Kava is consumed in various ways throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, Vanuatu, Melanesia and some parts of Micronesia and Australia. Traditionally, it is prepared by either chewing, grinding or pounding the roots of the plant.
The several cultivars of kava vary in concentrations of primary and secondary psychoactive alkaloids. The largest number are grown in the Republic of Vanuatu, and so it is recognized as the “home” of the plant. This plant was historically grown only in the Pacific islands of Hawaii, Federated States of Micronesia, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Samoas, and Tonga. Some are grown in the Solomon Islands since World War II, but most are imported. Kava is a cash crop in Vanuatu and Fiji.
The plant cannot reproduce sexually. Female flowers are especially rare and do not produce fruit even when hand-pollinated. Its cultivation is entirely by propagation from stem cuttings.
Traditionally, plants are harvested around four years of age, as older plants have higher concentrations of kavalactones. After reaching about 2 m height, plants grow a wider stalk and additional stalks, but not much taller. The roots can reach a depth of 60 cm.
In Vanuatu, exportation of kava is strictly regulated. Only strains they deem as “noble” varieties that are not too weak or too potent are allowed to be exported. Only the most desirable strains for everyday drinking are selected to be noble varieties to maintain quality control. In addition, their laws mandate that exported kava must be at least five years old and farmed organically. Their most popular noble strains are “Boroguu” or “Boronggoru” from Pentecost Island, “Melomelo” from Aoba Island (called sese in north Pentecost Island), and “Palarasul” kava from Espiritu Santo. In Vanuatu, Tudei (“two days”) kava is reserved for special ceremonial occasions and exporting it is not allowed. “Palisi” is a popular Tudei variety.
In Hawaii, there are many other strains of kava (Hawaiian: ʻawa). Some of the most popular strains are the Mahakea, Moʻi, Hiwa and Nene varieties. The Aliʻi (kings) of precolonial Hawaii covered the Moʻi variety, which had a strong cerebral effect due to a predominant amount of the kavalactone kavain. This sacred variety was so important to them that no one but royalty could ever experience it, “lest they suffer an untimely death”. The reverence for Hiwa in old Hawaiʻi is evident in this portion of a chant recorded by Nathaniel Bright Emerson and quoted by E. S. Craighill and Elizabeth Green Handy. “This refers to the cup of sacramental ʻawa brewed from the strong, black ʻawa root (ʻawa hiwa) which was drunk sacramentally by the kudu hula.”