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Kava-Polynesian Beverage Shrub

The potent alkaloidal content of this plan.t has long


made it an important intoxicating ceremomal plant of
the Pacific islands and accounts for the minor commer-
cial significance attached to it today.

RONALD GATTY
DCf!arlll/lt! uf Agricultural Economics, C01"1U'il University, !thaca, N. Y.

Introduction has been possible to gather regarding


Piper methysticulII i:, definitely one of the marketing of kava as a commercial
the more important economic plants of product.
Polynesia. Under the names "kava ", Varieties and Distribution of Kava
"ava ", " awa "," yanggona "and" hoi "
First, it might be well t~ have a de-
this shrub finds wide use because of its
scription of Piper methystlcUIIi .. F.rom
mild narcotic properties. Primarily it
Brown (1935) we read that till:" IS a
serves as a ceremonial and social drink
.. Shrub 2 meters in height. the culti-
but is also widely recognized by natives
vated varieties 4 + meters high: leaves
for its application in medicine as a diu-
orbicular-ovate, abruptly acuminate,
retic and soporific. and, especially in
deeply cordate at the base, from 13 cm in
former times, as an aid for relaxing into
length, 11 cm wide, up to 20 cm long ~nd
hypnosis.
18 cm wide in the Marquesan speCies,
This article tries to draw together
glabrous on both faces with t!le exc:p-
some of the rather diffuse literature on
tion of minutely puberulent Yems; vems
the plant. In some ways this is not an
11-] 3 the three central ones reac hing the
easy task. It has been anthropologists,
apex; 'the petiole glabrous, 2.5 cm in
not botanists, who have written most on
length; spike opposite the lean':,: flowers
this subject, primarily because it occu-
monosporangiate, dioecious. the male
pies quite an important place in Polyne-
spikes much shorter than the lea\'('s, the
sian culture. As can be seen from the
floral bracts rounded, subcrenate, pel-
bibliography, historians travelling in the
tately attached at the center. with a
Pacific in the last century have contrib-
puberulent pedicel; stamens t\\"o, the
uted much to our kno\dedge of early cul-
anthers subglobose, shorter than the fila-
tivation and uses of Piper methysticum,
ments ".
but their mention of it is often brief and
This species is apparently indigenous
in many cases publi:,hed in old periodicals further west than Fiji, undoubtedly car-
or books which are not readily uyailable. ried east by early migrants in the Pa-
Although thi:" article does not take up cific. The wild source is not knO\\"l1, but
ethnological comiderations, it should be the plant is now in N e\\" Guinea and
realized that such matters are important lIlanv islands of Polynesia and ~Iicro-
in studying the me of any plant in nesi~~. Forster mentioned no type speci-
., primitive" society. This article dwells men but wrote of localities in Tahiti, and
specifically on planting anti cultivation, the Tongan and Ha\vaiian Groups. The
on varieties as di:,tinguished by the plant is in Fiji only as a result of culti-
Polynesians, and on what information it yation (Smith, A. C., 19431.
241
It IS cultivated in the :\larquesas two meters in height; internally the
(kava or 'ava), in Tahiti (kava or hoil, root is yellowish, outside it is rather
Rarotonga (kava) (Brown, 1935), in green; the internodes are short, the
Hawaii (Handy, 1940) and in the Fijian, leaf blades thin and large; the spikes
Samoan and Tongan Groups. Kava used quite long.
to be grmm in Tubuai, but the mission- Kava puou: used for kava; internodes
aries came in 1882 and forbade the drink. comparatively long and tend to red-
~ow only a few plants are left there dish-brown.
(Aitken, 1930). The Easter islanders do Kava veaoha: considered an excellent
not cultivate ka\'a, even though it is used variety for making kava.
in Mangare\'a and in the l\Iarquesas. , A va puou: an excellent variety for
\vhic!J comj1o"e the rirobable original making kava; the root is quite
hOll1e of thc:,e people, Perhaps the cli- tender, facilitating chewing; large
mate of Ea:,ter Island is not fa \'ourable. variety, growing up to four meters:
Tbi" ]'('a"on. however, cannot explain reddish-brown long internodes.
