Kava Kava – Piper methysticum

Overall At-Risk Score: 68

Latin name:

Piper Methysticum

Common name:

Kava, Kava Kava, ‘Awa, Ava Pepper, Ava Root

Family:

Piperaceae (Pepper family)

Lifespan:

Long-lived perennial

Reproduction:

Kava Kava cannot reproduce sexually due to the rarity of female flowers, and their inability to fruit with seeds. They depend entirely on humans taking stem cuttings or splitting their roots to reproduce.

Geographic Region:

It’s not clear where exactly Kava Kava was originally native to, but the two main theories are that it may have originated in New Guinea and was transported east, or that it originally grew in Vanuatu and traveled south and east, then outwards from there. Regardless, it gradually spread to live in several of the Pacific Islands of Oceania, including Hawaii.

Habitat:

Kava Kava prefers low elevations and needs constant moisture to survive. They are often found in forests, needing partial sun to prevent scorching.

Vulnerability of Habitat/Changes of Habitat Quality and Availability:

Deforestation is a concern in the South Pacific Islands, as it is in many parts of the world, and there have been recent concerns as to the soil quality of the plots of land farmers are growing Kava Kava on. Additionally, large storms are a common issue in the region and have been known to destroy entire fields of otherwise healthy Kava Kava plants.

Ability to Withstand Disturbance and Overharvest:

As Kava Kava is so dependent on humans for its reproduction, they are also very easily disturbed by people taking advantage of the fact that they know the locations of most Kava Kava shrubs to harvest them.

Status of Endangered/Threatened:

Piper methysticum has not yet been evaluated by the IUCN Red List.

Part of Plant Used/Active Medicinal Compounds:

Kava Kava has been used frequently in religious and social ceremonies, but as a medicine, it was used in the South Pacific Islands as a bit of a cure-all, being used to treat reproductive issues in women, respiratory issues, and skin conditions, to name a few. Modern-day scientists have conducted research and found a solid basis to the idea that Kava Kava can be used to help treat anxiety, however, they warn that it also runs the risk of causing serious liver problems, especially when combined with alcohol or certain medications.

The active chemical compound in Kava Kava that gives it its medicinal qualities is called Kavalactone.

Demand:

Drinking Kava Kava has become a trend amongst non-Pacific Islanders in recent decades. Though its popularity did take a dip with its ban in Germany for a few years from 2013-2015, it is still a lucrative business for local farmers to get involved in.

Wild Harvesting Impact On Other Species and Lookalikes:

There are numerous subspecies, varieties, and look-alikes of Kava Kava, and these, too, are subject to unsustainable farming and harvesting practices.

Recommended alternatives for industrial and home use:

Some sources attribute possibly severe liver diseases to drinking Kava Kava, which is exacerbated if drinking it alongside alcohol. As with all plants listed on the Species-At-Risk List, United Plant Savers highly recommends talking to your doctor before taking Kava Kava, to make sure it doesn’t react poorly with you or any medications you may be taking.

Citations

  • Lynch, J. (2002). Potent Roots and the Origin of kava. Oceanic Linguistics, 41(2), 493. doi:10.2307/3623318
  • National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2018, November 20). Kava. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/kava
  • Solomon, S. (2017, February 23). Counting on the Trendy to Revive Kava, a Traditional Drink. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/business/fiji-kava-prices-drink.html
  • Tavana, G., PhD. (n.d.). Meet The Plants – Plant Detail: Piper methysticum. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from https://ntbg.org/database/plants/detail/piper-methysticum
  • United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Plants Profile for Piper methysticum G. Forst. kava. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=PIME
  • Wang, J., Qu, W., Bittenbender, H. C., & Li, Q. X. (2015). Kavalactone content and chemotype of kava beverages prepared from roots and rhizomes of Isa and Mahakea varieties and extraction efficiency of kavalactones using different solvents. Journal of food science and technology, 52(2), 1164–1169. doi:10.1007/s13197-013-1047-2