A study of Peruvian Indians and their use of coca leaf, for example, is an ethnobotanical study.

The study of kava and its use by the natives who cultivate, harvest, prepare, and drink the beverage made from it is an ethnobotanical study. Because the preparation and use of kava is far more interesting than the physical characteristics of the plant, more ethnobotanists than strict botanists have engaged in serious kava research. As a result, there is a wealth of fascinating material on the people of Oceania and their use of kava.

As I dug into ethnobotanical research on kava, it became apparent that in those societies in which kava is used regularly, it is a key component of native culture, and is vital to custom, the maintenance of tradition and ritual, spirituality and social order.

Varieties of kava are noted not only for their effects upon body and mind, but are also prized for their ornamental and spiritual worth. Kava is central to the rituals and various life passages of the people of Oceania. Thus kava plants are exchanged and used at virtually all significant occasions and ceremonies.
Kava plants are often cultivated to grow in specific shapes, and kava plants presented as gifts at weddings and other special occasions are typically decorated. On the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, kava grown for customary exchanges is cultivated in the trunks of tree ferns, yielding attractively shaped kava plants known as nikava tapuga.

Historically the consumption of kava made from nikava tapuga was a privilege reserved for chiefs and men of high rank. It is believed that the powerful vitality-imbuing plant spirit Mwatiktiki dwells in nikava tapuga, which surely accounts for the privilege associated with drinking kava thus cultivated.

Chiefs and other people of high rank would, according to custom, naturally be favored with closer relation to such a spirit than individuals of lower social standing. Though this kind of strict social delineation has diminished somewhat over time, social standing still plays an important role in the consumption of kava. Whoever ranks highest at a kava ceremony is usually served first. Others are served in the order of their social standing within that particular group.

In addition to high ranking native people, other individuals may also be served first or early in kava ceremonies. According to custom, high ranking individuals of other societies and backgrounds typically enjoy preferential status in kava ceremony. With the exception of Presbyterian Church officials, who have vigorously opposed indigenous native kava use as an act against their own one true god, virtually everyone of social significance is served kava when they visit most of the islands in Oceania.

President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson were served kava when they visited Samoa in 1965. Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family have drunk kava when they have visited Fiji, as did Pope John Paul II on his Fijian visit in 1986. Ambassadors, dignitaries, and officials from other nations are regularly served kava when they visit or hold important meetings on South Pacific islands. Kava consumption is thoroughly integral to life in that region, and is the first act at important community functions and gatherings.

The exact origin of kava remains uncertain, but many botanists believe that kava originated from northern Vanuatu. Others suggest that kava was native to either New Guinea or the Solomon Islands, and that after its effects became known to natives there, it was dispersed throughout Oceania by seafaring islanders. One thing is certain: kava was consumed prior to written history, and its use was very well established in the South Pacific when Captain Cook made his first voyage to that area aboard the Endeavour between 1768 and 177l.

Though kava is not cultivated on all South Pacific islands, it is found on many. Kava is grown on Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, Fiji, Wallis and Futuna, Western and American Samoa, the Society and Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, Micronesia, and Hawaii, where cultivated kava is making a minor resurgence after being relegated to a cultural relic for decades. Kava's widespread distribution gives testimony to the cultural value and social significance of this plant and its beverage.

Kava and the islands upon which it grows and is consumed have withstood "discovery" by westerners, as well as invasion, colonization, the encroachment of developed civilization, the pulpit-pounding of zealous missionaries, political change, reform, and upheaval.

Through it all, kava has remained for the most part a fixture of life in Oceania. If kava's effects were not as profound and valuable as they are, this plant and its use would have been supplanted by alcohol, a cheap sedative/hypnotic. But kava maintains a strong hold in Oceanian society, owing to its effects upon, and benefits to, body and mind.

Kava cultivation keeps growers, their friends, and communities well supplied with kava, and is part of a sprawling, increasingly lucrative agricultural enterprise ranging over thousands of miles of South Pacific territory. In the archipelago of Vanuatu, for example, the islands of Pentecost, Tanna, Epi, Ambae, Tongoa, and Maewo are the primary kava -growing areas. From there kava is distributed widely throughout the other islands, including the capital Vanuatu island of Efate, where it is consumed, traded and shipped to other regions of the world.

Trade is assisted by the Vanuatu Ministry of Agriculture, and a national purchasing system is promoted by the Vanuatu Commodities Marketing Board. In Vanuatu, kava production is less than that of copra (coconut) and cocoa, but the cash value to small subsistence Vanuatu kava farmers is significant.

Kava cultivation requires relatively little labor or capital expenditure, and no chemical agricultural inputs. In Fiji, kava is a highly important cash crop, second in revenues only to sugar cane, according to the Fiji Ministry of Primary Industries. There kava is grown on numerous islands, and trade is coordinated by the Fiji Cooperative Association in Suva on the capital island of Viti Levu.

Most cultivated kava is used by native people, but an increasing amount of kava is exported for use abroad. French pharmaceutical companies have purchased kava from Vanuatu on a consistent basis for many years. German botanical medicine companies have stepped up their importation of kava, due to a sharp increase in European interest in kava's beneficial effects. U.S. botanical companies purchase kava from Vanuatu and Fiji in increasingly large quantities due to growing popularity and consumer demand for kava products, and market prices of raw kava for export have risen significantly.

The literature on kava is voluminous. In my own research, I found accounts of kava dating back to Captain Cook's second voyage to the South Pacific between 1772 and 1775.

Historical, social, and scientific literature on kava, garnered from diverse sources including Harvard's Countway Medical Library, the Harvard Botanical Libraries, Hawaii's Bishop Museum, the University of the South Pacific, numerous texts on pharmacognosy, medical, botanical, and anthropological journals, and that fabled information superhighway, the Internet, reveal a vast, multi-century, multi-disciplinary interest in kava. The plant and its beverage are extraordinarily well studied. Scientific research and economic development opportunities for kava continue unabated, while kava products are increasing in popularity.

Meandering my way through the research and literature on kava, it became clear that while kava is found throughout Oceania, its undisputed home is the archipelago of Vanuatu. There kava is used more extensively than in any other place. More kava is cultivated and harvested in Vanuatu than anywhere else, and all kava scholars readily agree that of all kava, the Vanuatu kava is consistently the strongest and the most highly prized. In time, the fact that Vanuatu is the center of the kava universe would be strong enough gravitational pull to land me there.

Excerpted from "Kava: Medicine Hunting in Paradise" by Chris Kilham.