\vby kava is not cultivated on Rapa 'Ava putea: used for kava; internodes
\vhere the climate is favourable (Me- -,'ary in length and arc of a light
traux, 19401. colour,
Safford 11905) wrote that the plant Kava putoake: informants state that
was not culti\'ated in Guam, and Guppy t his is the only variety which is us('()
11881) said that he saw no kava-drink- for medicine and for drink; it has a
ing in the :3olomon Islands. Guppy men- very powerful effect.
tions Rev. La,,'es' statemeI.t that the Parham (1935) lists and describes five
plant gro\vs wild on the south coast of Fijian varieties, three white types and
New Guinea, but with no reference as to two black types:
whether it was used. White varieties-Kasa Leka, Kasa
Loeb (19261 mentions that not much Balavu and Qolobi.
is known of kava-drinking in Niue. It Black varieties-Kasa Leka and Kasa
has evidently not become a common cus- Balavu.
tom. Family records describe its use by The main distinguishing features are
chiefs in faikava-atua (offering to gods), habit, length of internode and size of
but only one legend has kava playing a leaf scar.
prominent part. Before kava was intro-
Kava in Myth and Legend
duced, coconut "'ater was drunk cere-
nlOnially \vith a libation poured out for Kava enters into many Polynesian
the gods, as is done with kava in Samoa. myths and legends, a few relating to the
There arc at least three references on plant's origin. In Tonga there is a spe-
the varieties of kava distinguished by cific story about the first apearance of
the Polynesians in Hawaii and :\1ar- kava:
quesas and by the Poly-melanesians of There lived a chief by the name of
Fij i. Thcn' ~ll"eno doubt more descrip- Loau, from Haamea, Tongatapu, and
tion:, of v~lr:(-tic:, in literature I han not onc day Loau sailed to the small island
vet found. Brmnl (19351 lists 21 vari- Euaiki to visit his attendant Fevanga.
~ties from the :\Iarquesas, and includes But this was a time of famine, and Fe-
short dc:,eriptions of some of them. It \'anga was at a loss as to what to feed
"'ill perhap, :,uffice here to gin a few the visiting chief. There was a kape
notes on "on,\: of these: plant (Anon costahon) but it would not
Kava pupupapa: regarded as one of provide sufficient food. Finally Favanga
the best bewrage varieties: about and his wife Fefafa killed and cooked
their leprous daughter to be served with {\OW \yhen Fevanga took the kanl to
the kape-this was the only food they Loau it became custom to take a relish,
had for their chief. Loau recognized the sugar cane, with thc kava drink lGif-
human flesh at the meal and told the ford, 1924).
people not to eat it-it should be planted Tradition has it in Hawaii that kava
in the ground and brought to him when was first brought in by Oilikukaheana

FIG. 1. A kava-(lrinking ceremony on the island of l\lunia, Fiji. The dried root is groUlHl
up. mixed with water. ~trained and then served from thp large central bowl. \Yith onc cup of a
('O('onut half-shell, ea('h guest i~ ",en'cd in turn, in ordn of Ho('ial ~tancling an,l with a fl()\lri~h
of IlI'e~entation that in('!udes ('hanting and ~onwtilllc's dancing. Tradition di('tate, that ea('h gu,,~t
mu~t finish hi, drink in one gull'.

it matured into a plant. Fevanga did \yho ::,ailed up from Tahiti I E.ahikil. It
this and the hody grew up into kava and \yas said to be first planted on the i::,land
sugar cane, each plant ari:,ing from a of Kauai. Oilikukaheana hrou[!:ht it to
different part of the hody. And when it the Hl\\yaiian Islands for a fi:,hing plant.
matured he noticed that a rat cl1e\yed on \Yhen he landed at Kaui he met and
the kava and became paraly:,ed, and married the beautiful Kamaile ,yha from
then ate some sugar cane and revived. that time onwards looked after the
plants. After a while, however, she leaving the land fallow for three years
threw out the plants, and at a later date or more.
they were found by Moikeha who asked After clearing of cover it is customary
Oilikukaheana about the name of the to plough or dig with forks and lay two
plant, and he was told that the name was or three sets of kava in each of the hills
Pahoei. When the plants were large which are built up at six foot intervals.
Moikeha gave some to Ewa, and she de- Persistent cultivation is needed until the
termined to find out whether the plant plants are about three and a half years
was useful. When Ewa tried the plant old; from that time they are left alone
and became intoxicated. it received the until harvested. Taro may be inter-
name" m,-a ", and from then on it was planted the first year of kava growth for
called the" awa of Kaumakaeha " (For- full utilization of the land and quick
nander, 1913-1920). cash return (Parham. 1935).
