The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Piper auritum H.B.K.


Gold Pepper




Piperaceae (Pepper Family); Pipereae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies


It is possible that there are varieties, forms, or subspecies that may be distinguished on the basis of their leaves. However, the taxonomy of the neotropical Piper species is quite confusing.



Piper auritum Kunth

Piper umbellatum L.

Piper sanctum (Miq.) Schl. may also be a synonym; Martínez 1987 (page 1188) lists practically the same Mexican names for the two species.

Folk Names


Acoyo, acuya, acuyo, aguiyu, alahan, bakanil a iits’ (Huastec), cordoncillo, cordoncillo blanco, corriemineto, coyoquelite, gold pepper, goldpfeffer, hierba anís (“anise herb”), hierba de Santa María (Spanish, “the herb of Saint Mary),281 hierba santa, hinojo sabalero, ho’ben (Lacandon, “the herb of the five”), hoja de anís, hoja de cáncer, hoja santa (Mexico, “sacred leaf”), homequelite, ixmaculan, jaco, jinan (Totonac), maculan, ma’haw, ma’jóo, mak’ulan, mecaxóchitl (Nahuatl), momo, mumun, mumun te’ (Tzeltal), omequelite, omequilit-dos quelite, Santa María,282 tlampa, tlanepa, tlanepaquelite, tlanipa, totzoay, tzon tzko ntko, wo, woo, xalcuahuitl, xmaculan (Mayan/ Quintana Roo), x-mak-ulam, xmak’ulan, x’obel (Mayan/San Antonio [Belize]), yerba santa



Gold pepper is an ancient traditional Mayan remedy that was mentioned as a medicinal plant in the few sources from the colonial period (e.g., the Motul dictionary and the Relación de las cosas de Yucatán) (Roys 1976, 263*). In contemporary Mexico, the primary use of the plant is as a seasoning; fish and other seafood are wrapped in the large, aromatic leaves and braised (Bye and Lianres 1983, 6*; Cioro 1982, 143*).

In Panama, the leaves were or still are used to catch fish. Apparently, their scent attracts a food fish known as sábalo pipwu (Gupta et al. 1985).

In Brazil, the leaves were used in the industrial production of raw safrole for the international market (Rob Montgomery, pers. comm.).



Gold pepper is found from Mexico through Central America and into South America. It is very common among the tropical flora of Mexico (Chiapas), Belize, Panama, and Brazil and has been carried into other tropical areas.



The plant is most easily propagated through cuttings (approximately 15 to 20 cm long) taken from the lower stems. In tropical areas, it can very easily go wild and can displace other pepper plants (e.g., Piper methysticum), thereby causing some ecological damage (e.g., in Hawaii).



This evergreen perennial bush, which can grow to a height of 4 to 5 meters, develops branched green stems that do not lignify on their lower ends until quite late. The leaves are opposite, oval, and tapered at the end and project straight out from the stem or droop slightly. The green-white, very thin inflorescences extend straight up and can attain a length of more than 10 cm.

Gold pepper is easily confused with the very similar species Piper sanctum (possibly a synonym), which is also known as hoja santa and is also rich in safrole (Martínez 1994, 185*). However, Piper sanctum grows to a height of only 1.5 meters and does not occur in the southeastern lowlands (Argueta et al. 1994, 813*).

The closely related and similar, but generally smaller, species Piper amalago L. (see Piper spp.) also contains safrole and is used ethnobotanically in very similar ways (Arvigo and Balick 1994, 64 f.*). Some Maya regard this species as the “female” counterpart of the “male” gold pepper.

Gold pepper is almost identical in appearance to Piper methysticum; most laymen can distinguish the two species only by the scent of the leaves.

Psychoactive Material


—Fresh leaves

—Dried leaves

—Essential oil

Preparation and Dosage


Shade-dried leaves may be smoked by themselves or in combination with other herbs (see smoking blends). Fresh leaves are added to alcohol (aguardiente = sugarcane alcohol, mescal; see Agave spp.) (Argueta et al. 1994, 49*).

The essential oil, which is easily obtained through steam distillation (Gupta et al. 1985), is suitable as a precursor for the synthesis of amphetamine derivatives (e.g., MDMA; cf. herbal ecstasy).

An orally administered dose of 9 g/kg of plant extract did not have any lethal effects upon rats. When administered via injection, the LD50 is calculated as 2g/kg (Argueta et al. 1994, 50*).


The tropical gold pepper (Piper auritum) can be recognized by its very large leaves, its perpendicular flowers, and the strong safrole scent of its leaves and young shoots. (Wild plant, photographed in Belize)


Maculan or Ix-maculan: Certain bushes or roses, the leaves of which are roasted over the fire and placed onto chronic inflammations as a remedy.”




Ritual Use


Today in Belize, the large leaves are smoked, most likely as a marijuana substitute (cf. Cannabis indica) and for hedonistic purposes. To date, we know of no traditional rituals in which gold pepper has been used for its psychoactive properties.

The natives of the West Indies (or Mexico) are said to have once used Piper plantagineum Schlecht., a species found throughout the Caribbean region, as a narcotic in a manner similar to the way kavakava (Piper methysticum) is used. It is possible that this species is synonymous with Piper auritum. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about it.




Medicinal Use


In Belize (San Antonio, Cayo District), the large, fresh leaves are heated over a wood fire and laid over painful areas of the back, especially around the small of the back. The Yucatec Maya of Quintana Roo use the leaves as a stimulant, as an analgesic, and to treat asthma, bronchitis, dyspnea, weak digestion, stomachaches, head colds, erysipelas, fever, gout, rheumatism, and wounds (Cioro 1982, 143*; Roys 1976, 263*). In Mexican folk medicine, the leaves are used for ethnogynecological purposes. A tea made from the leaves and mixed with honey is used to treat scorpion stings. Juice pressed from the leaves is ingested to relieve asthma, coughing, and bronchitis (Argueta et al. 1994, 49*).

The fresh leaf buds and young shoots can be eaten as mild stimulants. When eaten, a mild numbness is produced in the mouth that feels very similar to the anesthesia of the mucous membranes that is caused by Piper methysticum.



The leaves contain 0.47 to 0.58% essential oil (Martínez 1994, 185*). The essential oil is also present in the stalks, although in much lower concentrations (Oscar and Poveda 1983).

The essential oil has a characteristic safrole or sassafras scent and consists of up to 70% safrole; also present are some forty other substances, including α-thujene, α-pinene, camphene, sabinene, β-pinene, myrcene, β-phellandrene, carene, α-terpinene, limonene, 1,8-cineole, γ-terpinene, β-phellandrene, cis-sabinene hydrate, nonanon-2, r-cymenene, terpinolene, linalool, camphor, borneol, r-cymene-8-ol, bornylacetate, eugenol, D-elemene, α-cubenene, muurolene, α-copaene, βbourbonene, paraffin, β-caryophyllene, humulene, myristicin, β-bisabolene, elemicine, D-cadinene, cadina-1,4-dien, spathulenole, β-caryophyllene oxide, and n-hexadecane (Gupta et al. 1985; Argueta et al. 1994, 49*).

The leaves have been found to also contain the flavonoid 3’-hydroxy-4’,7-dimethoxyflavone, βsitosterol, and the diterpene trans-phytol. Various phenoles are also present in the leaves (Ampofo et al. 1987). The roots contain isoquinoline alkaloids, phenylpropenoids, and safrole (Argueta et al. 1994, 49*; Hansel et al. 1975; Nair et al. 1989).






The pharmacological effects of the leaves are clearly the result of their high safrole content (cf. Sassafras albidum).

Commercial Forms and Regulations


Although the plant is not subject to any regulations, it is not available as a living plant or as dried raw plant material. Because it is a precursor for the synthesis of MDMA and closely related amphetamine derivatives, safrole is subject to registration (cf. herbal ecstasy). In some areas, trade in safrole or in preparations with a high safrole content is regulated or even prohibited.



See also the entries for Piper betlePiper methysticumPiper spp., and essential oils.


Ampofo, Stephen A., Vassilios Roussis, and David F. Wiemer. 1987. New prenylated phenolics from Piper auritumPhytochemistry 26 (8): 2367–70.


Collera Zúñiga, Ofelia. 1956. Contribución al estudio del Piper auritum. Mexico City: Tesis, Facultad de Ciencias Químicas.


Gupta, Mahabir P., Tomás D. Arias, Norris H. Williams, R. Bos, and D. H. E. Tattje. 1985. Safrole, the main component of the essential oil from Piper auritum of Panama. Journal of Natural Products 48 (2): 330.


