Dear Kava Guru,
What is Kava Root?
This is difficult to believe, but it was pointed out to me recently that I’ve never actually addressed the most basic of questions regarding something as simple as what exactly Kava root is. It’s further evidence that the obvious is what often escapes me, but I will make up for that oversight by shedding some light on my favorite plant in the world!
Kava root is of course, first and foremost – a root – the root of the Piper methysticum plant. But, just what does this mean on a broader basis? Well, below are a few personal insights as to what Kava root is in its entirety, right down to its bio-constitution.
Kava Root Overview:
First off, it’s important to realize that when people refer to commercial Kava or Kava supplements more generally – they are referring to the root of the Kava plant. The other parts of the plant or aerial parts (parts above ground – not including the lateral root) are absolutely no good to us! The leaves, stem, and other sub-components of these upper parts of the Kava plant are actually hazardous to our health, as they can be poisonous . It’s quite possible that these other parts of the plant are the source of the problems indicated by infamous cases of Kava and liver toxicity. There have been reported cases of Kava causing liver toxicity – cases that have since been proven to be unsubstantiated – and it’s quite possible that Kava was actually misused in these cases . So, remember when discussing Kava as a supplement that is ingested, we are referring only to the Kava root and not to the entire plant. The dried Kava root used to produce Kava root powder has the highest kavalactone content at 15% of its constitution, while the rest of the root is made up of starch, fibers, sugars and proteins – which are all good things .
Rootstock Anatomy – Lateral vs. Underground Root:
Plant roots are composed of various parts and all plants have roots of some kind, which are responsible for many biological functions, but are primarily for nutrient and water uptake. Some vascular plants, including Piper methysticum (Kava or ‘Awa), have both lateral or aerial (above ground) roots and underground roots . The lateral roots can serve many purposes, including nutrient reception from the air or even aeration of the plant.
While it is known that these lateral roots start to develop after Piper methysticum’s initial three-year maturation , the exact purpose of the lateral roots are unclear. However, my guru senses lead me to believe that it is likely that the aerial roots allow the plant to gain certain nutrients from sun exposure that it wouldn’t other wise have access to if all of its roots were underground. The reason I speculate this is that the amount of kavalactones in the lateral roots are increased upon sun exposure – indicating that increased sun does interact with the lateral root chemistry in some way [2, p. 40].
Given that the sun-drenched aerial roots of the Kava plant are brimming with kavalactones (more so than the underground roots), the most potent/strongest Kava is made from these lateral roots. Kavalactones are the compounds in a Kava plant that are to be thanked for all of the wonderful benefits and pleasurable outcomes of having a Kava root beverage  – so, it’s no wonder that processes of cultivation have led us to be more attracted to the potent aerial roots!
Although underground roots are also used in the production of Kava supplements and are more abundant than the lateral roots  – they aren’t the best option when it comes to choosing what Kava supplements you would like to take. There are a host of reasons as to why the lateral roots are used more often. For one, underground roots are less potent, as mentioned above. Additionally, they are more difficult to harvest. Furthermore, on more of a tragic vein – much of the plant must be destroyed in order to get at the underground roots . Why would we want to destroy a plant to get at the less beneficial parts, when we could just snip away at the lateral roots and get a higher quality Kava root? We wouldn’t! That’s why the highest quality and morally intact Kava supplement you can get is from the lateral Kava root, while the underground root is used in the cheaper, lower-quality options.
Many years of cultivation and genetic pruning of the Piper methysticum plant have allowed it to travel and grow in regions of the planet that are best suited to its prime development. The wild version of Piper methysticum – Piper wichmannii – hasn’t had the care and tender support of educated farmers and as a result tends to have lower amounts of kavalactones. This is why Hawaii has become known as a prime source of Kava root – it has all of the resources to cultivate and care for the highest quality of Kava [2, p. 40]!
Different varietals of the Piper methysticum plant have different levels and types of kavalactones, but the Hawaiian varietals – or the cultivars primarily used in growing Kava in Hawaii – have been developed over the years to have the highest quantity of potent kavalactones. There are three kavalactones in particular that Hawaiian cultivars are known for: kavain, methysticin, and dihydrokavain. And no wonder Hawaii is known for its Kava – those three kavalactones have been dubbed as the perfect concoction for “fast-acting and pleasant experiences” [2, p. 31]!
According to Wikipedia, “…one of the most potent strains of Kava is called ‘Isa’ in Papua New Guinea, and also called ‘Tuday’ in Hawaii. In Vanuatu, it is considered a type of ‘Tudei’ kava, pronounced as ‘two-day’ because it is said to have effects lasting two days due to its chemical profile being high in the kavalactone dihydromethysticin. The plant itself is a strong, very hardy, fast-growing variety with multiple light to dark green stems covered with raised dark spots.”
When it comes to kava, though, “most potent” certainly does not necessarily mean it’s the best. If you’re curious to find out why, read some Facebook comments regarding this topic, the Kava Forums Tudei post with an opposing viewpoint, or a recent study regarding “Flavokawain B, the hepatotoxic constituent from kava root“.
What About Those Kavalactones?:
According to James A. Duke, “Phytochemicals called kavalactones produce 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 of them acting alone.” 
For someone who simply enjoys Kava as the best natural means I know of to calm my mind outside of meditation or surfing, what had intrigued me most about these mysterious kavalactones, are finding out which ones are most responsible for the pleasurable effects of Kava. Many years ago, just some cursory digging in my favorite Kava books got me the answer I wanted and in detail, summarized below.
