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Botanical Characteristics of Kava.
The kava plant is a robust, fairly succulent, well-branching and erect perennial shrub belonging to the family Piperaceae. It thrives at altitudes 150 to 300 meters (m) above sea level and grows well in stony ground, both cultivated and in the wild.

Plant Description

When cultivated, the plant is usually harvested when it is about 2 to 2.5 m tall, but in warm humid conditions and with much sunlight, the plant grows densely to heights of up to about 6 m. The leaves are heart-shaped, pointed, and smooth and green on both sides, being about 15 cm in length (see photo page 39 and Figure I below). The spaces between the stem joints (the internodes) are sometimes used as a basis for the native names of the species, with the intensity of leaf color, the color of the stems, and the quality of the root also serving this function.(78,27) For about 60 cm or so just below the ground the root may become 5 to 8 cm thick at maturity, which occurs 3-5 years after planting. The roots may eventually become a heavy knotted mass (see photo page 45), highly prized in the past, because the root is said to gather strength and flavor with age.(27)

Cultivation In the past, when only the root was used, the whole plant was dug up and the tops removed, leaving part of the stern attached to the root. The mass of roots was then split up into convenient portions. Two internodes of the stem were left attached to large pieces of roots to form the tungase, used as a handle during a presentation of the root to visitors of rank.(48) Varieties The various characteristics of the kava plant, such as the intensity of the green leaf color, the color of the stems, etc., are by no means constant. It is on the basis of such differences that the varieties of Kava were classified by the native people. Handy lists 14 different varieties previously described in Hawaii: apu, liwa, ke'oke'o, kumakua, kuaea or nene, makea, mamaka, mamienie, mo'i, mokilana, papa, papa ele'ele, papa kea and kau la'au. Handy's descriptions of some of these varieties might help to illustrate the bases for the subdivisions: apu, long joints and dark green stalk. makea, long internodes and lighter green than apu. liwa, short joints and green stalk. mo'i, short and dark green internodes; the nodes are somewhat whitish. papa, short internodes and spotted stalk.(78) There is evidence that in Hawaii and elsewhere varieties of kava differed enough to make some preferred for one purpose, some for another. For instance: Only the most common variety could be used by the commoner, the rarer kinds being reserved for the chiefs. For the gods and on ceremonial occasions the mo'i, liwa, and papa were used, the papa, from which the mo'i was often an offshoot, being especially offered to female deities.(79) Brown lists 21 varieties from the Marquesas and includes short descriptions for some of them.(80) Parham lists and describes five Fijian varieties, three white and two black types.(81) All five varieties are still available and used at the present time. white varieties -- kasa leka, kasa balavu (yalu) and qolobi black varieties -- kasa leka and kasa balavu. The white varieties are considered best, but they take longer (at least four years) than the black varieties (2 1/2 to 3 years) to attain maturity. Consequently, the black varieties are being cultivated commercially at present. Nine separate varieties of kava have been recognized in Samoa.(45) Van Veen has described at least two varieties in Western New Guinea, and he maintains that a "small green variety had much stronger narcotic [i.e., sleep-inducing] action than the tall red variety."(82) The green variety was chemically analyzed and found to contain more dihydrokawain (one of the main active ingredients) than the red variety. Serpenti reports that on the island of Kolepom in New Guinea, where kava is known as wati, five varieties are known: kuraka, dikoje, namuru, kwadarre, and ikawati, but the intoxicating effect of each is different.(10) On Ponape, two kinds of kava have been recognized -- a "spotted branch" and a "smooth branch" the former being better liked because of the stronger drink made from it.(83) More recently, (72) different varieties, each known to traditional growers by vernacular names and said to have different properties, have been reported from Vanuatu.(66) Article copyright American Botanical Council. 
~~~~~~~~ By Yadhu N. Singh and Mark Blumenthal