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What Is Kava (Piper Methysticum) and How Is It Used?

Interest in Kava is rising in the US and around the world, due to its calming, intoxicating high that could potentially be just what anxiety sufferers need. It’s been used in the South Pacific for centuries for religious and social reasons, as well as medicinal purposes. The kavalactones in the root may benefit not only anxiety, but other ailments as well.

Kava or Kava-kava (Piper methysticum) is a species that is indigenous to the south-western Pacific, and can be found throughout Melanesia and Polynesia, as well as parts of Australia. Cultural use of the plant for its sedative properties is widespread throughout the region, particularly in Vanuatu, Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

It’s one of the three most economically important plants in the Piper genus, along with P. nigrum (black pepper) and P. betle (betel).

Characteristics of the kava plant

Kava is an erect perennial shrub, which grows to a maximum height of around seven metres (although 2-3m is more common). Kava has woody stems, dark green foliage with pale yellow, tiny flowers, and a peppery aroma that is characteristic of species in the Piperaceaefamily. The leaves are cordate (heart-shaped) and large, growing to 13-20cm in length and reaching similar width.

The tiny flowers appear very rarely, and are unable to produce seed even when hand-pollinated. Instead, the plant reproduces asexually, by means of its rhizomes—underground stems, also known as rootstocks, which grow laterally through the soil, sending down roots and sending up new stems at each internode. It’s the rhizomes that are used to make traditional kava preparations, although lower-quality commercial forms may contain other parts of the plant.

Effects of kava

The scientific name Piper methysticum literally translates to ‘intoxicating pepper’. The phytochemicals responsible for the plant’s intoxicating effects are known as kavalactones, and at least eighteen have been identified thus far.

As well as producing a sedative effect, kava rhizome has been known to act as a topical anaesthetic (notably, it numbs the lips and tongue when consumed). Kava also produces a relaxing and mildly euphoric effect, and is often reported to lift depressive moods, induce mental clarity, and render the user more sociable and talkative.

Effects usually commence within thirty minutes of consumption, and last at most for about two hours. Stronger doses can last up to eight hours, and some of the more potent cultivars of kava induce effects that can last up to 48 hours.

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Distribution & habitat of kava

There are dozens of cultivars of kava—over seventy have been documented so far, although not all are suitable for human consumption. The postulated wild progenitor of kava, Piper wichmannii, is indigenous to northern Vanuatu, and it’s believed that kava was first domesticated there—possibly on Pentecost or Maewo Island. Vanuatu is also the world’s largest producer of kava, and is considered its spiritual homeland.

The Kava Act of 2002 listed only 28 ‘noble’ cultivars that are of ideal potency and effect; all kava produced for export must be of a listed type.

Genetic testing has demonstrated that there is no distinction between the two species, and that P. methysticum is not strictly a species but rather is a group of sterile cultivars of P. wichmannii. To reflect this, a new taxonomy has been proposed: P. methysticum var. methysticum for the modern cultivars, and P. methysticum var. wichmannii for the wild populations.

Kava does not respond well to full sunlight, and grows best in well-aerated, well-drained soils that receive over 2,000ml of rainfall per year. The temperature should range between 21-35°C with a relative humidity of 70-100%. As wild specimens of the plant are virtually unknown, its distribution is limited to sites with human cultivation. These sites are found throughout Polynesia, Melanesia, parts of Micronesia, and some parts of Northern Australia.

How is kava cultivated?

Kava is generally propagated by breaking up the rhizomes or by removing the offsets (new ‘daughter’ rhizomes) that grow from them. The offsets or rhizome pieces are then potted directly into moist, well-fertilised potting soil.

Alternatively, it can be propagated by using above-ground stem cuttings, which are cut with a sterile blade from young, woody stems and placed directly into soil. Stem cuttings require humid conditions and a temperature range of 20-25°C.

Kava requires plentiful nutrients and loose, well-drained soil to thrive. Traditionally, fertilisers used for kava include humus, well-rotted manure and bird guano. Many modern kava growers still practice traditional organic techniques. In fact, the island nation of Vanuatu has laws in place stipulating that all kava produced there must be cultivated organically.

Kava plants must be given sufficient physical space and soil depth to allow the roots to flourish. They must also be watered frequently and abundantly, but never left to stand in water, as this can damage fine root hairs and inhibit growth. Kava plants are typically harvested as they reach peak concentration of kavalactones after three to four years of growth. However, commercial kava plants may often be cut as early as eighteen months.

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How Is kava prepared?