Hänsel, Rudolf, Anneliese Leuschke, and Arturo Gomez-Pompa. 1975. Aporthine-type alkaloids from Piper auritumLloydia 38:529–30.


Nair, Muraleedharan G., John Sommerville, and Basil A. Burke. 1989. Phenyl propenoids from roots of Piper auritumPhytochemistry 28 (2): 654–55.


Oscar, C. C., and A. L. J. Poveda. 1983. Piper auritum (H.B.K.), Piperaceae Family: Preliminary study of the essential oil from its leaves. Ing. Ciencias Químicas 7 (1/2): 24–25.


Piper betle Linnaeus


Betel Pepper




Piperaceae (Pepper Family); Pipereae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies


The two most frequently cultivated and utilized varieties differ from one another primarily in their concentrations of essential oil and oleoresins:


Piper betle L. var. bangla: 5.9% oleoresin, 1.6% essential oil

Piper betle L. var. metha-thakpala: 4.9% oleoresin, 2.4% essential oil


Numerous cultivars are distinguished in Sri Lanka: ‘Rata Bulath-vel’, ‘Siribo Bulath’, ‘Naga Walli-Bulath’ (with spotted leaves), ‘Getatodu-Bulath’, ‘Mala-Bulath’, ‘Gal-Bulath’, and ‘Dalu-Kotu-Bulath’ (Macmillan 1991, 427*).



Chavica auriculata Miq.

Chavica betle (L.) Miq.

Chavica chuvya Miq.

Chavica densa Miq. l.c.

Chavica sibirica (L.) Miq. l.c.

Piper malamiris L. l.c.p.p.

Piper pinguispicum C. DC. et Koord.

Piper siriboa L.

Folk Names


Beatelvine, betel, bétel, betele, betel-leaf, betel pepper, betelpfeffer, betel vine, betle, betre (Malay, “single leaf”), bettele, bettele-pfeffer, bu, buio, bulath (Singalese), bulath-vel, buru, daun syry (Malay), fu-liu, fu-liu-t’êng (ancient Chinese), ikmo (Philippines), liu, mô-lû, nagavalli (Sanskrit), paan, pan, pelu (Thai), pu, sirih, tambul (Sanskrit), tambula (Sanskrit), tembul, veth-thile



In Southeast Asia and India, the use of betel leaves must be very ancient (cf. Areca catechubetel quids). The plant is mentioned in early Sanskrit texts.

The first European representation of the betel leaf (although entirely inaccurate) can be found on a copperplate engraving from the Delle navigationi e viaggi of Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485–1557), published in Venice in 1553. The first botanically correct representation was published in Paris in 1758 in Histoire générale des voyages, by Antoine-François Prévost.

Today, betel pepper (fresh betel leaves) is one of the most important articles of trade in Southeast Asia and in all areas in which large numbers of Indians or Tamils have settled.



Betel pepper is indigenous to the Indo-Malayan region but is now grown in all of southern and Southeast Asia and even in the Seychelles and in Mauritius, Madagascar, and eastern Africa. It appears to have originated in central or eastern Malaysia. Some authors have suggested that the plant is originally from Java (Gupta 1991, 79*).



Propagation is performed almost exclusively with cuttings taken from the stem (10 to 20 cm in length). They are either placed in water until they develop roots or placed in moist cultivation beds. The plant requires moist and humus-rich soil and a semishaded location (Macmillan 1991, 427*).

In the tropics, the leaves of this evergreen plant can be harvested throughout the year. They normally are picked in the early morning.



Betel pepper is a climbing half-shrub that bears shiny, light green, heart-shaped leaves (up to 18 cm in length). The sheen of the leaves is a reliable characteristic for distinguishing this species from other species of Piper, with which it can easily be confused (cf. Piper spp.). The “buds” (spikes) hang on the leafstalks like long, light-colored threads. The male spikes are cylindrical; the female grow to a length of only 4 cm. The fruit is a spherical drupe about 6 mm in diameter.

Psychoactive Material


—Betel leaves (folia piperis betle, piperis betle folium, betel pepper leaves)


Only fresh leaves are suitable for making betel quids; dried leaves can be used for medicinal purposes. The leaves are pressed after they are collected.

Occasionally the “buds” (= spikes) are also used for betel quids.

Preparation and Dosage


Fresh, undamaged leaves that have not begun to dry are used almost exclusively for psychoactive preparations. A normal dosage is one leaf per betel quid. A tea can be brewed from fresh or dried leaves. Again, one leaf is used per dosage.

Ritual Use


In India, all of life is ritually associated with the betel pepper. When a parcel of land is being prepared for cultivating betel pepper, a goat is first sacrificed while special mantras are recited. The head of the goat is buried in one corner of the future betel field (paan mara), the four hoofs are buried in the four cardinal directions, and the blood, mixed with earth, is distributed along the borders of the field as a landmark. Then a number of shobhanjana (Moringa oleifera) trees are planted. The betel vines will later grow up the branches of these fast-growing trees. Rows of mandara trees (Erythrina indica; see Erythrina spp.) are planted along the margins of the field as windbreaks. Anyone who enters the field must perform a gesture of veneration, for the field is regarded as a temple and is revered accordingly (Gupta 1991, 77 f.*).

Betel leaves are regarded as sacred and are among the more important offerings that can be made to Shiva, to whom all inebriating plants are sacred (cf. Aconitum feroxCannabis indicaDatura metelStrychnos nux-vomica). Myths describe how the betel vine first grew only in heaven. Shiva asked the plant to go to the people on the earth. At first the vine refused because it was afraid that it would not be sufficiently respected and venerated. Shiva promised the plant that its leaves would be used with respect in all ceremonies. When he had convinced the plant, it came down from heaven to the earth. For this reason, it is considered good manners to offer guests a few betel leaves (with or without areca nuts; cf. Areca catechu). Betel leaves are also used for sprinkling sacred water during every ceremony. When the leaves are combined with cloves, castoreum, salt, and red, black, white, and yellow colors, they are considered a sure agent for banishing demons (Gupta 1991, 78 f.*).

For more on ritual uses, see betel quids.



The heart-shaped leaves have been depicted in Indian art since ancient times and are often used as an ornamental decoration on objects for making or consuming betel quids.

Medicinal Use


In the folk medicine of southern and Southeast Asia, betel leaves are chewed or eaten to treat coughing, inflammations of the mucous membranes, diphtheria, inflammations of the middle ear, and all types of stomach ailments. In India, the leaves are also used to treat snakebites and as an aphrodisiac (Gupta 1991, 79*).

In Southeast Asia, the roots and inflorescences are used in cases of weak digestion (Macmillan 1991, 424*); the same custom is found in the Seychelles and in other places with an Indian population. In the Seychelles, the leaves are “chewed in order to stay healthy. Seven leaves, finely chopped and placed on wounds, promote healing. A compress is also said to be effective against varicose veins” (Müller-Ebeling and Rätsch 1989, 29*).



The leaves contain 0.2 to 2.6% essential oil with phenolic constituents (eugenol, isoeugenol, allylpyrocatechol, chavicol, carvacrol) as well as nonphenolic substances (cineole, cadinene, and αcaryophyllene) (Roth et al. 1994, 569*). Also present are safrole, anethol, hentricontane, pentatriacontane, β- and γ-sitosterol, stearic acid, and triacontol. The pungent substance piperine, present in most Piper species, has not been detected in the betel pepper.

A team of Chinese researchers isolated and clarified neolignans (methylpiperbetol, piperol A, piperol B, crotepoxide) from the stems (and leaves) (Yin et al. 1991). Betel pepper flowers contain large amounts of essential oil, primarily with eugenol and isoeugenol.



The leaves have stimulant, antibiotic, digestion-promoting, and antiflatulence effects (Roth et al. 1994, 569*). They have a clear stimulating and awakening effect and open the perception. The effects appear to be synergistically potentiated by the other ingredients in betel quids.

The essential oil has anthelmintic properties (Ali and Mehta 1970) and appears to have anti-mutagenic and cancer-inhibiting effects. As a result, the betel leaf is an important health-promoting component of the betel quid. Pharmacological investigations of aqueous leaf extracts of Indonesian plants carried out at the Center for Research for Traditional Medicine (Airlangga University, Surabaya) have demonstrated that they stimulate phagocytosis, thereby strengthening the body’s immune system (Sutarjadi et al. 1991). On the other hand, the neolignan crotepoxide is said to have pronounced cytotoxic effects (Yin et al. 1991).

