By many accounts, kava-kava--or simply kava--is an herb on the brink of Western stardom. Manufacturers of herbal products report strong public interest in kava preparations, and articles appearing in the popular press have described kava use and its effects, both good and bad. While many Americans are becoming increasingly aware of kava's ability to relax tension, increase sociability, and promote sleep, their discovery of kava's tranquilizing, calming effects comes relatively late, given that kava has been part of the cultural tradition of the South Pacific for thousands of years.
From Hawaii to New Guinea, natives of the South Pacific islands serve a special drink made from kava rootstock at weddings, coming-out-of-mourning celebrations, and other special occasions; visiting heads of state have indulged in kava during welcoming ceremonies. Considered an important part of the islanders' social and religious lives, kava's cultural role in the Pacific has been compared with that of wine in southern Europe.
In former times, the islanders prepared the ceremonial kava beverage by first scraping the root, then chewing pieces of it and spitting them into a bowl to which coconut milk or water was added. Next, they stirred the mixture until it took on a muddy, opaque appearance, then strained it into another bowl. During ceremonies, a cup of the beverage was first presented to a special guest, who was expected to down the contents without stopping. Then others attending the ceremony imbibed.
Today, the root is usually prepared by grating, not chewing. Initially, many islanders opposed giving up the chewing method because they believed that it produced a stronger drink. Some researchers, in fact, concur with this belief. Chewing apparently releases more kavalactones--compounds found in kava that relax muscles--than grating, because saliva contains an enzyme that breaks down the starchy components of kava pulp.
Islanders (as well as many new kava drinkers) take moderate amounts of the beverage to achieve a state of tranquility, happiness, and contentment (some describe it as a holistic sense of ``being''), but without the unpleasant side effects of alcohol, such as hangovers or boisterous behavior. Overindulging can lead to loss of muscle control and a strong urge to sleep.
The islanders have also used kava as medicine for centuries, brewing and taking decoctions made from its rootstock to treat gonorrhea, urinary infections, menstrual problems, migraine headaches, insomnia, and other conditions.
To the West
Captain James Cook is credited with introducing kava to the West after a voyage through the South Pacific from 1768 through 1771. Later, it was given its botanical name, Piper methysticum, reflecting both its close relationship to the familiar spice black pepper (P. nigrum) and its intoxicating effects (methys is Greek for ``drunken''). A member of the pepper family, kava is a shrub that thrives in humid, tropical climates with evenly distributed rainfall and stony soil at elevations of 500 to 1,000 feet above sea level. Plants can reach heights of 20 feet, and their sprawling rhizomes may reach lengths of 9 feet, alternately disappearing below and surfacing above the soil. The islanders harvest kava when the shrubs mature in two to three years, to use themselves or sell as a cash crop.