Botany of Kava
Botanical name: Piper methysticum
Family name: Piperaceae
English name: kava
Hawaiian name: ‘awa
The kava plant is a member of the pepper family. Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy was the first European explorer to encounter the plant. Captain Cook gave kava its botanical name, Piper methysticum, which means “intoxicating pepper”. This was likely due to kava’s medicinal effects as a sedative, muscle relaxant, pain reliever, diuretic, and as a remedy for anxiety, nervousness and insomnia.
Its light green, heart-shaped leaves grow alternately down the length of branches in groupings of ten to thirteen from the base of the stalk, which are approximately thirty centimeters, or about twelve inches long. Their stems have green, swollen nodes that can reach up to ten inches in length. The male flowers sprout up in solitary, auxiliary, greenish white spikes up to six inches long. The flowers rise up from axils positioned opposite the leaves. Female flowers are virtually unknown, and the kava plant has never been known to reproduce via conventional means. The fruits are berries that contain one seed.
The rhizome (underground stem) is used in modern herbal preparations. Nothing but the root should be used in kava preparations for human consumption, since the tops of the plants have been shown to be toxic to the liver, while the roots have been used and proven safe over thousands of years.
Learn more about kava’s health benefits.
- 43% starch
- 3.2% minerals
- 12% water
- 3.2% simple sugars
- 3.6% proteins
- 15% Kavalactones
- Alterative: tending to cure or restore to health
- Analgesic: capable of relieving pain
- Anesthetic: causes temporary loss of bodily sensations
- Antifungal: capable of destroying fungi
- Antiseptic: free of or destructive to disease-causing organisms
- Antispasmodic: a drug used to relieve or prevent spasms
- Aphrodisiac: a drug or other agent that stimulates sexual desire
- Diuretic: any substance that tends to increase the flow of urine
- Sedative: tending to soothe or tranquilize
The kava plant is an evergreen shrub that grows in tropical areas and is a native plant to the Pacific Islands. Kava thrives in well-drained soil and grows well as an understory crop and requires adequate shade and moist conditions to flourish.
Kava grows best at lower elevations where there is high rainfall, generally below 1,500 feet on the windward sides of the islands and below 2,500 feet on the leeward sides. Kava researcher Lebot (1992, 83) specifies rainfall needs: over 85 inches per year if under 1,200 ft. elevation. Above that, at least 70 inches is needed. Ideal growing conditions range from temperatures of twenty to thirty-five degrees Celsius, or sixty-eight to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit, with an optimum 70% to 100% relative humidity. The soil is kept loose to ensure plenty of air reaches the root. This keeps the roots healthy and prevents root rot.
The kava plant has historically been grown in the Pacific islands of Hawaii, the Federated States of Micronesia, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Samoas and Tonga. Since WWII, it has also been grown in the Solomon Islands, but most kava used in that region is imported. Kava is a cash crop in Vanuatu and Fiji. Twenty-one varieties of kava are recognized on the Marquesas Islands. Tahiti has fourteen known varieties and Vanuatu has been reported to have more than seventy-two. Vanuatu also claims numerous, recent discoveries of completely new and previously unknown strains of kava. Vanuatu is widely recognized as the “home” of kava because it hosts the largest number of cultivars.
Since all of kava’s cultivars are sterile, the plant 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 or cloning. There are several cultivars of kava, with varying concentrations of both primary and secondary psychoactive substances. The rhizome (or rootstock) is used in modern herbal preparations, and contains the most potent of kava’s psychoactive constituents.
The kava plant is propagated from cuttings taken from the lower stems or from the younger stems once separated from the rootstock when the root is harvested. Traditionally, kava plants were not harvested until they were around 4 years of age, as older plants have higher concentrations of kavalactones, one of the main active constituents in kava. However, over the past two decades farmers have been harvesting younger and younger plants–even as young as eighteen months. Older plants are not much taller than younger plants; growth adds diameter to the culm and additional stalks, as opposed to height. A fully grown plant’s roots can reach up to 60 centimeters, or two feet, in depth.
When most people refer to kava, they are actually referring to the root of the kava plant. It is the kava root where the most potent active ingredients such as kavalactones lie, and the highest quality kava extract will only utilize pure kava root.
Active Ingredients, Uses, and Effects
The kavalactones are the most important alkaloids in kava extracts. High-quality kava rhizome contains 5.5–8.3% kavalactones. Medicinal extracts used in Europe contain 30–70% kavalactones. In traditional homeopathic medicine, kava root is used to treat such conditions as extreme states of excitation and exhaustion.
Muscle relaxation, analgesic and local anesthetic properties, anti-anxiety and anticonvulsant effects, as well as sleep inducement have all been pharmacologically demonstrated in the kava roots, depending on the preparation, dosage and delivery method. Some researchers speculate that kava may directly influence the limbic system, the ancient part of the brain associated with emotions and other brain activities. Kava is a unique anti-anxiety alternative because it does not seem to impair reaction time or alertness when used in proper dosage amounts.
Learn more about kavalactones.