Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Kava

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KAVA, an intoxicating drink used in the islands of the South Pacific from the Sandwich Islands to Fiji. In Hawaii it is called “kawa”; in the Marquesas “kava kava”; “ava,” “ava-ava,” and “evava” in Tahiti; and in Fiji “yaquona.” It is made from the roots or leaves of Piper methysticum, Miq., a species of pepper indigenous in these islands; several varieties are also cultivated by the natives, those growing in a dry soil being considered to be the most active. To prepare the liquid the fresh roots or leaves, after being chewed by young girls or boys, with good teeth, clean mouths, and free from colds, are placed in a large wooden bowl (“umete”) on three legs made of the wood of the vesi (Afzelia bijuga, Gray), and water or cocoa-nut milk poured over the mass. The liquid is then stirred up, and the woody matter of the root is removed by repeatedly drawing through the infusion long fibres prepared by crushing the green stems of the vau (Hibiscus, sp.), and passing them frequently between two pieces of wood. By this means a muddy-looking liquid resembling café au lait in appearance, or of a greenish hue if made from the leaves, is left in the bowl, a quantity of fæcula remaining suspended in the fluid. The drink is then distributed into cups made of plantain leaves, by dipping some of the vau fibre into it and squeezing the liquid into the cups, which are handed to the individuals present. As the process of infusion only takes about twenty minutes, it is obvious that no fermentation can take place. The taste of the liquid is at first sweet and then pungent and acrid. The usual dose is half a cupful, equal to about two mouthfuls of the root. Intoxication follows in about twenty minutes, or immediately if twice the usual quantity be taken.

The drunkenness produced by kava differs from that of alcohol in being of a melancholy, silent, and drowsy character, accompanied, if the drink be made from roots growing in a damp soil, with great irritability at the slightest noise. The fit lasts for about two hours, but in persons who only take it occasionally it may continue for six or twelve hours. At Nukahiva kava is said to be used as a daily beverage, probably in small quantities, — its use, however, being forbidden to women and children. In many of the Pacific islands kava is given at official receptions, being the offered and accepted token of hospitality. Formerly the drinking of it preceded warlike enterprises and religious festivals.

The daily use of the drug is sometimes followed by a kind of skin disease, called in Tahiti “arevareva.” The effect on those who are addicted to the use of kava for any length of time is to produce obscurity of vision, red conjunctiva, and yellow coloration of the teeth, while the skin where thick becomes dry, scaly, cracked, and ulcerated, and the body becomes emaciated and decrepit. In Nukahiva it is given as a medicine in phthisis and in bronchitis, a small dose being taken before going to bed.

Mr Collie, surgeon to the ship “Blossom,” states that he observed the infusion of the root to be useful in certain skin diseases (Beachy, Voyage of the “Blossom,” vol. ii. p. 120). Some years ago it was introduced into France as a remedy for various diseases of the mucous membranes (Annal. de Thérap., 1857, p. 61), and it has also been recommended in gout (Med. Times and Gazette, 1856, p. 591).

The root contains an essential oil of a yellow colour and agreeable odour, 2 per cent, of a balsamic resin called kawin, and about 49 per cent. of starch, also a neutral crystalline principle discovered in 1844 by Mr J. R. N. Morson, and called kavahine, or by Gobley methysticia. It is readily soluble in boiling alcohol, crystallizing out on cooling. Hydrochloric acid colours it red, this colour changing to yellow on exposure on the air; concentrated sulphuric acid changes it to a rich purple violet, which on exposure to the air gradually becomes green, or immediately if diluted with water. These tests distinguish it from cubebin and piperin.

See Pharm. Journ., (1) iii. 474, (2) iv. 85, (2) ix. 219, (3) vii. 149; Comptes Rendus, l. 436, 598, lii. 206; and Journ. de Pharm., 1860, p. 20, and 1862, p. 218; Seemann, Flora Vitiensis, p. 260.