`Awa 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.
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.
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.
`Awas 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.
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.
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
Hawaiian cultivars | Cultivar
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
awa - stocky root
pu'upu'u awa - joints of the stalk