In many places, Kava plays a key role in social ceremonies.
Pope John Paul sampled it during a visit to the Pacific islands. So did former First Lady Johnson. And although it was consumed for centuries by Polynesians, it was only during Captain Cook‘s voyage to the Pacific in the 18th century that the outside world discovered it.
“It” is kava, a traditional herbal drink made from the root of the tropical shrub, Piper methysticum. This soothing beverage has proven medicinal effects, including alleviating stress and anxiety and combating fatigue. Kava (pronounced “kah-vah”) is also used to treat migraine headaches and cramps. Best of all, the drink keeps the mind alert even as the body relaxes.
It’s believed that Pacific islanders have been using kava for centuries. In many Pacific islands such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, the drink still holds an esteemed position in society and remains a source of medicine and as a relaxant.
According to Cook’s eyewitness account, Hawaiian natives chewed or pounded the root of the plant, then mixed it with water to produce a brownish, bitter brew for consumption.
Traditionally, kava is used in recreational and social gatherings. In many Pacific cultures, people were pardoned for their crimes after a kava ceremony. Sharing a bowl of kava was often used to ceremoniously cement new friendships or relationships.
In Hawaii, kava (called “ʻawa” by Hawaiians) was commonly used until the end of the 19th century. The rising popularity of alcohol and increasing missionary influence both contributed to the curtailment of kava consumption.
In 1999, the kava industry took a hit. German authorities alleged that dietary supplements made from kava extracts were linked to 37 cases of liver problems. As a result, in 2002, Germany banned the use of kava. Other nations followed. The controversy nearly crippled the kava industry worldwide.
A team of University of Hawaii researchers has since noted that South Pacific islanders have been drinking kava for 3,000 years with no evidence of acute liver problems. However, UH scientist C.S. Tang added that a natural toxin called pipermethystine is found in the plant’s stem peelings and leaves. He warned that these parts of the plant should not be consumed. Drinking kava the traditional way, he said, is safe.
At the height of kava’s popularity, in 2001, Hawaii boasted 65 farms and earned about $585,000 in crop revenues. Today, there are still a handful of companies specializing in kava, including Kauai Kava, which has been offering kava and other ethnobotanical offerings since 1996. No stems or leaves are used in their products.