The plant called 'awa in the Hawaiian language is known throughout the world as kava.1
It has become prominent in alternative medicine for its ability to reduce anxiety, soothe sore muscles, and induce relaxation, calm, and sleep, without being addictive or impairing the user's judgment.
The botanical name is Piper methysticum, meaning "intoxicating pepper." According to James A. Duke (2000, 135), "Phytochemicals called kavalactones provide kava's stress-beating, muscle-relaxing influence. Each produces a somewhat different physiologic effect in the body and all of them working together are better than any one of them acting alone."
'Awa's origin has been called "one of the classic enigmas of Oceanic ethnobotany" (Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992, 10). It is found throughout the migratory routes of Pacific Islanders, who prized the drink made from the rootstock. The Hawaiian Islands were the final stop in 'awa's long voyage from Melanesia through Polynesia.
Y.N. Singh (1992, 13) has noted that the "kava custom . . . so widespread throughout Oceania . . . might be considered the one item in their material culture that linked together most of the peoples of Oceania." Over the centuries, the various Pacific regions developed unique cultivars2
of this plant, each with its own distinguishing features and chemical profile.
According to Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom (1992, 53), "it is possible that all kava cultivars trace back to a single ancestral plant somewhere in northern Vanuatu that has been repeatedly cloned, developed, and dispersed by stem cuttings over perhaps three millennia."
This ancestral plant probably was Piper met hysticum var. wichmannii (often referred to as Piper
wichmannii), whose roots also contain the psychoactive chemicals. However, in this wild relative of 'awa, the less desirable kavalactones predominate. Its roots would make a much inferior drink.
P. methysticum lost the ability to produce seed during the course of its long developmental history. Thus, improved varieties could not arise from sexual reproduction, and native cultivators propagated it exclusively through stem cuttings. Nevertheless, through millennia of vegetative propagation, unique cultivars emerged.
Pacific Islanders produced varieties of 'awa by se lecting the somatic mutations sometimes arising as offshoots of the parent. "Somatic mutation" is the process whereby the genetic make-up of part of the plant changes. A single stem in a plant might look different from the others, leading a farmer to propagate from that stem, thus creating a plant with a different appearance.
Likewise, changes in the chemistry of the roots that alter the drink's effects could prompt the native planter to retain a new variety (Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992, 39). If the drink was not to their liking, they stopped cultivating the plant. This selection process has produced numerous cultivars throughout the Pacific, each with the potential to act somewhat differently on the body and mind . . .
The names are used interchangeably in this book, though
'awa is favored, especially in discussions of the plant in the Hawaiian context.
Short for "cultivated variety," a cultivar is a plant variety found only under cultivation. Within a species, there may be a number of named cultivars individually recognized by distinctive characteristics (Robinson 2001, 34).