These stories might be taken as repre- E. S. Craighill Handy (1940) giyes us
sentative; they give us some idea that rather a good account * of the planting
kava is important enough to the Polyne- and cultiyation of awa in Hawaii: " A,,,a
sians to take a place in the historical should be planted on large tracts of land
stories, legends and myths of the people. in wann localities, beside streams, at the
edge of woods, on slopes where kukae
Planting and Cultivation
puaa grass flourishes or where the ama'u
Traditionally, in Fiji. kava bushes are fern grows, or in rainy localities. A,,,a ,
very carefully tended in small gardens wauke. and upland taro grow well in the
often kept near the home. Nursery beds same localities and under the same con-
are maintained to receive the kasa (sec- ditions ".
tions of mature stems bearing nodes) " Awa is planted much like sugar cane,
which are transplanted when they have by means of sections of the stalk, from
grown up a few inches. whose joints grow the sprouts of ' eyes'
In commercial production, however, it (makaL The planter carries to the place
i;;:common practice to place the kasa in selected the stalks of the variety desired,
little hills, covering them with dry grass and there cuts them into short sections,
or leaves and letting them grow without being careful not to break off the' eyes '.
transplanting. Transplanting from nur- The sections later to be planted he lays
sery beds is carried out by only a few of in a trench filled with mud, leaying them
the Indian planters. to sprout there, while he clears his
Concerning the requirements of the ground and leaves the grass and weeds on
the soil to rot. When the segments in the
crop, it is important to note that rich soil
trench haye sprouted, he removes them
and good drainage are rather necessary.
and plants them in shallow trenches ".
The planting site might best be on new
" A new plantation would require from
land, and a weH drained hillside is often two to three years before its pu awa were
chosen. In Fiji the dark heayily vege- large enough to use; but once a planta-
tated soil;;:arc usually excellent for bear- tion was growing, its roots would continue
ing a good crop; the common red latiritic to gro'" and send up ne,,, stalks. In other
soils proyc quite unsatisfactory. Land word;;:.the a,,,a plantation neyer required
,,,hich has born a preyious crop is not replanting ... ".
likely to bring high yields. In many Emerson (1903) "Tote an interesting
cases kaya has been planted on land
"'hich was previously set in bananas or a * A'TOUIlt haspd on EaIllakau. S. 1\1.. Ex-
tracts froIll Kuokoa. weekly newspaper in
first crop of kava, but for satisfactory Hawaiian (translated by T. G. Thrum). Ms.
yields this should not be done without in the B. P. Bishop MuseuIll. Honolulu.
couple of paragraphs on awa growing in E. and P. Beaglehole (1941) consider
Hawaii where he mentions the people in that it takes little trouble to plant and
hills rather than trenches, and points out cultivate kava. Presumably from native
that the roots may increase greatly in informants, they have found that in this
size and improve in quality over a con- region of their study-Pangai village,
siderable number of years: " ... In plant- Vava'u Group, Tonga-March appears
ing it there is scant digging. Joints are to be the best month for planting. This
set in the ground in somewhat the same is done by six men of the village every
manner as natives plant their hillocks of two to three years, laying out 20-50 cut-
sugar-cane. After a time it is hilled, tings each time. The varieties the Ton-
humus and leaves being used, and after gans use there are ready for pulling after
this single hilling it is generally left to two or three years.
grow "'ithout further care. It "'ill thus Planting in trenches seems to be quite
continue to grow on for an indefinite an old custom, for James Wilson (1799)
time, spreading its roots abroad, to be wrote at an early date with mention of
dug at the convenience of the consumer ". trench planting in the Society Islands:
"It is said that age does not impair " The plots of ava ground were laid out
the vitality or vitiate the quality of the in such nice order; each bed formed reg-
root, but rather enhances its value. Roots ular parallelograms, trenched two feet
thus left in the ground for twenty years deep, and disposed with a great degree of
or more will reach an enormous size, one taste; the whole enclosed with a feuce of
root is sometimes large enough to be di- bamboo ".
vided into loads for two or three men ".
A. M. Hocart (1929), in his ethnolog- Effect of the Narcotic
ical study of the Lau Islands (Fiji), The effect of kava as a narcotic drink
wrote that in that area kava is propa- is often exaggerated by some authors.
gated by slips (lower joints with a bud Statements such as "Delightful dreams
on each) and that the plants are some- charm this torpor" or statements em-
times grown over a fiat stone so that phasizing addiction to this drug are
much of the root system grows upwards, highly inaccurate. For one of the best
the bush holding by small roots which descriptions of the effect of the drink, we
grow over the stone and into the ground. might turn to A. M. Hocart (1929):
Fornander (1913-1920) also describes " The intoxication dulls the countenance.
