Piper methysticum

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Related Links
Stems at Nahiku, Maui, Hawaii. 
© Forest & Kim Starr (USGS)
Leaves and inflorescence at Nahiku,  Maui, Hawaii.
© Forest & Kim Starr (USGS)
Habit at Maui Nui Botanical Garden,  Maui, Hawaii. 
© Forest & Kim Starr (USGS)
Flowers at Enchanting Floral Gardens, Maui, Hawaii. 
© Forest & Kim Starr (USGS)

Local names:
English (kava-kava,kava,intoxicating pepper,inebriating pepper,ava pepper), French (kawa-kawa,kava,ava), Indonesian (wait,waghi,bari)

Piper methysticum is a dioecious, woody perennial shrub, 2-4 m tall, with a massive base at or just below the ground (crown or short rootstock) from which several shoots arise, giving the plant an overall rosette appearance.  Each main stem is erect, 1-3 cm in diameter, green, red-brown or dark purple and looks jointed due to the swollen nodes and prominent scars left by abscission of leaves and branches.

Leaves alternate, deciduous, heart-shaped, 10-30 cm x 8-23 cm; stipules large, persistent; petiole 2-7 cm long, margin entire, apex acute, glabrous to finely pubescent, palmately veined.

Inflorescence a spike, axillary or opposite the leaves but much smaller; pendincle 1.5 cm long; spike 3-9 cm long, with small unisexual flowers without sepals or petals; the male spike bears numeral flowers with 2 short stamens; the female spike bears flowers with a single basal ovule in an unilocular ovary topped by a stigma.

Fruit seldom produced; a berry containing one seed.

The plant derives its name from Piper (Latin for pepper) and methysticum (Greek for intoxicating). The word kava is used to refer both to the plant and the beverage produced from it (Wikipedia)


Grows on rich well-drained soil in mountain areas, preferring shade when young and full sun when established. It grows well in multi-crop gardens.  It is susceptible to damage by moderate to strong winds.

Native range

Tree management

Weeding is necessary in the first 2 years.  Field spacing varies widely depending on the nature and intensity of the other crops, but 2x2 m (2500 plants/ha) is preferred.  Earthing up is essential to ensure massive proliferation of rootstock.  Manures and composts should be applied since it requires high nutrient supply; compound inorganic NPK fertilizer (12-12-20) or urea (with 46% N) can also be used; year round moisture is beneficial.

Kava is best harvested when 2-4 years old, but may be allowed to stand for up to a decade; harvesting can be done any time of the year; and involves cutting off the stems and digging up the rootstock.  Kava yields vary with age and cultivar.  Fresh weight yields are 10-60 kg/plant, and 6.6 t/ha for kava intercropped with coconut.

Grows on rich well-drained soil in mountain areas, preferring shade when young and full sun when established. It grows well in multi-crop gardens.  It is susceptible to damage by moderate to strong winds.

Since fruits are seldom produced, kava is exclusively propagated by stem cuttings, suckers or rhizomes.  Cuttings 15-20 cm long should be planted directly in the field.  Shorter cuttings of 2-4 nodes should first be sprouted in a nursery before transplanting.  Intercropping with other crops (e.g taro, bananas or maize) provide the necessary shade and wind shelter for the young kava.

Medicine:  Roots (and stems) used medicinally throughout the Pacific and grown commercially for export to the U.S. and elsewhere, as a mild euphoriant and anesthetic, hypnotic also a mild sedative; roots, stems, and leaves used medicinally to treat convulsions, stiffness, toothaches, sore throats, stomachache, backache, respiratory diseases, filariasis, intestinal parasites, and venereal disease; kava exported to Germany as an ingredient in medicines to treat high blood pressure.  Root decoction and leaves were chewed by women as contraceptive; juice from fresh leaves used as an embrocation on wounds.

Alcohol:  A major social and ceremonial beverage of considerable cultural importance; large roots and lower stems crushed or pounded and mixed with water to produce "kava," an alkaloid stimulant that has a mild narcotic, sedative, or soporific effect and