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Piper methysticum
PIPERACEAE (Pepper Family)





Brief History
wa is a Hawiian heritage plant that was dispersed throughout the Pacific by ancient voyagers who traveled by canoe (Abbott 1992). It has been under cultivation for more than 3,000 years (Lebot et al. 1997). Within that time it has arguably become the most heavily cultivated non-food plant within the cultures that use it, and probably has had a large impact on the evolution of these cultures. Because of this, an immense amount of cultural knowledge of this plant has been accumulated.

`Awa is in the Pepper family, the same family as black pepper (Piper nigrum), one of the oldest and most important spices. The pepper family includes 6 genera and about 2020 species of herbs, shrubs, small trees, lianas. `Awa is also a relative to Piper betle (betel pepper) whose nut can be chewed and has a mild stimluating effect. `Awa is an attractive herbaceous plant with unique jointed stems and heart shaped leaves. In other areas of Polynesia it is known as Kava.

In recent years, `Awa has experienced a renewed popularity within Hawaiian society. Unfortunately, much of the cultural knowledge of this plant has not accompanied its revival. It is not uncommon for contemporary Hawaiians, who utilize this plant, to substitute traditions from the South Pacific in place of the traditions of the old Hawaiians (Winter 2004). This is due to a discontinuation of `Awa traditions within the majority of Hawaiian families. A more complete understanding of this plant and its traditional uses is crucial if contemporary Hawaiians are to maintain a distinct cultural identity (Winter 2004). More recently, Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott (Abbott and Shimazu 1985, Abbott 1992) compiled literature references on Hawaiian medicinal plants and reported that `Awa was among the twelve most important medicinal plants in old Hawai`i.

`Awa’s cultural importance to Hawaiians can be measured by assessing the number of varieties cultivated by Hawaiians. There have been previous attempts to estimate the number of Hawaiian `Awa varieties, although there have been no exhaustive studies; Handy (1940) estimated 15 and Lebot et al. (1997) estimated 11.

There are at least 15 Hawaiian cultivars cultivated in Hawaii (Handy 1940). Unfortunately, Hawaiian culitvars are not easily distinguishable to the untrained eye. Characteristics of the stalks are used more frequently than leaf features. Leaf characteristics of Hawaiian cultivars generally are not consistent.

To identify Hawiian 'awa cultivars, it is best to use the central portion of a mature plant stalk (at least 18 months old). The most consisten characteristics are obtained from more upright stalks. Useful characteristics include internode length, stem color, stalk length and thickness as well as the overal habit. The appearance of lenticels on the stem are also very important. As with any plant, the amount of light has an affected on overall growth. If grown in full sun, internode length can be shorter than if grown in shade.

There are at least 7 additional 'awa cultivars currently being cultivated that are not of Hawaiian origin. In the mid 1980s, Vincent Lebot introduced these cultivars into Hawai'i and germplasm collection was established at the University of Hawai'i Harold Lyon Arboretum.

Hawaiian cultivars | Cultivar Identification Key

Honokane Iki


Papa'ele'ele pu'upu'u

Special terms applied to the awa plant include (Handy, 1940):

lau - leaf
'au - stem
a'a - root
aka - jointed stalk
opu awa - bush or clump
pu awa - stocky root
pu'upu'u awa - joints of the stalk