In 1989, the true guru of Kava; Vincent Lebot and J. Lésque and a subsequent paper entitled “The origin and distribution of Kava (Piper methysticum Forst. f., Piperaceae): A phytochemical approach”, they assigned numbers to the 6 major kavalactones. As mentioned above, there are about 18 known lactones in Kava, but just 6 of these account for 90% of the total Kavalactone content, and subsequently, for most of the effects Kava produces.
These 6 major lactones are as follows:
1 = desmethoxyyangonin
2 = dihydrokavain
3 = yangonin
4 = kavain
5 = dihydromethysticin
6 = methysticin
These 6 numbers have become the accepted system for not only identifying the overall amounts of Kavalactones in relation to each other within a single sample of Kava Root, but the 6 digit code that is generated from a single Kava sample can also be used to identify its geographical location. How? Well, each region of the world produces a very unique cultivar of Kava due to it’s own unique weather patterns, sunlight intensities, soil composition, and even the elevation that the Kava plant grows. All of these factors, including human propagation and selection over the past 3,000 years, gives Kava a distinct “fingerprint” that is extremely consistent in the Kavalactone content within that regions main cultivar of Kava. And it’s the combination of the 6 major kavalactones that provide the range of effects.
One example of this is the Borogu Kava variety from the Islands of Vanuatu. This particular variety is famous for its psychoactive effects throughout Oceania. It has the 6-digit sequence of 245613, with dihydrokavain followed by kavain as its highest concentration kavalactone constituents . Those seeking for “happy” kava, typically seek out the Vanuatu cultivar of Kava, and specifically the Noble Vanuatu variety. “Noble” is a name that’s reserved for just a few cultivars of Vanuatu Kava. They are prized for their excellent “drinkability” as well as the quite noticeable effects on the mind. We know that Bula Kava House offers only Noble varieties of Vanuatu Kava, as does Kava Dot Com.
And In Closing:
Now you have more than a basic understanding of what the Kava root is when it comes to the drinking kind of Kava root. You also now know the important distinction between lateral root and underground root and can do your research on various vendors to determine which one has the highest quality of Kava as well as the Kava with the “Kavalactone lineup” that you prefer most. If you choose to go with lower quality products that is, of course, up to you – but do remember that it’s always wise to be advised. Whether you choose the Tudei Kava, go with a Noble Vanuatu cultivar, or find a Fijian Kava that, as Bula Kava House says offers “an inner warmth and mental bliss”, part of the joy of Kava and the many varieties found around the web is simply trying out as many as you can, and discovering your own ‘awa ‘uhane (Kava spirit) in the process!
The origins of the Piper Methysticum variety that most simply know as “Kava Kava”, may have derived from a different plant altogether, called Piper wichmannii. Piper wichmannii is indigenous to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. According the “Kava: The Pacific Elixir“, the argument has been made that there is “convincing morphological, checmical, and genetic grounds for considering these two taxa of Piper to be wild and cultivated forms of the same species.” What exactly does that mean? It means that Piper methysticum consists of several sterile cultivars (Kava does not reproduce sexually; it’s by cuttings only) cloned from P. wichimannii in a selection process throughout the early history of Kava Kava. It appears that the psychoactive effects were what was most revered by early cultivators, so of course, the plants that produced the most pleasant and/or the strongest psychoactive effects, were the cultivars that were selected for cloning and subsequent transplanting.
Evidence shows that the earliest kava consumption, always in the form of a drink, was more closely associated with ancestor worship. Each morning, in the house of an ancestor known as a “būrau”, prepared kava as an offering to the village ancestors. There were priests, so it was definitely a religious ritual of some kind, but evidence is scant for the early uses, partly due to the missionaries and conquerors attempting to completely obliterate the consumption of kava. It was not only thought to be the “work of the devil”, it was deemed “unhygenic” because the method of preparation involves chewing the leaf, and spitting it out into a 4-legged bowl called a “tanoa”.
According to Clunie and Tora at the FIji Museum in Suva (capital of Fiji), the practice of chewing the rootstock to prepare the kava drink was actually borrowed from Tonga in the late 1700′s. Clunie also suggested that 18th century Christian Missionaries encouraged the move from Fijian preparation styles to the Polynesian style of pounding the root with rocks, adding it into water, and then filtering it through Hibiscus tiliaceus bark. (The early Fijian style was to filter the kava through “bracken fern leaves held in a woven canister-like device.)
1. Cassileth, Barrie, PHD. “Oncology”. United Business Media LLC, San Francisco: April 15, 2011. Vol. 25-4 p. 384-385.
2. Johnston and Rogers, Helen. “Hawaiian ‘Awa: Views of an Ethnobotanical Treasure”. Association for Hawaiian ‘Awa: Hilo, HI, 2006.
3. Kava Dot Com. “Kava Root”. Online: http://www.kava.com/?p=970.
4. Teschke, Rolf, MD. “Kava Hepatotoxicity: pathogenetic aspects and prospective considerations”. Liver International: October, 2010. Vol. 30-9, p. 1270-1279.
5. Whitton, Lau, Salisbury, Whitehouse and Christine S. Evans. “Kava Lactones and the Kava-Kava Controversy”. Pergamon: June 5, 2003. Phytochemistry (64) p. 673-679.
6. Wikipedia. “Root”. Last Updated, March 26, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root#Root_growth
7. Wikipedia. “Kava”. Last Updated, April 5, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava#cite_note-5
8. Duke, James A. 2000. The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook: Your Comprehensive Reference to the Best Herbs for Healing. Rodale Books.
9. Lebot, Vincent, Mark Merlin, and Lamont Lindstrom. 1992. Kava: The Pacific Drug. New Haven, Yale University Press.