Commercial Forms and Regulations


Because betel leaves are internationally recognized as not being an “addictive drug” or “narcotic,” the plant is not subject to any laws regarding medicines or similar regulations but is classified as a foodstuff (the laws regulating such products may apply). In Switzerland, the fresh leaves are available in shops selling Indian articles.


The betel pepper (Piper betle) develops aesthetically perfect heart-shaped leaves, which are used to make betel quids.



One of the first botanical illustrations of the betel pepper. (Copperplate engraving from Antoine-François Prévost, Histoire générale des voyages, Paris 1758)





“I would like to add that the scent of this [betel] leaf, when chewed, is reminiscent of that of our mugwort. It produces a breath that incites sensuous pleasure to a high degree, and the number of those who chew the leaf is very large. It simultaneously restores and strengthens, so that it incites anew to the joys of Venus.”






(R. SCHRÖDER 1991, 129*)




See also the entries for Areca catechuPiper auritumPiper methysticumMacropiper excelsum, and betel quids.


Ali, S. M., and R. K. Mehta. 1970. Preliminary pharmacological and anthelmintic studies of the essential oil of Piper betleIndian Journal of Pharmacy 32:132–33.


Patel, R. S., and G. S. Rajorhia. 1979. Antioxidative role of curry (Murray koenigi) and betel (Piper betle) leaves in ghee. Journal of Food Science and Technology 16:158–60.


Sen, Soumitra. 1987. Cytotoxic and histopathological effects of Piper betle L. varieties with betel nut, lime, and tobacco. PhD thesis, University of Calcutta.


Sutarjadi, M., H. Santosa, S. Bendryman, and W. Dyatmiko. 1991. Immunomodulatory activity of Piper betleZingiber aromaticaAndrographis paniculataAllium sativum, and Oldenlandia corymbosa grown in Indonesia. Planta Medica 57 suppl. (2): A136.


Yin, M.-L., J. Liu, Z.-L. Chen, K. Long, and H.-W. Zeng. 1991. Some new PAF antagonistic neolignans from Piper BetlePlanta Medica 57 suppl. (2): A66.


Piper methysticum Forster f.






Piperaceae (Pepper Family)

Forms and Subspecies


There are numerous cultivars that can be distinguished on the basis of morphological and chemical differences. Botanically, however, few of these have been described as varieties (Hölzl et al. 1993, 201).

In contrast, the Polynesians differentiate among a large number of varieties. In Fiji, six are counted; they differ from one another in the height, length, and thickness of the knots on their stems and the color (from green to purple). Yagona leka, which is stocky but develops the best aroma, is particularly esteemed. On the island of Tahiti, fourteen varieties were once recognized and differed from one another solely in their inebriating qualities (Lewin 1886, 6). In Hawaii, a particular distinction is made with regard to the variety known by the name black awa, the stems of which are nearly black; in addition, the following forms are also named: apukau la’auke’oke’okuaea (= nene), kumakualiwamakeamamakamamieniemo’imokilanapapapapa ele’ele, and papa kea (Singh 1992, 20). Twenty-one varieties are recognized on the Marquesas Islands and five in Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu has been reported to have seventy-two different cultivars (Lebot and Cabalion 1988). The existence of such variety may be the reason for the rather different experiences with kava drinks in the different regions. Recently, completely new and previously unknown varieties are said to have been discovered on Vanuatu (Kilham 1996).



Macropiper latifolium Miq.

Macropiper methysticum (G. Forst.) Hook. et Arnott

Macropiper methysticum Miq.

Piper decumanum Opitz

Piper inebrians Bertero

Piper inebrians Soland.

Folk Names


Agona, angona, angooner, ava, ava-ava, awa, ‘awa (Hawaiian), awa-awa, cáva, gea, gi, intoxicating pepper, kava, kava-kava, kawa, kawa-kawa, kawa pepper, kawapfeffer, malohu, maluk, meruk, milik, poivre enivrant, rauschpfeffer, sakau, wati, yagona, yakona, yangona, yaona, yaqona, yaquona

The Polynesian word awa or kava means “bitter,” “pungent,” “sour,” or “sourish”; yangona (and its derivatives) means “drink” as well as “bitter” and, thus, “bitter drink” (Singh 1992, 15). In most cases, the names given to the plant and to the drink prepared from it are identical. Piper methysticum does not grow on Rennel Island (southern Solomon Islands), and no drink made from the plant is used there. However, a drink made there from coconuts (Cocos nucifera) is called, strangely enough, kava kava ngangi (Singh 1992, 16).



Kava is the most important psychoactive agent in Oceania (Lebot et al. 1992). On most of the islands of Polynesia, the use and cultivation of the plant appears to have spread along with the settlement of the islands. Both the plant and kava drinking have also spread into many of the islands of Melanesia (Singh 1992, 15). It has been conjectured that Polynesians colonized Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the third or fourth century because a chief was “led” there by a kava-induced vision (Ripinsky-Naxon 1989, 221*).

The ethnologist R. W. Williamson has worked out strong resemblances between the Vedic soma ritual and the Polynesian kava ceremonies and has conjectured that at least the ritual of kava spread from India to Oceania. There, the kava pepper was used as a substitute for the Indian soma plant (Williamson 1939). Another ethnologist has argued that Polynesia was originally settled by two cultures, which on the basis of their “drug” consumption he called the betel people and the kava people. Even today, the areas in which betel is chewed and those in which kava is preferred can be geographically clearly distinguished (Churchill 1916). The custom of chewing betel quids only rarely overlaps with that of drinking kava.

The first Europeans to become acquainted with kava were Captain James Cook (1727–1779) and his fellow travelers. In 1777, Johann Georg Forster (1754–1794), who accompanied Cook, provided the first botanical description of the plant and the associated ceremony (Vonarburg 1996, 57). The report of Cook’s journey (1784) noted that “when several of the members of the ship’s crew partook of the drink, it was observed that it induced an effect like that of a strong dose of an alcoholic drink or even more a stupefaction such as produced by opium [cf. Papaver somniferum]. The effects of kava have also been compared to those of wild lettuce [cf. Lactuca virosa] and those of hashish [cf. Cannabis indica]” (Lewin 1886, 44).

Many islanders used or use kava as an everyday beverage, just as tea (Camellia sinensis) or coffee (Coffea arabica) is consumed in other parts of the world (Gajdusek 1967; Lewin 1886, 18). There are official kava bars in Fiji and on other islands.

On many South Sea islands, the alcohol that was introduced by missionaries has supplanted the use of kava and caused substantial devastation to the indigenous cultures. Fortunately, this situation has seen some reversal in recent decades, as an increase in ethnic identity has given new life to traditional values. As a result, large amounts of kava are once again being consumed in many places, and this has helped to successfully counteract the growth of alcoholism.

Of all of the psychoactive plants that have been introduced into Australia, kava appears to have acquired the greatest significance among the Aborigines. Since 1980, kava drinking has been part of the culture of the Northern Territory (Lebot et al. 1992, 72, 199–202). Some Aborigines use it to treat alcoholism, while others drink such high overdoses of kava that new problems have arisen (Prescott and McCall 1988; Singh 1992, 17).

Kava was first used therapeutically in Europe around 1820. It was initially used primarily in the treatment of venereal diseases (Lewin 1886, 17).

The first pharmacognostic and pharmacological studies were carried out at the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries (Lewin 1886; Penaud 1908). Today, kava is a popular “natural tranquilizer” (Vonarburg 1996, 61).

“This folia bettele, which grows throughout India and snakes up both wild and good trees like the pepper or cubeb fruit, is smeared with the already frequently mentioned areca fruit or pynan, together with a little shell lime, and is chewed and eaten by both the great and the common man as a necessity of all necessities; it produces a pleasantly scented breath and cleanses the mouth and the gums of all scorbutic blood. Likewise, it is also laid onto injuries like our plantain or plantago, which makes them thoroughly healthy and they quickly heal.”





Botanical illustration of the inebriating pepper (Piper methysticum). (From De Lessert, Icones selectae plantarum, 3:89 [1837])


“Queen Elizabeth of England and the members of her family are always offered kava as greeting when they visit Fiji and they always drink it!”




(1992, 28)




The original home of kava is unknown; it is occasionally found in New Guinea and on the New Hebrides. Wild plants are unknown, although stands of plants that have become wild are encountered from place to place. Since all of the cultivars are sterile, the plant can have spread only through human activity. It may have developed from Piper wichmannii C. DC.