the use of a stone in planting but says As I experienced it, it gives a pleasant,
this is to hold the joints down until roots warm. and cheerful, but lazy feeling, so-
form: ., It is said that the awa is propa- ciable though not hilarious or loqua-
gated from the joints, that is the cious; the reason is not obscured. In
branches; it is pressed down and weighted time a certain dullness settles on the
with a stone until the roots denlope; company in which the kava and the late
then it is taken to where it is desired to hour probably both have a part. Once
he planted. Again, when the a\va roots after drinking I felt miserable and found
are being dug up, that is, \vhen it is being it difficult to walk straight; on turning
pulled, the branches are chopped up and into bed. I felt sick and could not get to
thrown back into the holes from \vhich sleep. Such intoxication is rare because
the roots have been taken, then covered in Lau the kava is so diluted and served
over the soil, and when the sprouts ap- in such small cups that many rounds can
pear, called Nihopuaa, they are taken be drunk with impunity. Habitual
and planted. The method of planting I drinkers are said to become intoxicated
have seen is the same as that follO\ved in more quickly than occasi'Jnal ones. Kava
the planting of cane ". has no unpleasant reaction next morning,
other than indolence and lack of appe- ceremonial use. Oftentimes when used
tite. Habitual drinkers can be noted by in medicine, certain varieties were speci-
their \yatery and bleary eyes, their dull fied as most effective.
skins, which in bad cases become scaly". As a ceremonial gift, kava was offered
Tongans of Pangai village regard the to ancestral spirits on the domestic altar
beverage as beneficial for healthy people and offered to such supernaturals as the
but detrimental to those who are sick. shark patron. It was at times offered to
They are generally moderate in their a spirit through a medium who drank it
drinking, saying that an addict becomes for the spirit, and it was often served to
\\'eak and lazy and has domestic trouble seers who gazed into it and drank it to
due to negligence of responsibilities .. induce the desired passiyity or trance ".
I Beaglehole, 1941). 1n thi" \yay. k<1\'a may he con"idered
There i,,: no doubt that green kaya ,,:omething of an hypnotic (Handy, 1940).
Ithat \\'hich is not completely dried) i,,: Kaya was also used in western Poly-
much ~tronger than well dried kaya. ne:sia to induce a remoyed state of mind
The colour of a kaya drink may be any- (Frazer, 1892). In Uea Island, which is
thing from white to beige, sometimes culturally similar to Samoa, kava was
\yith a greenish tinge, and the taste may deliberately drunk to bring forth inspira-
he neutral, insipid or rather bitter. tion (Handy, 1927), as was done on Niue
Gc-ergo F or,,:ter (17771 \\Tote about the IThom"olJ, 19021. In Hawaii, also, psy-
drink .. \yhich is then whitish, insipid, or chic diagnosticians used kava "to
partaking somewhat of the taste of a ,,:trengthen the spirits" (Fornander, 1913-
\yeak infusion of pepper". I personally 1920, vo!. 6), and there is record of this
\\'ould not compare the taste to that of a practice in the ::\Iarquesas (Handy, 1927).
peppery infusion, but this is not an im-
Commercial Considerations
pm'tant point.
Even though ceremonial and social Lack of data permit only brief and
drinking is by far the greate~t use of yery inadequate comments on the com-
kaYa, it found its \yay into many other mercial significance of kava. B. E. V.
phases of Polynesian life. It was much Parham, Senior Agricultural Officer and
u,,:ed in medicine, as a diuretic and for botanist in the Fiji Islands, is possibly
rheumati:'1ll and a:,thma, and as a poul- the only author \yho has written on the
tice for headaches; and was even be- economic aspects of the crop. Writing
lieyed to cau:,e perspiration-to break a from Suva (Fiji I. in 1935, he state,,: that
cold or feyer-when placed under a per- commercial production in that area is
son lying down (Handy, 1940). u:,ually handled by Indians on family
The Ha\yaiians were very much aware plantation". Their initial outlay on a
of ka ya's somnifacient qualities. It has ten-acre holding was approximatelv as
been used hy all classes of them for this follows: "
purpo~e - inducing relaxation. Handy l'a~'Ill"lIt to Fijian o\\"lIer~ 10-20
has it from :lVIrs. Pukui that, contrary to D('p()~i1 (~III'\""~' f,'(,~.,'1<-.) 10
:,ome opinions, kava \yas not tabu to the ('l('arill~ at 3 pl'r a('re 30
R"lIt at .10~.pl'r al'!"l' 5 pl'r annulll.
