History

Kava is a term used to describe both Piper methysticum and the preparation made from its dried rhizome and root (1). This South Pacific plant is a robust, branching, perennial shrub with heart-shaped, green, pointed leaves (2) that grows up to 28 cm long and flower spikes that grow up to 9 cm long (1). The shrub grows best in warm, humid conditions with lots of sunlight, at altitudes of 150-300 m above sea level (2), where it forms dense thickets (3). Kava reproduces vegetatively, without fruit or seeds, usually under cultiva-

From Forensic Science and Medicine: Herbal Products: Toxicology and Clinical Pharmacology, Second Edition Edited by: T. S. Tracy and R. L. Kingston © Humana Press Inc., Totowa, NJ

tion (3). There are reports of up to 72 varieties of the kava plant, which differ in appearance, and chemical analysis has shown differences in their composition as well, which may lead to differences in physiological activity (2).

Kava has been described in the European literature since the early 1600s, when it was taken there by the Dutch explorers LeMaire and Schouten, who had acquired it while seeking new passages across the Pacific (3). Captain James Cook was the first to describe the use of kava during the religious and cultural ceremonies of the people of the South Sea Islands, where it was, and still is, prepared as a beverage and consumed for its intoxicating, calming effects that promote sociability (3). Thus, kava is used for the purposes that Western society uses alcohol, the Native American populations use peyote, and the people of the Middle or Far East use opium (2). Events typically accompanied by kava ceremonies included weddings, funerals, births, religious occasions, seasonal feasts, reconciliations, welcoming of royalty or other guests, and the exchange of gifts (3). Women and commoners seldom participated in these ceremonies because that was viewed as unacceptable; however, some cultures did permit use by commoners to relax after a hard day's work (3).

The beverage was traditionally made by mixing grated, crushed, or chewed fresh or dried root with cool water or coconut milk and then straining the mixture through plant fibers to isolate the liquid, which was consumed (3). However, all parts of the plant can be used (4). Today the beverage is most often prepared by crushing dried roots with a large mortar and pestle, then straining the mixture in the traditional way or through cotton cloth (3). Other folk uses of kava have included treatment of headaches, colds, rheumatism, sexually transmitted diseases, and inflammation of the uterus (1). It has also been used as a sedative, aphrodisiac, urinary antiseptic (5), wound healing agent, and a treatment for asthma (1). Several substances extracted from the roots were also used briefly in Europe as diuretics (3).

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