Prehistoric Polynesians brought the plant to Hawaii (= Sandwich Islands) at a very early date. Once there, it spread quickly (Krauss 1981, 2*).

The plant does not occur in New Zealand (cf. Macropiper excelsum) or on Easter Island (Whistler 1992a, 185).



The plant is propagated from cuttings (approximately 15 to 20 cm long) taken from the lower stems or from young stems separated from the rootstock (also called a stump) when the root is harvested. The new plant develops shoots after a short growth period. The plant grows into a substantial shrub and is ready to be harvested after five to six years at the most. Kava plantations are fertilized almost exclusively with ash from wood and are well tended:


The cultivation of kava requires great care, skill, and diligence. The soil is often subjected to treatment with the rake for this purpose, freed of weeds and fertilized with lime from shells and coral. . . . In areas where the plant is still cultivated, it is a question of honor for every family to grow good kava. Before the arrival of the missionaries, the kava fields were divided into three parts. The best was given to the gods that can cause harm—it was taboo, i.e., sacrosanct, the second to the atuas, the gods of sleep, and the third was the family’s portion. . . . It was preferred to locate the plantations in places that were raised, on cliffs, and dry. But when there was no other way, one could also find the plants in lower and wetter valleys at the margins of rivers. The plants that develop here do not taste as well and are less aromatic than the former. The plantations are reminiscent of young fig plantations. (Lewin 1886, 13)


The most important commercial areas for growing kava are now found in Samoa, Fiji, and Vanuatu.



This bushy, evergreen shrub usually grows to a height of about 2 meters, although it can grow to a height of more than 5 meters. The light green, alternate, heart-shaped leaves can grow as long as 30 cm. The greenish white male inflorescences can attain a length of up to 6 cm and form in spikes attached at the leaf axils; female flowers are unknown (Whistler 1992a, 185). The fruits are said to form one-seeded berries (Lewin 1886). The juicy root (stump) can grow very large, develop multiple branches, and weigh from 2 to 10 kilos.

Piper methysticum is easily confused with similar Piper species (e.g., Piper tutuilae C. DC.), which are also called kava or ava (Uhe 1974, 23*).

The closely related species Piper puberulum (Benth.) Benth. var. glabrum (C. DC.) A.C. Sm. [syn. Macropiper puberulum Benth., Piper macgillivrayi C. DC. ex Seem.], which is very common in Tonga, is similar in appearance (although it has red inflorescences) and is known as kavakava’uli or kavakava’ulie, and on Niue even as kavakava, but it is not used for psychoactive purposes (Weiner 1971, 443; Whistler 1992b, 73 f.; Whistler 1992a, 169). Another quite similar species is Piper latifolium Forst. (also known as bastard kava; Lewin 1886, 8), which grows on the Marquesas. On the Society Islands, P. latifolium is known as avavahai. Any psychoactive use of this plant is unknown (Steinmetz 1973, 6).

The kava plant is so similar to the American species Piper auritum that almost the only way to distinguish the two species is by the scent of their leaves. Steinmetz reported a Caribbean species that is also very similar (Piper plantagineum Schlecht.) and that the natives of the West Indies or Mexico allegedly once used in a similar manner to kava (Steinmetz 1973, 6).


A variety of inebriating pepper (Piper methysticum) that has dark stems is known as the black awa form. (Photographed on Oahu, Hawaii)



The large rootstocks of the Oceanian inebriating pepper (Piper methysticum) are used in both fresh and dried form to prepare the tonic, stimulating, and inebriating kava drink.



Kava, the inebriating pepper (Piper methysticum), is Oceania’s most important psychoactive plant. (Photographed in Hawaii)


“Here is Awa for you, you gods,

look down upon this family with friendliness,

let it thrive and increase

and let us all remain healthy;

let our plantations, our fruits become good;

give us nourishment in abundance.

Here is Awa for you, you war gods!

Let a strong race grow up for you in this land.

Here is Awa for you, you wind gods!

Do not come to this land, but go over the ocean to another.”



(LEWIN 1886, 28)


Psychoactive Material


—Root (rhizome, kava-kava rhizome, kava-kava rootstock, kava pepper root, piperis methystici rhizoma, radix kava-kava, rhizoma kava-kava, rhizoma kavae, waka); usually the peeled stump that has been freed of small roots

   The dried plant material must be stored away from light. The stump loses some 60% of its moisture as it dries. The kava from Vanuatu is especially high in quality.

—Fresh leaves

—Fresh or dried stems (lewana)

Preparation and Dosage


The freshly dug root is freed of its small secondary roots, peeled and chopped, and then prepared while either fresh or dried. Kavains (kavapyrones) are not easily soluble in water but do dissolve well in alcohol. For this reason, it is best to prepare an alcohol tincture of the stump. In the pharmaceutical industry, the dried root is used to obtain alcohol/water or acetone extracts with 94% ethanol and 1% ethylmethylketone. The yield, or kavapyrone content, is greatest in a pure alcohol extract (31.6 to 35.4%) and makes up some 30% in alcohol/water mixtures (cf. Hölzl et al. 1993, 203). Sixty to 120 mg of kavapyrones is listed as a medicinal dosage (the amount can vary considerably depending upon the preparation); in clinical studies, 200 to 300 mg were administered daily for a period of several days. In spite of the daily use by countless numbers of Polynesians, the pharmaceutical literature warns against using the plant for a period exceeding three months. Pregnant women and people with endogenous psychoses should also avoid kava (Hölzl et al. 1993, 210).

The traditional production of the refreshing and inebriating kava drink (also known as avakavakavasakauwativiti grog, and fiji grog) is identical on almost all of the islands. Normally, the fresh roots are peeled and then chewed by young men (less frequently by girls or young women) for about ten minutes and insalivated. This process can increase the volume of the root pieces considerably. The chewed material is then mixed with water in special sacred vessels (kava bowls, tanookanoa) made from the hard wood of vesi (Intsia bijuga [Colebr.] O. Ktze. [syn. Afzelia bijuga A. Gray]; Leguminosae [Caesalpiniaceae]) and “fermented” shortly before use. (In the early literature, one could occasionally read that the drink was allowed to “ferment”; this information, however, appears to be based on an error; Lewin 1886, 24.) The resulting milky drink is filtered through a sieve made from the inner bark of Hibiscus tiliaceus L. (vaufau) or from coconut fibers (Cocos nucifera) and poured into drinking bowls. The drink is consumed only while fresh, as it becomes flat and unappetizing if allowed to stand for too long (Steinmetz 1973, 13 ff.).

The finished kava drink has a dark, sometimes brown, yellow, or gray cloudy color and a characteristic taste that can differ in aroma but may also be soaplike, very bitter, or astringent. The drink induces an anesthesia on the surface of the mouth similar to that produced by coca (cf. Erythroxylum coca).

In Fiji, the kava drink was once prepared not by chewing (mama) the root but by grating it with large mushroom corals (a practice that presumably was also found in other places) (Ford 1967, 165). In Hawaii, kava was made using coconut milk (cf. Cocos nucifera) instead of water (Krauss 1981, 2*). In addition, Hawaiian Huna sorcerers (kahunas) would boil a poisonous drink from roots collected on days of heavy rain together with the leaves of Tephrosia piscatoria [syn. Theophrosia purpureaDaphne indica, and a Lagenaria species (Kepler 1983; McBride 1988; cf. also Singh 1992, 15).

Typically, each person drinks one to four coco nut shells’ worth of kava drink (= 0.5 to 2.0 liters) at the kava ceremonies. Many Polynesians drink a couple of bowls of freshly prepared kava every day. Some “enthusiastic kava drinkers consume the drink 6 to 8 times a day” (Lewin 1886, 19).

The old notion that kava acquires its inebriating or psychoactive effects only after it has been “fermented” (insalivated) has been clearly refuted (Schmidt 1994, 376 f.). However, the insalivation does appear to enable the kavapyrones (which do not easily dissolve in water) to release in the emulsion and thus be absorbed when the fresh beverage is consumed.

The inebriating (psychoactive) effects become apparent only after the consumption of several liters: “A certain numbness appears only after the ingestion of some 9 liters of the kava drink” (Vonarburg 1996, 58). Chronic consumption of very high doses (13 liters per day, corresponding to approximately 310 to 440 g of dried rootstock) can lead to toxic effects (rash, hair loss, yellow coloration of the skin, reddening of the eyes, loss of appetite, et cetera) (Hölzl et al. 1993, 211). Daily dosages of 4 liters or less will not induce these symptoms or will do so only extremely rarely.

