Tropical mind-altering Botanical beloveds.

Here I briefly describe the major similarities and differences in the botany, ecology, geographical distribution, psychoactive substances, culture history and modern use of two beloved tropical plants. 


Piper methysticum is (one of) the kava shrubs in the pepper tree family of Piperaceae. The botanical ancestry of this plant is not crystal clear. Wind pollination is not likely, but morphotypes and genetically interspecific hybridization of P.wichmannii and P. gibbilimbum could have yielded P.methysticum.  The aforementioned variants of the Piper genus have been found endemically in northern Melanesia, including the Solomon Islands and northern Vanuatu. From Melanesia (as far as New Guinea) to the far-out isolated piko of Polynesia, the Hawaiian islands, this plant’s active constituents have been enjoyed as a traditional tool for camaraderie and social ceremony. Kavalactones are the science behind the folk medicine and why this plant assists in social, religious, ritual, and political processes. Further research in the 1970’s into the genetic relationships of Piperaceae presents the idea that P.gibbilimbum does not produce kavalactones, which fortifies the ties between the Melanesian (P.wichmanii) and the shade-loving, dioecious shrub of Hawaiian kava (P.methysticum). 


Kavalactones are carried from fresh and dried roots through the psycho-active resins of kavalactones. Fresh roots can have up to 15% kavalactones and when mashed, pounded into water, filtered and consumed in a coconut shell, this brew can affect the nervous system through a “reduction of spinal (rather than cerebral) activity followed by muscular stimulation and then paralysis that affects the lower limbs.” (Merlin 59) Pulling from research, this is very different from alcohol because although they both slow cardiac rhythm and slow respiration, kava is not a cerebral intoxicant and can actually enhance clarity, night vision, and sense of one’s being. Other compounds that have been isolated from kava kava, ‘awa, waka waka or kavahine (various Polynesian names) are kavain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, and hydroxykavain amongst others. These all have varying chemical structures and are all in the class of kavalactones, which molecularly consist of thirteen carbon atoms, six of which form a benzene ring attached by a double bond to an unsaturated lactone. (Merlin 67) They are found in the highest concentrations in the lateral roots, and are (somewhat rapidly) absorbed in the body through the gastrointestinal tract. When consumed, kava can be an analgesic, sedative, anti-convulsive, muscle-relaxant, antimycotic (active against yeasts or fungi), and an overall mood enhancer. The claim of “mood enhancement” enters into the field of neurophysiology and can be supported by long-flowing oral traditions of kava being used to “extinguish chiefs'' in times of debate and problem solving. Peace, sociability, tolerance, and camaraderie are all reported reactions to the consumption around kava as well as singing, joking and being lively as Fijians would say. Throughout Polynesia, there is a tradition around clapping when in ceremony with kava. “Bula bula” is something often said in Fiji when drinking, and they believe that the claps performed before and after consuming the brew awaken the awareness of the supernatural. However, it seems the further into Melanesia and Micronesia that oral traditions are still passed on, that as sakau (as kava is called in Pohnpei) is consumed, the more quiet the community or circle of family becomes as photo-sensitivity increases as well. Perhaps this is related to how the kava is prepared, or the long-standing pacifying traditions in place. Rather than dancing and bustling around, in Pohnpei, the drinking of sakau is normally quite mellow, quiet, dimly-lit, and nearly silent….other than the voices of the ancestors that are said to come through at these times. This drug, or medicine perhaps serves as a channel to ancestral communication. Some island peoples translate that channel into movement and noise-making as celebration, and some sit in silence for wisdom and guidance to come forth. Either way, this plant is used to upholding values, village protocols, rites of passage, as political exchange. Currently, kava is used as a tool or offering for forgiveness in New Guinea and also Hawai’i. Currently, kava is illegal in Australia, Europe, Canada, and Poland while alcohol is readily accessible. 


Reference to citations above:

Kava: The Pacific Elixir by Mark Merlin, Vincent Lebot, and Lamont Lindstrom

  • Published February 1997 by Yale University Press

Grown in a very similar climate, but much more vast of a bioregion than kava, is Betel nut.  Areca catechu is the fruit of the Betel nut palm that grows throughout tropical Asia and some parts of Western Oceania. Traditionally and currently, the common way to ingest the active stimulant constituents in this nut is via quid. A quid is like a spit poultice that you pack into your bottom lip or in between your teeth and cheeks. In this quid, pieces of the seed or betel nut are wrapped up in a leaf of betel vine with slaked lime, or calcium carbonate to activate and deliver the active betel nut properties. This plant is widely used, and widely able to grow throughout Micronesia, Melanesia, Southwest Asia and East Africa. This quid is the fourth most commonly consumed psychoactive substance in the world with only nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol surpassing it in use and distribution globally. Beyond 600 million people chew betel daily throughout the South Indian, Asian and into Pacific regions of the tropical world. Originating in Southeast Asia and traveling into Micronesia some three or four thousand years ago, this betel quid has been and still is used by the working class peoples as a stimulant, mood lifter, phlegm dissolver, and germicide. Unfortunately, studies in Southeast Asia and the Solomon Islands have shown that Areca catechu quids do indeed cause cancers of the mouth and esophagus. In addition to that it has reported negative effects on the endocrine system, causing an underachieve thyroid, which is counter-intuitive as it is a stimulant and should increase thyroid function. However, this suppression of the endocrine also feeds into suppressed immunity and reduced T-cell proliferation as well as a decreased release of cytokines. 


This is why I don’t understand why there is such an attack on Kratom leaf and also kava root, which are way less harmful substances originating from similar places that actually have measurable therapeutic potential, when betel nut is over-consumed and out-of-control in many places throughout many cultures. Although both kava and betel are used socially and for camaraderie and conversation, it seems that the ceremonial aspect of kava has remained intact through practices of tatau in Samoa and through quiet ancestral channeling in Pohnpei, whereas the use of betel seems more along the lines of substance abuse. The habit forming compound of betel nut is arecoline, which is found in the endosperm of the fruit. This is the same compound that contributes to and forms oral cancers like leukoplakia. Arecoline is the prime reason why the stimulating release of adrenaline is said to occur, which is the prized effect in heavy industrial places like Taiwan where the suppression of hunger and increased work stamina is valuable. Resistance to this plant drug has been forming in the Marshall Islands as more and more agencies try to ban the importation of it.

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