The several cultivars of kava vary in concentrations of primary and secondary psychoactive alkaloids. The largest number are grown in the Republic of Vanuatu, and so it is recognised as the “home” of kava. Kava was historically grown only in the Pacific islands of Hawaii, Federated States of Micronesia, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Samoas and Tonga. Some is grown in the Solomon Islands since World War II, but most is imported. Kava is a cash crop in Vanuatu and Fiji.
The kava shrub thrives in loose, well-drained soils where plenty of air reaches the roots. It grows naturally where rainfall is plentiful (over 2,000 mm/yr). Ideal growing conditions are 70–95 °F (21–35 °C) and 70–100% relative humidity. Too much sunlight is harmful, especially in early growth, so kava is an understorycrop.
Kava cannot reproduce sexually. Female flowers are especially rare and do not produce fruit even when hand-pollinated. Its cultivation is entirely by propagation from stem cuttings.
Traditionally, plants are harvested around four years of age, as older plants have higher concentrations of kavalactones. After reaching about 2 m height, plants grow a wider stalk and additional stalks, but not much taller. The roots can reach a depth of 60 cm.
Kava consists of sterile cultivars cloned from its wild ancestor, Piper wichmanii. Today it comprises hundreds of different cultivars grown across the Pacific. Each cultivar has not only different requirements for successful cultivation, but also displays unique characteristics both in terms of its appearance, and in terms of its medicinal and psychoactive properties.
Noble and non-noble kava
Scholars make a distinction between the so-called “noble” and non-noble kava. The latter category comprises the so-called “tudei” (or “two-day”) kavas, medicinal kavas and wild kava (Piper wichmanii, the ancestor of domesticated Piper methysticum). Traditionally, only noble kavas have been used for regular consumption due to their more favourable composition of kavalactones and other compounds that produce more pleasant effects and have lower potential for causing negative side-effects, such as nausea or “kava hangover”.
The perceived benefits of noble cultivars explain why only these cultivars were spread around the Pacific by Polynesian and Melanesian migrants, with presence of non-noble cultivars limited to the islands of Vanuatu from which they originated. More recently, it has been suggested that the widespread use of tudei cultivars in the manufacturing of several kava products might have been the key factor contributing to the rare reports of adverse reactions to kava observed among the consumers of kava-based products in Europe.
Tudei varieties have traditionally not been grown in Hawaii and Fiji, but in recent years there have been reports of farmers attempting to grow “isa” or “palisi” non-noble cultivars in Hawaii and of imports of dried tudei kava into Fiji for further re-exporting. The tudei cultivars may be easier and cheaper to grow, while it takes up to 5 years for noble kava to mature, non-noble varieties can often be harvested just one year after being planted.
The concerns about the adverse effects of non-noble varieties produced by their undesirable composition of kavalactones and high concentrations of potentially harmful compounds not present in any significant concentration in the noble varieties have led to legislation prohibiting exports from such countries as Vanuatu. Likewise, efforts have been made to educate the non-traditional customers about the difference between noble and non-noble varieties and that non-noble varieties do not offer the same results as noble cultivars. In recent years, government regulatory bodies and non-profit NGOs have been set up with the declared aim of monitoring kava quality, producing regular reports, certifying vendors selling proper, noble kava and warning customers against products that may contain tudei varieties.
Kava prepared as described above is much more potent than processed kava. … Fijians commonly share a drink called grog made by pounding sun-dried kava root into a fine powder, straining and mixing it with cold water. Traditionally, grog is drunk from the shorn half-shell of a coconut, called a bilo.
The root of a plant from the South Pacific that has mild psychoactive effects. The root was traditionally chewed, but is now ground and sold world wide as tea or in capsules. It acts as a mild sedative, and is used as an herbal remedy for anxiety. It is also used in traditional ceremonies in Hawaii and other Pacific islands.