In the traditional island communities in which kava is found, the fresh rhizomes are typically prepared by pounding, mashing or grinding, with a small amount of water added to the moisture produced by the rhizome itself. The resulting starchy paste is then added to cold water and consumed immediately.

Fresh kava rhizome may also be chewed. With this method, the results are immediate, and the numbing effect particularly pronounced. The fresh rhizome is far more potent than its dried counterpart and is more commonly used by traditional communities, although on some islands (particularly Fiji), dried preparations are the norm.

Commercial preparations are usually available in dried, powdered form, although it’s also possible to buy frozen fresh rhizome from certain specialist outlets. Many commercial preparations contain parts of the plant other than the rhizomes, such as leaves and stems. It’s believed that some of these lower-grade products are responsible for certain health concerns associated with the plant.

Cultural & traditional use of kava

On every island that kava is cultivated, cultural use has become established, either for spiritual, social or simply recreational purposes. On Vanuatu, kava use in urban areas is primarily social and recreational, and both men and women partake; kava barsare abundant and have been steadily increasing in number since the nation gained independence in 1980. In rural areas, kava use is more ritualised and traditional, is reserved for men, and takes place during the evenings in buildings known as nakamals.

On Fiji, kava is also known as yaqona, and is widely used socially, both by men and women. In social settings, kava use is informal and relaxed. However, more formal rituals are also observed throughout the island. During these ceremonies, cups of pounded kava juice are passed around, and participants are expected to drink the contents of their cup in one swallow. Before drinking, one should clap once; afterwards, three claps are traditional, to signify gratitude.

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Is kava safe? Kava and liver toxicity

Due to a number of cases of liver damage as a result of consuming commercially-available kava products, several studies into their potential hepatotoxic effect were commissioned. The results led to kava being banned throughout the European Union in 2002, despite the fact that the demonstrated hepatotoxic effect occurred in a tiny number of individuals.

However, this was more recently challenged in German court and the ban lifted in Germany. It was deemed that the benefits outweighed potential risks.

The German researchers who studied the case studies discovered that only a small amount of the documented cases originally studied were causally linked to kava use. The majority of the cases were thought to arise from alcohol and other substances used alongside kava. Other cases were thought to be attributable to excessive doses, or from commercial products of dubious provenance (which contained leaf and stem as well as rhizome, and may have consisted of kava cultivars not considered to be ‘noble’).

Notably, all cases were associated with dietary supplements containing kava extract obtained via solvent use, and none were associated with kava tea drunk in the traditional manner.

The consensus among many researchers is now that kava may indeed cause liver damage in extremely rare cases, but these cases are so infrequent as to be negligible, and are not justification for a ban. One research team estimated that, based on volume of sales compared to cases of hepatotoxicity in Germany, one potential case of liver damage occurred for every 60-125 million doses of kava consumed.

Kava’s long-time use in the South Pacific and research into this plant show there are in fact many possible benefits. The kavalactones compound may be especially helpful for anxiety. However, that’s not to say there aren’t those with concerns, though.

Kava, used for hundreds of years in the South Pacific, can be especially beneficial for anxiety sufferers. But is this plant safe? Here’s what we know.

Getting Started

Many “kavasseurs” decide to take the next step in their kava appreciation by growing kava! This article explains everything you need to know about growing kava kava at home.

How to Grow Kava Kava

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Basic Requirements of Kava Kava

As a tropical plant, kava kava is happiest at temperatures of 68-80 degrees Fahrenheit (20-25 Celsius), and in conditions with lots of water, sun and moderate humidity [1]. If you live in a warm southern state, say Florida, Texas, Southern California or of course Hawaii, you may just be able to keep kava happy outside all year long! Residents of more northern states can usually still plant kava outside in the summer, but should take it inside or to a greenhouse once temperatures drop to 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 Celsius) or below for three consecutive nights. In nature, kava kava usually grows under the jungle canopy, so it does best with partial shade rather than full sun, especially when young; a good indoor solution is to keep kava in a pot next to a sunny window to provide good light conditions or you may want to store it within a light deprivation greenhouse here and there to mimic natural growth [1]. You might even want to buy an LED light to ensure your plants get the correct level of sunlight. Check out agron.io to learn more about this.

