You’ve heard us talk a lot about kava the drink, it’s earthy flavor, and the rich south pacific island cultural tradition around it. But have you ever thought about where kava actually comes from? The plant itself?
Most of us think of kava as the brownish powder that is mixed with water to create the relaxing, social beverage that we’ve come to love. But it doesn’t start out that way.
Kava comes from the pepper plant Piper methysticum. It is a long lived perennial plant, which means it can live for up to 30 years, unlike short-lived plants that only live up to 10 years, or even less.
One of the most unique things about the kava plant is how its reproduced. Most plants that produce flowers reproduce through pollination. This involves pollen being moved from the male part of the plant (the stamen) to the female part (the pistal) for reproduction to happen.
Kava can’t reproduce this way because even though it flowers, it can’t reproduce through its seeds. This comes from the complexity and high number of chromosomes it has (known as ploidy).
Therefore the only way it can reproduce is by actively being cultured and propagated. This involves taking cuttings from a fully grown plant from about the roots when the plant is harvested an replanting them to grow as a new plant.
What does it look like?
The kava plant is classified as a shrub. All of its growth comes from one set of roots, called the root ball, and can retain its structure throughout the year.
It’s very tall, growing up to 12 feet high and has thick, succulent stems that swollen have nodes periodically placed. The nodes can be different colors from green to black and can change through out the plants maturity. Nodes are also one way to tell different strains of kava from each other. Nodes are also important for propogating new kava plants. There needs to be at least one node (though two is ideal) for new growth to stem from (as you can see below).
It’s biggest characteristic is it’s large heart shaped green leaves. They are smooth, bright in color and can grow to be between 15-20cm long (that’s 6-8 inches).
Another unusual characteristic of kava is that it increases its leaf production to a very fast rate during the flowering cycle. Most flowering plants stop producing leaves when flowering.
Kava leaves photo via Kavahana
The kava plant does produce flower spikes but never an actual flower. Its starts off quite small and light green in color. Then grows throughout the flowering cycle into a long, thin yellow cylinder shape. While the texture looks like it, these flower don’t produce any seeds. As mentioned above, kava can’t produce seeds and doesn’t reproduce like most other flowering plants. The Kava flower cycles once a year and the it lasts a few months. Once the flowers reach maturity they die off after a bit of time.
The kava roots and rhizomes are considered the most valuable part of the plant for the beverage. The rhizome is the horizontal part of the root that sends out both shoots and roots. This part of the plant has the highest levels of kavalactones, the active ingredients in kava that give it the relaxing and social effects it’s known for.
Kava plant being harvested photo via Kavahana
The roots are thick and soft wooded when fresh but when harvested and dried become brittle and hard. This is where the kava powder comes from. It takes 2-3 years for kava roots to mature to the point where they have potency, that is to have the have the effects.
Most traditional kava farmers like to leave kava a bit of extra time to grow, leaving it until it’s about 5 years old. This allows more kavalactones to be produced and also helps with the smoothness when drinking it.
Dried kava roots photo via Kavahana
This large, leafy shrub can be found natively on most of the pacific islands and can be grown world wide under the right conditions. While on out the outside, the kava plant may not look like anything special, we all know its what’s on the inside that counts.