The traditional methods of preparation use some 100 g of dried plant material per 100 ml of water, corresponding to about 70 mg of kavapyrones, oftentimes more (Hölzl et al. 1993, 203). The lethal dosage for humans is unknown. In mice, the LD50 is 1,500 mg of kavapyrones per kilogram of body weight (Hölzl et al. 1993, 212).

The inebriating effects of kava can also result from or be potentiated by various additives:

But kava can also be used alone and without any preparation. A piece of the fresh rootstock about as long and as thick as a finger is a good dosage for inducing psychoactive effects. It should be chewed well and then swallowed. The effects of kava appear to be potentiated by the addition of Cannabis.

A tonic can be prepared by emulsifying equal parts of ground kava root and lecithin in a blender. Kava roots are sometimes used as an ingredient in betel quids. It is possible that kava roots and honey may be used to brew a meadwhose effects are more inebriating than those of a cold-water extract of chewed roots. Whether the inebriating beverage known as keu was indeed made from Piper methysticum, as has been suggested, is unknown.

In the Society Islands, juice from the root of Piper tristachyon was formerly used to “ferment” an inebriating beverage known as ava ava (von Reis Altschul 1975, 45*).



Kava Additives


Other substances are occasionally added to the kava drink (Holmes 1967, 107; Lewin 1886, 23; Singh 1992, 23):



Ritual Use


The traditional ritual uses of kava include the kava ceremonies as well as the use of the plant for magical purposes. The more original kava ceremonies are especially well documented in the ethnographic literature and still exist, in the same or at least a similar form, in Fiji, Samoa, and Vanuatu (Lebot et al. 1992; Singh 1992).

Kava ceremonies range from formal to informal in nature. They can function as a greeting for guests, as a part of tribal deliberations, and as a part of the relaxing, social drinking rounds that take place in the evenings. The basic pattern of the ceremonies is always the same. First, the drink is prepared, accompanied by prayers and songs. Then the participants sit either in two groups, one facing the other, or in a circle. The priest, chief, politician, or host distributes equal portions of the drink to all of the participants. The ceremony, which is usually accompanied by collective singing, ends after a number of rounds. At the conclusion, the location at which the ceremony has taken place, the temple, and the ceremonial objects are all cleansed. Sometimes dancing accompanies the ceremony (Singh 1992).

In some places, only men are allowed to take part in the kava ceremonies, while on other islands everyone can drink. The women of Tonga once had their own drinking societies (Lewin 1886, 20). Some initiation ceremonies, such as the initiation of girls into the sacred hula dances, also involve kava. On Niue, it was once only the priests who drank kava, which they did to obtain visions (Singh 1992, 16).

Any person who saw the shark-shaped sea god Sekatoa in the water would have to ceremonially purify himself with a kava drink (Singh 1992, 28).

At their ceremonies or libations, the Samoans—through their chief—ask the gods for health, long life, a good harvest, and success in war. In Samoa, the largest roots are called lupesina (“great respect”); they are presented as gifts to people of respect but are not consumed (Cox and O’Rourke 1987, 454).

Kava roots were or are placed as offerings in temples and shrines or hung together with small branches of Waltheria americana. Kava roots also are placed on the graves of deceased family members as a last farewell. Perhaps this should be seen in the context of certain mythological traditions, according to which the first kava plant grew upon the grave of a Tongan leper. On the Marquesas Islands, it is believed that the plant was born as a child of the god Atea, who provides food, sends the rain, is the lord of the farmers, and was transformed into the inebriating plant. One story told in Tonga describes how the cooked daughter of the host was placed before the great chief Loua during a feast. When he smelled the roast, he had the well-done flesh buried. The first kava plant grew from the grave. In Vanuatu, it is said that an old man observed a rabbit chewing on a kava root. After watching this on several occasions, he tried the root himself and invented the kava drink (Singh 1992, 18 f.).

On the islands of Vanuatu and other islands of the South Pacific, kava is used in magic, especially magic intended to harm others (Singh 1992, 29). The practice is known as elioro in Vanuatu and is used to send out disease or death to a specific person. The sorcerer buries a “deadly object”—usually a kava root upon which incantations have been uttered or a blood-filled bamboo tube—at a spot where it is assumed that the intended victim will pass by. By passing or, even better, walking over the spot, the unsuspecting victim assimilates the harmful magic and then becomes ill or dies (Ludvigson 1985, 56). In contrast, in Hawaii kava is regarded as a means for removing magic (Singh 1992, 15).



The majority of the artifacts associated with kava are those used in its preparation and consumption (shells, bowls, mortars, drinking vessels).

The large, round wooden bowls used in preparing kava frequently feature carved legs (often depictions of people). Strings made of coconut fiber are used to attach cowrie shells (Cypraea moneta L.,Cypraea annulus L.) to the kava bowls of the chiefs for magical protection. In Samoa, the wa ni tanoa, “king’s vessel,” was sometimes decorated with the renowned gold cowrie (Cypraea aurantium Gmelin), the symbol of the ruler’s office (Ford 1967, 166, 167).

The drinking vessels of Fiji (m’bilobilo ni yagonaipu’ava‘apu ‘awa) are made from halves of coconut shells (Cocos nucifera) to which strings of coconut fibers are sometimes attached. The resinous remnants of the drink impart a glasslike finish to these coconut shells after they have been used enough times. This layer is sometimes scraped off and ingested as an especially potent form of kava (Lewin 1886, 27; Singh 1992, 26). In Tonga, banana leaves are woven together to make single-use kava cups. On the Hawaiian and other Polynesian islands, ritual kava-drinking vessels are made from calabash gourds (Lagenaria spp.) (Dodge 1995).

In Fiji and Samoa, there are numerous kava songs that are sung at ceremonies, when greeting people, when making kava, and on other occasions. Some of these songs have been published in ethnomusical recordings (e.g., Unique Fiji: The Nakamakama Villagers in Mekes and Songs, Olympic Records no. OL-6159, 1979). One psychedelic rock band from England took its name—Kava Kava—from that of the inebriating plant. The plant can also be seen in the paintings of some Hawaiian and Polynesian artists.

Medicinal Use


In Samoa, kava is regarded as an aphrodisiac, tonic, and stimulant. The rootstock is used to treat gonorrhea and elephantiasis (Uhe 1974, 23*; Weiner 1971, 443). The plant is widely used as an internal and external analgesic (Whistler 1992a, 186).

In Hawaii, restless and feverish children are given in the morning and in the evening kava roots that their mothers have prechewed (Krauss 1981, 2*). In Tonga, an infusion of crushed yellow (semiwilted) leaves is administered to crying children as a calmative (Weiner 1971, 443). In New Caledonia, the fresh leaves are chewed for bronchitis (Weiner 1971, 443); in Tonga, the fresh leaves are rubbed onto the stings of giant centipedes, insects, and poisonous fish (Whistler 1992b, 73). In Oceania, kava is used as an antidote for poisoning by strychnine or Strychnos nuxvomica (Pfeiffer et al. 1967, 155; Schmidt 1994, 474), a traditional use whose effectiveness has been pharmacologically verified (Singh 1992, 39).

In Papua New Guinea, great quantities of kava are chewed and swallowed to induce a kind of numbness for painful tattooing procedures (Steinmetz 1973, 23).

In Western phytotherapy, kava preparations are used to treat states of nervous anxiety, tension, and restlessness (Hölzl et al. 1993, 210; Schmidt 1994) and—according to the claims of certain pill manufacturers—to increase concentration and performance (Hänsel and Woelck 1995). Preparations in which kava is combined with St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum L.) are used as mild antidepressants (cf. Becker 1994, 3*). The essence or mother tincture (Piper methysticum hom. HAB34, Piper methysticum hom. HPUS88) is used in homeopathy for such conditions as states of excitation and exhaustion (Hölzl et al. 1993, 212).


One English band from the early 1990s took its name, Kava Kava, from that of the inebriating pepper of the South Seas. The band’s music incorporated both psychedelic and funk influences. However, the CD booklet does not tell us whether the band members were inspired by kava or by more traditional European psychedelics. (CD cover 1995, Delerium Records)


“Kawa was so intimately intertwined with the social, religious, and political life of the South Sea islanders, and was the accompanist of every peaceful or hostile undertaking of the individual or the group, for every joyful or sorrowful event of these people, that it is no wonder that the first discoverers of these islands mentioned the plant and its use, sometimes in quite considerable detail. In addition, the magicians and physicians of the natives held it up as a medicine because it not only induced euphoria soon after it was drunk but also was able to induce even painlessness.”