100H'r c las:"es. The difference seems to
lie in the fact that the alii (noble classl 1n four years the total co,,:t of produc-
drank socially and for pleasure, the ka- tion would han heen 100 with the initial
lmna (prie:"t class) ceremoniously, the outlay at 50-60. rent coming to 20
\yorking people for relaxation. Kaya and labour co":t,, amounting to 30. This
\yas not in :"hort supply. Some particu- area should haw grossed about 500-
lar yarieties were retained for special 600. with a profit of 400-500 in four
uses. as ~ome of the darker yarieties for year~ on a ten-acre plantation.
FIG. 2. F oliagp and infloresrclwe of kaya (Piper rnelhy.~licllrn). (From Dpgener, Flor:!
Hawaiiensis) .
Punjabis, who do not often take up ate their product with portions of di;;;-
permanent residence (they usually try to eased root (Parham, 1935).
return to India after the harvest), make It is commonly acknowledged, at least
their way with minor crops until the in Fiji and Samoa, that the white grades
kava is ready for sale. Often the buyer of kava are of definitely superior quality
of a plantation will af:sist the planter and are much preferred to the black
with harvesting, and the vendor recipro- types. Unfortunately, producers often
cates by helping to plant the new crop. would rather grow the black varieties
From Kandavu (one of the large is- because they mature earlier than the
lands in the Fiji Group) the following white, in two and one-half to three year;;;
figures have been recorded. Production a;;; compared to three to four years,
cost per acre came to 30-35 for a crop Then, too, it llIay be that the black vari-
four years in the growing. Fair yields eties are more resistant to disease and
\"en; estimated at 20-25 sacks per acre, thus find more favour \"ith the planters
the return at 93 per acre (140 # at 8d. of Fiji where the wilt disease has been
per #, or 4: 13: 4d. per sack). quite a problem. The green roots, im-
Often, when working with good soil, properly dried, are not preferred for
the total four-years production cost quality, for they may be quite nauseat-
could be covered with a one-year crop of ing, but they are considerably stronger
illterplanted taro. and can have quite an effect on the
Parham has it on good authority that drinker (Parham, 1935, and my own ob-
kava" in the field" was worth 60 per servations) .
acre at the time (1935\. Chinese plant- Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole (194]).
ers have approximated that clearing one in their 'anthropological study of a Ton-
acre and planting it cost 15-20. gan village, mention that natives there
Preparation for market is easy of de- find that the usable portion of a kant
scription for it consists only of scraping plant amounts to 40 or 50 #. They, too.
and peeling the lower parts of the plant agree that green kava i;;; quite strong.
and placing them in the sun to dry. causing headaches and a "general ma-
The market, and it is only a local onc, laise". Concerning local consumption.
afforded a price of 6d.-9d./#. The fi- they state that each household uscs
brous roots bring a much lower price, about ten large roots a year, while an
quoted at 3d./ #, and each plant bears addict to the drink might struggle alon!!
up to 7 # of this inferior product. A (m 30 to 40 large roots.
fairly high yielding plant may provide Missionaries have, of course, killcd the
10 # of "Le\"ena" which is the best
potential kava market in many of the
grade of kava generally recognized in
Pacific islands (Aitken, 1930; Handy.
Fij i. From 1933 to 1935 there was a
1930; Degener, 1946), and in the mid-
great drop in price of "\Vakana", the
1800's the Ha\\"aiian GO"ernment for-
second grade roots. In 1933 20 #
brought as much as 18/- but in 193.1 bade this drink without a doctor\ 1)]'('-

could bring only 1/8d. Bark and scrap- scriptiol1; this la\\', ho\\"e\'er, "'a" 110t
ings could be marketed for a low price, effecti\'ely cnforecd. EYCI1 today it is
and "Kasa", the peeled nodes of the sometimes po""ible to buy the kava root
stem, have been used in a mixture with in the Hawaiian markets.
ground-up pieces of the root. From 188Ej to the beginning of \,"orld
Parham is of the belief that onc reason \,"ar I kava found its way into the ex-
for the 10''' kava prices is that the pur- port markets of Hawaii. This product.
chasers will not pay high prices when for medicinal use, \"as taken up pri-
they realize that many planters adulter- marily by Germany, but thc valuc did
not exceed $4000 and substitutes were 1930. Historv and culture in the Soci-
soon found for this species of Piper ety Islands. Bernic~ P. Bishop Mus., Bull. 79.
(Degener, 1946). Hocart, A. M. 1929. Lau Islands, Fiji. Ber-
nice P. Bishop Mus., Bull. 62.
Home, E. 1847. On the native cloth and on
References
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