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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.