Kavalactones (= kava pyrones, kavapyrones, αpyrones, kavains) occur in all parts of the plant, usually totaling a concentration of over 5%, with 1.8% kavain, 1.2% methysticin (= kavahine, kavakin, kavatin, kanakin), 1% demethoxy-yangonin, 1% yangonin, 0.6% dihydrokavain, 0.5% dihydromethysticin, and traces of dihydrokavain-5-ol, 11,12-dimethoxyhydrokavain, 11-hydroxy-12-methoxykavain, 11-methoxy-nor-yangonin, 11-methoxy-yangonin, and the two ethylketones cinnamoylacetone and methylendioxy-3,4-cinnamoylidenacetone (Schulgin 1973; Young et al. 1966). The plant has been found to contain amides (2-methoxy cinnamic acid pyrrolidide, cinnamic acid pyrrolidide), chalcones (flavokavin A and B), and free and aromatic acids (anisic acid, benzoic acid, capronic acid, hydroxy cinnamic acid, and derivatives) (Hölzl et al. 1993, 202; Klohs 1967). A pale yellow essential oil has also been described (Lewin 1886, 30).

The leaves contain 0.71% transient piper-methysticin (an alkaloid); this compound is found in the stems in lower concentrations but not in the roots (Cox and O’Rourke 1987, 454). Dihydrokavain, dihydromethysticin, and yangonin are present in the stems. Trace amounts of the substance cepharadione A were discovered in the roots (according to the DAB supplemental volume 6). This substance is also found in other Piper species (Piper spp.) (Jaggy and Achenbach 1992).

Kavapyrones are chemically related to longistylines (cf. Lonchocarpus violaceusbalche’).



Potent psychoactive effects of the local drink have been reported particularly for Pohnpei (Ponape) (Hambruch 1917; Thurnwald 1908). It is said that after several rounds, the participants in the drinking ritual leave their bodies and are able to glide over the tropical island world in a disembodied state and journey to the heavens, to the home of the kava plant. They experience sensations of fraternization and unity with their environment as well as erotic visions. These and similar statements in the older literature, according to which kava may have hallucinogenic effects, have been cast in serious doubt by many authors who have had numerous experiences of their own (Cox and O’Rourke 1987, 454). The legendary hallucinogenic effect has occasionally been attributed to the additives that may be used (in particular Datura metel; see above).

Frequent mention is made of euphoric effects that begin shortly after the consumption of larger amounts and subside some two to three hours later (Roth et al. 1994, 572*). There is general agreement among both the authors and the kava consumers alike that the drink quenches thirst better than beer, has mild stimulating and invigorating effects that revitalize the body after strenuous exertion, clears the head, and stimulates the appetite. In contrast, the aphrodisiac or anaphrodisiac effects are the subject of debate (Lewin 1886; Steinmetz 1973). “Too, kava is a means of maintaining or enhancing intimacy” (Gregory 1995, 44). Louis Lewin summarized the reported psychoactive effects in the following way:


Following not too large amounts, a sensation of happy lightheartedness, comfort, and satisfaction appears without any physical or mental excitation. At first, speaking is easy and free and the vision and hearing are more acute for finer impressions. The agent reveals a calming power. The drinkers never become angry, mad, quarrelsome, or paralyzed as with alcohol, which the Fiji Islanders also especially esteem as an advantage of this beverage. The natives and the whites regard it as a sedative in cases of accidents. Both consciousness and the rational faculties remain intact. When somewhat larger quantities are consumed, then the limbs become limp; the muscle power no longer appears to be under the jurisdiction and control of the will; walking becomes slower and more unsteady; the people appear as if half-drunk; one feels the need to lie down. The eye sees objects that are present but does not want to and cannot fix upon them on command, just as the ear perceives without being able or willing to give an account of that which is being heard. An overpowering tiredness and a need to sleep that controls every sensation becomes apparent in the drinker; he becomes somnolent and finally falls asleep. Some Europeans have observed this power of kava to lame the senses and ultimately lead to sleep, which is like magic, on their own selves. Often, it merely produces a torpid/somnolent state accompanied by disconnected dreams and, according to some reports, by erotic visions as well. (Lewin 1886, 44 f.)


Numerous pharmacological studies have demonstrated that the psychoactive effects of kava are due to the kavapyrones; moreover, they are not caused by one isolated substance but instead appear to be due to the mixture (Meyer 1967, 140). In experiments with mice, extracts have produced strong sedative effects (Hölzl et al. 1993, 203):


Like meprobamat or benzodiazepine [cf. diazepam], the kavapyrones are capable of lowering the excitability of the limbic system, whereby the inhibition of the activity of the limbic system is regarded as an expression of a suppression of emotional excitability and an improvement in the mood. (Hölzl et al. 1993, 204)


Muscle-relaxing, antispasmodic, analgesic, local anesthetic, and nerve-protecting effects have all been pharmacologically demonstrated. The kavapyrones also cause a prolongation or deepening of anesthesia (induced, e.g., by chloroform, ether, laughing gas, or barbiturates), for which methysticin has the strongest synergistic effects. Kava extracts have antagonistic effects on dopamine, apomorphine, and amphetamine (cf. ephedrine) (Hölzl et al. 1993, 205; Meyer 1976). Kava also potentiates the effects of alcohol (e.g., the duration of sleep following inebriation; cf. Zubke 1997). The local anesthetic effects are very similar to those of cocaine, procaine, and lidocaine, and the duration of effects is similar (Hölzl et al. 1993, 206; Meyer and May 1964; Singh 1992, 40). There is some evidence suggesting that the kavapyrones bind to the GABA and/or benzodiazepine receptors ([3H]-GABA bond, [3H]-diazepam bond), thereby exhibiting an affinity similar to that of muscimol and diazepam (Hölzl et al. 1992). Human pharmacological studies on healthy subjects using 210 mg or even 300 to 600 mg of kavapyrones per day have demonstrated that the quality of sleep is improved, anxiety states are dissipated, and information processing in the brain is improved, while reaction times are unaffected (Hölzl et al. 1993, 207; Hänsel and Kammerer 1996). Often the desired effects do not become apparent until after several days of regular consumption (Schmidt 1994, 376). In rare instances, kava use may result in mild allergic reactions. However, “there are no indications of physical and/or psychological dependency” (Hölzl et al. 1993, 210).

It has frequently been reported that kava can induce marijuana-like effects (cf. Cannabis indica), but that these effects are very subtle and are perceived only following repeated ingestion of the substance (Miller 1985, 59*; Zubke 1997).







Commercial Forms and Regulations


Kava, both raw and in its various preparations, is available without restriction throughout the world (even in herb shops, health food stores, supermarkets, et cetera). Many South Pacific islands have bars in which no alcohol is served but various preparations of kava are.

Numerous preparations and products (capsules, tablets, coated tablets, solutions, tinctures) are available in European and Western markets, including capsules containing kava extracts and the oil of St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum L.; cf. Becker 1994*) for treating stress and capsules with extracts of kava and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for relaxation. Each of the Antares® 120 tablets contains 120 mg of kavapyrones; these thus have one of the highest concentrations of all commercial forms (Schmidt 1994, 376). Each capsule of the psychopharmacological agent known as Neuronika contains 200 mg of kavain (cf. Kretschmer 1970). Many products contain only 10 mg of kavapyrones in each pill.


A very early illustration of the production of kava. (Woodcut from Captain Cook’s Three Famous Voyages around the World)


“The wonder drug of Polynesia represents an enrichment of our treasure of phytotherapeutic medicines. Its use for difficult states of unrest and anxiety is not a task for self-medication. For many of modern man’s disturbances of health (‘nervous sleep disturbance, stress-related tension’), it is certainly worth trying this medicinal plant, which is to be preferred over the quick use of the benzodiazepines [cf. diazepam].”




(1994, 377)


“During a time of hunger and need, the Tui Tonga (king of Tonga) wanted to visit his subjects on the island of Eua and sent his messengers to the chief of the island to announce the impending visit. The chief and his wife were put in a difficult position because they lacked all that they needed for the festive greeting in honor of the divine Tui Tonga. After grappling between their hearts and their duty for days and nights, the no-longer-young couple decided to offer Tui Tonga their only child, a beautiful little girl. The beautiful child was dead when Tui Tonga arrived, the parents were grieving beyond all measure, and the entire island was grieving with them. The king was overcome by the events and deeply moved by the faithfulness of his subjects. Tui Tonga bade the mourners to place the dead child in the ground, and as he departed he promised that he would provide them with consolation during the year. Exactly one year to the day later, a plant that no one had ever seen before grew above the head of the victim. The chief called it ‘kava,’ and a new plant shot forth from the foot end and was given the name do(sugarcane). So did kava come to the earth as a mild relief for grieving souls, and do, the sweet sugarcane, was given to us to counteract the bitterness of memory that can poison and exhaust the body.”






