Herb to Know: Kava

All you need to know about the Kava herb

| December/January 1999

  • Saw palmetto helped shrink prostate tisuue by an average of 7 percent in a recent study.
  • Piper methysticum has been the basis of religious and social rituals in the South Pacific for hundreds of years.
    Photography by steven foster
  • Milk thistle has been used to treat liver disease for more than 2,000 years; Hildegard of Bingen mentioned its use in her twelfth-century herbal.
  • An aggressive plant that covers some 500,000 acres of the southeastern United States, kudzu has been found to suppress alcohol-loving hamsters’ desire to drink.
  • Kava’s succulent, thick stems vary in color from green to black.
  • Red clover, one of the richest sources of phytoestrogens, has been found to increase arterial elasticity in menopausal and perimenopausal women.

Hot on the heels of St.-John’s-wort’s popularity in treating depression, a new herbal star has risen to ease another modern woe: anxiety.

Kava, also called kava-kava, is made from the rootstock of a South Pacific plant, Piper methysticum. Used for hundreds of years in religious and social rituals of the Pacific Islands, kava is a relative newcomer to the United States—with a number of clinical studies confirming its use in relieving stress.

Kava has been known to Westerners since 1768, when Daniel Carl Solander, a botanist on Captain James Cook’s first expedition around the world, found a plant in the South Pacific he called “Piper inebrians.” That name passed into ­obscurity as a footnote in a journal, along with the notation, “The expressed juice of this plant they drink to intoxicate themselves.”

Kava’s scientific moniker, Piper methysticum Forst., comes from Johann Georg Adam Forster, who accompanied Cook on his second expedition around the world from 1772 to 1775. Forster published the name Piper methysticum in a book that appeared in 1786.

What is kava?

Piper methysticum is in the genus Piper in the pepper family (Piperaceae), the group to which black pepper (Piper ­nigrum) belongs. Piper is a large plant group, whose more than 1,000 species include shrubs, high-climbing woody vines, and even small trees. Kava is a ­highly variable shrublike herb that usually grows to about 6 feet but can reach 20 feet given lush soil and good sunlight. The bright green, heart-shaped leaves are 6 to 8 inches long. Its small flower spikes are sterile.

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