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Kava root is the underground portion of the kava plant, a tropical shrub with long, knobby green stalks that can grow between 2 and 6 meters tall. Heart-shaped leaves grow on thin stems that stick out at intervals along the length of the stalks. The root of the perennial plant has two distinct sections: the ‘crown root’ near the base of the plant that when cut forms large, poker chip-like pieces, and the ‘lateral root’ which looks more like a common tree root. The crown root makes up roughly 80% of the roots of the Kava plant. The lateral roots, making up the remaining 20% of the root stock, have the highest concentration of the plant’s active compounds and are the most desired portion. The lateral Kava roots are 2 to 4 centimeters in diameter and can be more than a meter long. They have a rough, brown, bark-like skin. A cross section of fresh Kava root reveals a yellowish flesh with a pinwheel pattern around a central core. Kava root has a pungent smell and the taste is bitter and earthy. The steeped concoction made from the root will cause slight numbing or tingling sensations in the mouth and on the tongue. Kava root contains properties will relax the body while allowing the mind to stay fully focused.
Kava root is available year-round in tropical regions.
Kava is a tropical plant botanically known as Piper methysticum. Kava is in the same family as black pepper. In English, its scientific name means “intoxicating pepper.” The root of the Kava plant is most commonly known for the beverage made from it, sometimes called "kaka-kava" or “the drink of peace.” It is a customary drink in the island countries of the South Pacific. Almost 200 different strains of Kava root exist, though only 12 or so varieties are considered safe for commercial consumption. For a time in the early 2000s Kava root was banned by both Europe and the United States. Because of a boom in the root's popularity, and limited availability of noble strains of Kava at the time, more potent and toxic strains of Kava (tu’dei and wild) were sold and several cases of toxicity were reported. Since then, stringent growing and selling practices have standardized the market for Kava root, and identified preferred strains for exportation and consumption. Most Kava root is grown on the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu and Fiji for processing and exporting around the world. The root is known as Yaquona in Fiji and Awa in Hawaii.
Kava root’s main nutritional value lies in the properties within the root. It contains small amounts of alkaloids and flavonoids (antioxidants). The main active compounds in Kava roots are called kavalactones, like kavain, which has affects similar to a sedative. Ingesting Kava root does not impair motor skills or cognitive abilities like alcohol. However, like alcohol, Kava root is metabolized by the liver and when combined in high doses with other prescription sedatives alcohol, can lead to liver hypertoxicity and even liver failure. Those with liver disease and pregnant women are not advised to consume Kava root.
When fresh, Kava roots can be cut into small pieces and chewed, or the roots may be dried and ground into a powder. A beverage can be made from either the fresh or dried Kava root, using cold water, milk or milk substitute. The beneficial compounds in Kava root are destroyed if heated above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so traditional methods of extraction require cool liquids. Generally, liquids containing some fats like cow, goat or coconut milk are preferred for extracting the most of Kava’s active constituents. There are two primary methods for making Kava tea: One utilizes a “dunking cloth” method, whereby the ground Kava root is measured into a muslin cloth or bag (the holes in metal mesh strainers are too large) and liquid is poured over the bag into a bowl, dunking it repeatedly in the liquid to agitate. The concoction is left to ‘steep’ for up to 30 minutes and then consumed. Another method for preparing a Kava root drink is using a blender. Kava roots are cut into pieces and blended along with water, steeped for a bit and then blended again with a few tablespoons of milk, fruit juice, ginger, or other sweetener like honey. The liquid is poured into a muslin bag and the solids are squeezed to release any remaining liquid. Kava root tea can be sweetened with honey, agave, or stevia to take away the bitterness. Store fresh Kava roots in the refrigerator, lightly wrapped in plastic, for up to a week. Dried Kava root will store up to six months in an airtight container.
Used for religious, social and ceremonial purposes in Polynesia, Fiji and Hawaii, Kava root has been prepared much the same way for over 3,000 years. The root is revered in Vanuatu and in the Samoan islands, and was traditionally used by chiefs and priests and on some islands, only men were allowed to partake. Today, Kava is enjoyed by everyone, and can be found at local kava bars called nakamals. Kava root tea is traditionally made and served in a wooden bowl, made from local wood, called a tanoa fa'iva. This type of ceremonial serving bowl has been used on Fiji and Samoa for thousands of years. In some locations, Kava root is crushed and ground by hand using a cone-shaped, dried block of coral. In Papua New Guinea, the beverage made from the root is called “waild koniak” or ‘wild cognac’ in English.
Kava is native to several islands in Polynesia, an area that makes up most of the Central and South Pacific islands. The plant thrives in partial sun, shaded from the canopy of the tropical forests, and grows best in areas between 500 and 1000 feet above sea level. The benefits of Kava root reached the mainstream global society at the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s when Kava became popular as an anti-anxiety supplement and for relaxation. Use of Kava root by inexperienced European societies resulted in a temporary ban of Kava root products by several countries after liver toxicity issues arose. This was likely the result of improper extraction methods (using acetone or ethanol versus water) combined with the use of highly potent and potentially toxic Kava cultivars, such as wild kava or tu’dei (often called two-day for its 48-hour long effects), as well as the use of leaves and stems which isn’t an acceptable or consumable form of Kava. Two of the more well-known strains of noble Kava root are Waka and Mahakea, which are grown in Fiji and Vanuatu. Kava root should be purchased through credible purveyors and only noble strains should be consumed.