Watering and Soil Requirements

Pot your kava kava plant in loose soil that allows for water drainage to prevent root rot: growers usually recommend a blend of 50% organic compost and 50% Perlite or coconut coir. Remember, kava evolved to expect regular rainfall in its jungle habitat, so water your kava regularly! If you’re growing it in a drier environment such as indoors, you’ll probably want to mist your kava’s leaves with a spray bottle to maintain a good level of humidity. Make sure to keep it away from air conditioning vents (or areas of high wind, if outside), as it could dry out your kava plant [1]. When kava kava is young, it typically needs a soil depth of between 6 inches to a foot to put down roots; however, as it matures kava will require much deeper soil so that its root system can expand. One method is to repot kava in your garden bed: select an area where the soil is at least 2 feet deep, then dig a hole 2 to 3 times deeper than the length of your kava plant’s roots. Add a couple trowelsfull of compost, manure, or fertilizer (see below for the recommended fertilizer ratio!). Then backfill the hole with about half the loose soil you just removed, place your kava plant into the hole and gently tamp the loose soil around the base of the stem [2].

Fertilizer Requirements

As a jungle plant, kava kava rapidly depletes nutrients in the soil, so it will definitely do best with a rich fertilizer in the mix. You can add a natural humus, animal manure, or even a commercial nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) fertilizer. If you go with an NPK fertilizer, use an element ratio of 14-14-14; when the plant is young, use about the half the manufacturer’s recommended dose to avoid burning the young kava’s roots, which can lead to root rot-definitely not something you want! Once your kava has reached maturity at one or two years, you can add more fertilizer. Replenish your kava plant’s fertilizer once a month. A bonus of adding fertilizer is that it helps the soil maintain a pH balance of between 5.5-6.5, which mimics that of the soil in kava’s indigenous jungle habitat [3].

Protecting Kava from Pests and Disease

It’s pretty rare for kava grown in the home or garden to have disease or pest problems, but it can happen. Some pathogens kava is susceptible to include phoma or “shothole” fungus, cucumber mosaic virus (CMV), Pythium root rot, root knot nematodes, melon aphids, and spider mites. Whew! The most common causes of these pathogens is diseased or infested starting material, and poor growing conditions that make the kava plants susceptible to infection. Buy your kava plants in person if possible, or if ordering online, check them as soon as your shipment arrives to make sure the plants don’t show signs of disease like wilted or curled leaves, holes or spots on leaves, or roots that might be swollen, deformed, or rotted. Compost any diseased looking plants you find, and don’t mix the compost in with healthy plants [2]. Poor growing conditions can also contribute to disease, especially poor soil drainage, so always make sure your plant’s soil drains well; maintaining a moderate level of humidity can also go a long way toward deterring pests like spider mites and aphids. You can also usually wash pests off kava leaves with a strong jet of water, or apply a gentle insecticidal soap to the leaves-just make sure not to let it dry on them. Sprinkling a little diatomaceous earth around the top of the soil can also help control soft-bodied insects [2]. This should work for most people, but unfortunately, some people will have a harder time with it than others. If the water or insecticidal soap doesn’t make much of a difference to their visit, it may be time to think about bringing in a pest control expert, similar to these experts from Nebraska (https://www.pestcontrolexperts.com/local/nebraska/) so that they can make them leave for good. You don’t want pests to disturb your Kava so you must try everything you can to get rid of them.

How to Propagate Kava Kava

Let’s say your kava plant is growing wonderfully and you’ve started to think about getting some seedlings started. There are two ways to propagate kava plants, both of them fairly easy once you get the hang of it [4]. The first method is to divide your kava plant’s root bundle: gently pull your kava plant from its pot or garden bed and brush off any excess soil. Then divide the root mass in places where you see smaller root masses branching off-this may be easiest at the edges of the root mass, where there are usually many root offshoots. Remove the offshoots and repot them in smaller containers, then replant the parent plant, and you’re done!

Young kava seedlings can be grown from root or stem cuttings.

Once your kava plant has sufficiently matured, you can also take stem cuttings to make new kava seedlings. These are areas along kava’s aboveground stem, usually near the nodes, where new leaves branch off on daughter stems called pikos. To make sure your plant is mature enough, wait until the stem is tough enough that you can’t easily penetrate its skin with a thumbnail. Use a clean blade to remove greenwood stem cuttings from the stalk, and pot up the cuttings in a loose mixture of organic compost and vermiculite or coconut coir. Place the cuttings in a greenhouse ( to create humidity) or a heated propagator. You can also place a loose plastic tarp over the cuttings and mist the inside periodically to maintain humidity [4].

While it's easy to get high-quality dried kava root these days, learning how to grow kava kava is worthwhile for those who want the freshest kava brew.