See also the entries for Piper auritumPiper betlePiper spp., Macropiper excelsumkeu, and betel quids.

Brunton, R. 1989. The abandoned narcotic: Kava and cultural instability in Melanesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Buckley, Joseph P., Angelo R. Furgiuele, and Maureen J. O’Hara. 1967. Pharmacology of kava. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 141–51. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.


Churchill, W. 1916. Sissano: Movements of migration within and through Melanesia. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution. (See pages 124–44.)


Cox, Paul Alan, and Lisa O’Rourke. 1987. Kava (Piper methysticum, Piperaceae). Economic Botany 41:452–54.


Dodge, Ernest S. 1995. Hawaiian and other Polynesian gourds. Honolulu: Ku Pa’a Publishing.


Ford, Clellan S. 1967. Ethnographical aspects of kava. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 162–73. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.


Gajdusek, D. Carleton. 1967. Recent observations on the use of kava in the New Hebrides. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 119–25. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.


Garner, Leon F., and Jeremy D. Klinger. 1985. Some visual effects caused by the beverage kava. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 13 (3): 307–11.


Gregory, Robert J. 1995. Reflections on the kava (Piper methysticum, Forst.) experience. Integration 6:41–44.


Hambruch, P. 1917. Die Kawa auf Ponape. Studien und Forschungen zur Menschen- und Völkerkunde 14:107–15.


Hänsel, R. and H. U. Beiersdorff. 1959. Zur Kenntnis der sedativen Prinzipien des Kava-Rhizoms. Arzneimittel-Forschung 9:581–85.


Hänsel, Rudolf, and Susanne Kammerer. 1996. Kavakava, Basel: Aesopus.


Hänsel, Rudolf, and Helmut Woelck. 1995. Spektrum Kava-Kava. 2nd ed. Arzneimitteltherapie heute. Basel: Aesopus.


Holmes, Lowell D. 1967. The function of kava in modern Samoan culture. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 107–18. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.


Hölzl, Josef, S. Wiltrud Juretzek, and Elisabeth Stahl-Biskup. 1993. Piper. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 5:52–59. Berlin: Springer.


Hurni, Walter. 1997. Kava—Geschenk der Götter. Natürlich 17 (11): 65–68.


Jaggy, H., and H. Achenbach. 1992. Cepharadione A from Piper methysticumPlanta Medica 58:111.


Keller, F., and Murle W. Klohs. 1963. A review of the chemistry and pharmacology of the constituents of Piper methysticumLloydia 26:1–15.


Kepler, Angela Kay. 1983. Hawaiian heritage plants. Honolulu: Oriental.


Kilham, Chris. 1996. Kava: Medicine hunting in paradise. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press.


Klohs, Murle W. 1967. Chemistry of kava. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 126–32. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.


Koch, Gerd. 1981. Kawa in Polynesien. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1:194–99. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Kretschmer, Wolfgang. 1970. Kavain als Psychopharmakon. Münchener Medizinische Wochenschrift 112 (4): 154–58.


Lebot, Vincent, and P. Cabalion. 1988. Kavas of Vanuatu: Cultivars of Piper methysticum Forst. Technical Paper no. 195. Nouméa, New Caledonia: South Pacific Commission.


Lebot, Vincent, Mark Merlin, and Lamont Lindstrom. 1992. Kava: The Pacific drug. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press. (Cf. book review by John Baker in Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1994 (3): 355 f. Berlin: VWB.


Lewin, Louis. 1886. Über Piper methysticum (Kawa). Berlin: August Hirschfeld.


Ludvigson, Tomas. 1985. Healing in central Espíritu Santo, Vanuatu. In Healing practices in the South Pacific, ed. Claire D. F. Parsons, 51–64. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press (The Institute for Polynesian Studies).


McBride, L. R. 1988. Practical folk medicine of Hawaii. Hilo: Petroglyph.


Meyer, Hans J. 1967. Pharmacology of kava. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 133–40. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.


Meyer, Hans J., and H. U. May. 1964. Lokalanästhetische Eigenschaften natürlicher Kawa-Pyrone. Klinische Wochenschrift 42:407.


Penaud, A. 1908. Le kawa-kawa. Bordeaux: Thèse de doctorat.


Pfeiffer, Carl C., Henry B. Murphree, and Leonide Goldstein. 1967. Effect of kava in normal subjects and patients. In Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs, ed. D. Efron, 155–61. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.


Prescott, J., and G. McCall, eds. 1988. Kava: Use and abuse in Australia and the South Pacific. Monograph no. 5. Sydney: University of New South Wales, National Drug and Alcohol Research Center.


Schmidt, Michael. 1994. Kava-Kava: Heilpflanze aus der Südsee. PTA heute 8 (5): 374–78.


Shulgin, Alexander T. 1973. The narcotic pepper: The chemistry and pharmacology of Piper methysticum and related species. Bulletin of Narcotics 25:59–74.


Singh, Yadhu N. 1983. Effects of kava on neuromuscular transmission and muscle contractility. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 7:267–76.


———. 1986. Kava: A bibliography. Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific, Pacific Information Centre.


———. 1992. Kava: An overview. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 37:13–45. (Contains an excellent bibliography that provides a good basis for further research.)


Steinmetz, E. F. 1973. Kava-kava: Famous drug plant of the South Sea islands. San Francisco: Level Press.


Thurnwald, Richard. 1908. Nachrichten aus Nissau und von den Karolinen. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 40:106–15.


Vonarburg, Bruno. 1996. Kava-Kava stellt sie wieder auf die Beine. Natürlich 3/96:57–61.


Weiner, Michael A. 1971. Ethnomedicine in Tonga. Economic Botany 25:423–50.


Whistler, W. Arthur. 1992a. Polynesian herbal medicine. Hawaii: National Tropical Botanical Gardens.


———. 1992b. Tongan herbal medicine. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.


Williamson, R. W. 1939. Essays in Polynesian ethnology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (See pages 51–112, 274–75.)


Young, Richard L., John W. Hylin, Donald L. Plucknett, Y. Kawano, and Roy T. Nakayama. 1966. Analysis for kavapyrones in extracts of Piper methysticumPhytochemistry 5:795–98.


Z[ubke], A[chim]. 1997. Kava: Die Südseedroge. Hanfblatt 4 (28): 29–31.


Piper spp.


Pepper Species




Piperaceae (Pepper Family); Pipereae Tribe


The genus Piper includes some 1,000 to 1,200 species, many of which are ethnobotanically significant (Hölzl et al. 1993, 191; Schultes and Raffauf 1990, 364*). Half of all Piper species occur in the American tropics. These include epiphytic plants, climbers, half-shrubs, and small trees. A large number of essential oils occur in the genus, so many leaves, inflorescences, and fruits are highly aromatic and have therefore attracted cultural attention. Some Piperspecies are said to have psychoactive, and others aphrodisiac, effects. Safrole and asarone have been identified in various species (such as Piper divaricatum Meyer, P. manassausenseP. futokadsura, and P. sarmentosum) (Avella et al. 1994). Piper abutiloides Kunth, Piper cincinnatoris Yuncker, and Piper lindbergii C. DC., which are used in Brazilian folk medicine as analgesics, are pharmacologically active (Costa et al. 1989). It has even been suggested that the common black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) is capable of inducing hallucinogenic effects (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 368*).

The so-called red pepper comes not from a Piper species but from the Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle L.; cf. Norman 1991, 53*). In South America, it is used to aid in the fermentation of chicha and also as a beer additive.


Piper amalago L. [syn. Piper medium Jacq.]—amalago pepper

The leaves of this bush, which is indigenous to Central America (southern Mexico, Belize), are smaller and narrower than those of Piper auritum, but the plant is otherwise quite similar in appearance. When rubbed, its leaves smell strongly of the essential oil safrole. It may be possible to use this pepper species for psychoactive purposes. The Maya, who call the plant yaaxpehelche’, regard it as the “younger sibling” or “female” counterpart of Piper auritum.


Piper angustifolium Ruíz et Pavón—matico pepper

It is not known whether this American pepper species has psychoactive effects by itself. Because of the disinfectant properties of its fresh leaves, the plant is also known as soldier’s herb. Its leaves and inflorescences are an ingredient in various Aztec cacao recipes (see Theobroma cacao) and have a mild stimulating effect because of the essential oil that is present (Rätsch 1991a, 185*). Some authors regard Piper angustifolium as a synonym for Piper elongatum, which is also known as matico pepper.


