ʻAwa (Kava) in Hawaii

May 2, 2024

All About Hawaii ʻAwa

Kava, scientifically known as Piper methysticum G. Forster and belonging to the Piperaceae family (the Pepper Family), was introduced to Polynesia thousands of years ago with the name ʻAwa. ʻAwa in Hawaii has many uses and is considered a “gift from the Gods.”

‘Awa, a member of the Piperaceae family (the Pepper Family), presents an alluring appearance with its distinctive jointed stems and heart-shaped leaves. This plant possesses the remarkable ability to reach heights of up to twelve feet when it thrives.

Kava (ʻAwa) in Hawaii Branches

Hawaii is home to approximately thirteen named varieties of ‘awa (kava), which flourishes in shaded, moisture-rich environments.

In traditional Hawaiian culture, ʻawa took center stage as it was transformed into a unique beverage. This involved the chewing of fresh ʻawa roots, collecting the chewed mass in a bowl, and subsequently blending it with water before straining the liquid through natural fibers. This drink held great cultural significance, being offered to esteemed visitors as a symbol of hospitality and playing a pivotal role in religious ceremonies as an offering to the gods.

Kava (ʻAwa) in Hawaii Ceremonial Preparation

Modern methods of ʻawa preparation have evolved, now involving the mechanical maceration of dry roots into a fine powder, which is then mixed with water. All parts of the ʻawa plant contain kavalactones, a group of relaxants and sedative elements.

Regrettably, wild ʻawa populations have dwindled due to exploitation over the past century and a half. To see a large display of ʻawa (kava), visit Kahanu Garden in Hana on the island of Maui. In the canoe garden on the property, they have cultivated various ʻawa varieties from different Pacific islands. This effort serves a dual purpose: showcasing their distinct characteristics and promoting the conservation of this culturally significant plant.

Kava (ʻAwa) in Hawaii Kahanu Canoe Garden

The ahupuaʻa (land division) of Honomaʻele is famous for growing ʻawa (kava). There you’ll find Kahanu Garden, which is responsible for much of our learning.