Many wild pepper species, such as the Central American Piper amalago, contain stimulating and inebriating essential oils. (Wild plant, photographed in Belize)


Piper cubeba L. [syn. Cubeba officinalis Miq. (or Raf.)]—cubeb pepper

This climbing shrub, which is indigenous to the Sunda Islands and eastern Asia, grows preferentially on Erythrina indica [syn. E. variegata] (cf. Erythrina spp.) and is the source of the fruit that is sold under the names cubebkubebcubeb pepperpimenta cubeba, and fructus cubebae (Macmillan 1991, 415*; Norman 1991, 54*). The fruits contain 10 to 20% essential oil, 2.5% cubebin (C20H20O6), and amorphous cubeb acid. Large doses of the essential oil can induce irritation in the urinary tract as well as headaches, which is why one of the fruit’s folk names is dizzy corns. Such typical CNS symptoms as anxiety states and delirium have also been reported. Two grams has been given as a well-tolerated single dosage, while the daily dosage should not exceed 10 g (Roth et al. 1994, 570*). Hildegard von Bingen described the psychoactive effects as well as an anaphrodisiac effect that is difficult to understand:


The cubeb is warm, and this warmth in itself is of the proper mixture, and it is also dry. And when someone eats cubeb, then any unseemly desires that are within him are moderated. But it also makes his spirits cheerful and his reason and knowledge pure, for the useful and moderate warmth of the cubeb extinguishes the unseemly flames of desire in which the stinking and slimy liquids are hidden, and it makes the spirit of man and his reason illuminatingly clear. (Physica 1.26)


Cubeb is used in folk medicine in cases of weakness of memory and to increase the sexual appetite (aphrodisiac) (Gottlieb 1974, 26 f.*; Hölzl et al. 1993, 196). In Yemen, where they are known as kebâb, the fruits are regarded as an aphrodisiac and nerve tonic (Fleurentin and Pelt 1982, 92 f.*). In former times, cubeb was often used as a spice. Today, it is used only in Asian cusine (e.g., as an ingredient in curries). It is one of the primary ingredients in the Moroccan spice mixture ras el hanout, which also contains cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), nutmeg fruits and flowers (Myristica fragrans), galanga (Alpinia sp.; cf. Kaempferia galanga), long pepper (Piper longum), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), cloves (Syzygium aroma-ticum), ginger (Zingiber officinale), rose buds (Rosa sp.), lavender flowers (Lavandula angustifolia Mill.), Spanish fly (Cantharides), ash berries (Fraxinus sp.?), paradise corns (Amomum melegueta), black pepper (Piper nigrum), peanuts (Arachis hypogaea L.), turmeric (Curcuma longa), cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), fennel seeds (Nigella sativa), monk’s pepper (Vitex agnus-castus), belladonna (Atropa belladonna), and violet root (Viola odorata L.) (Norman 1991, 96 f.*). The consumption of large quantities of this spice mixture is said to produce psychoactive and aphrodisiac effects. Cubeb pepper is also an ingredient in Oriental joy pills and was once used as an additive to wine (see Vitis vinifera).


Red pepper is obtained not from a Piper species but from the American tree Schinus molle L. (From Hernández, 1942/46 [Orig. pub. 1615]*)



The fruits of the aphrodisiac cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba).



In India, the long pepper (Piper longum) is renowned as an aphrodisiac.



Botanical illustration of the aphrodisiac cubeb pepper. (Engraving from Pereira De Beginselen der Materia Medica en der Therapie, 1849)


“On Cubeb: The Javanese, because they attribute many good virtues to this fruit, are protective of it, and so that it cannot be reproduced by any nation, it is said that they lay it in warm water before they trade it, which makes it incapable of developing. Apart from this, they swallow these and eat them for all kinds of ailments, like fever, cold stomach, and such things. In addition, when soaked in wine and then drunk, it is said to help strengthen the work of Venus.”






(1677, CH. 9, P. 18*)


Piper elongatum Vahl [syn. Artanthe elongata (Vahl) Miq., Piper angustifolium Ruíz et Pavón, Piper purpurascens D. Dietr., Steggensia elongata (Vahl) Kunth]—matico pepper

The matico or soldiers’ pepper comes from the Central and South American tropics and has a long history of use as a medicine and as an agent of pleasure. The leaves contain 0.3 to 6% essential oil, in which asarone and parsley apiol are present alongside the primary component, dillapiol (cf. Acorus calamusPetroselinum crispum). Matico pepper is used in Panama as an aphrodisiac and stimulant (Hölzl et al. 1993, 198). In Mexico, it is one of the traditional spices for cacao (see Theobroma cacao). It is possible that mild psychoactive effects can result from the consumption of high doses of the leaves.


Piper interitum Trelease—tetsi pepper

The Kulina Indians of Peru use the leaves and roots of Piper interitum, which they call tetsi, to produce a snuff used as a substitute for tobacco snuff (cf. Nicotiana tabacum) that is alleged to have psychoactive properties (Schultes 1978b, 227*; Schultes and Raffauf 1990, 365 f.*).


Piper longum L. [syn. Chavica roxbhurgii Miq., Chavica sarmentosa (Roxb.) Miq., Piper latifolium Hunter, Piper sarmentosum Roxb.]—long pepper, pippali

In Asia and Arabia, the unripe fruits of the long pepper are used as a spice, an aphrodisiac, and a medicine (Fleurentin and Pelt 1982, 92 f.*; Rätsch 1995). They contain approximately 1% essential oil with sesquiterpene hydrocarbons and p-cymene, dihydrocarveol, terpinoles, and α-thujene as well as amides (piperidine and others). The drug has vasodilatory properties (Hölzl et al. 1993, 200). In Asia, long pepper has been used as a spice for much longer than black pepper (Norman 1991, 52*). While black pepper has been regarded as an aphrodisiac in Europe since ancient times, long pepper has an even greater reputation. Long pepper is a principal ingredient in numerous recipes for the aphrodisiac preparations used in tantric rituals (cf. Oriental joy pills). It is regarded as an “inciter” in Ayurvedic medicine. Its qualities are pungent, heating, and sweet, which is why it strengthens the functions of the genital system and is said to provide the organs of desire with a warming energy (Lad and Frawley 1987, 249*). The Ananga-Ranga, an ancient Indian book on the art of the love, lists a tantric “secret agent”—possibly with psychoactive effects—that awakens the lingam (= phallus) to life:


Take a few corns of black pepper [Piper nigrum], seeds of the thorn apple [Datura metel], one pod of pinpalli (Piper longum, which yields the pepper that works slowly, or betel powder [Areca catechu]) with lodhra peel or Morinda citrifolia, which is used for dyeing; rub this with light honey and [rub it on the lingam]. This agent is unsurpassable. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethes, Ananga-Ranga 1985, 65)


The spice mixture trikatu, “three spices,” which is widely known in India, consists of equal parts of long pepper, black pepper, and dried pieces of gingerroot (Zingiber officinale). This mixture is considered to be the most important Ayurvedic stimulant. Trikatu is a rejuvenator for agni, the inner fire. At the same time, it is important as an agent that is taken together with other medicines; its stimulating effects potentiate or improve the assimilation of all kinds of active substances.


The common pepper (Piper nigrum, fresh fruits) has also been attributed with psychoactive and even hallucinogenic effects.


Piper plantagineum Schlecht.

This Caribbean species was once allegedly used in the West Indies (Mexico) in a similar manner to Piper methysticum; it may be identical to Piper auritum.


Piper sp.—syryboa

In his book Der Orientalisch-Indianische Kunstund Lustgärtner [The Oriental-Indian Art and Pleasure Gardener] (1677), George Meister, who traveled to the East Indies, described a species of Piper that was used in a similar manner to or as a substitute for betel pepper (Piper betle):


On Foliis Syryboae. These run lengthwise up the trees in the same way as folia bettele or pepper. The fruit is almost that of a long pepper species, pungent taste, looking like the so-called aments that hang on the hazel nuts in the spring, but somewhat thicker and longer, almost a span in length. These are cut from one another and eaten along with filled bettele leaves and the fruit areca [cf. Areca catechu]. In addition, they also take the flower, known as canange, which has yellow petals, with this, so that it has not just a pleasant scent but also a good taste. (Ch. 9, 20)


Unfortunately, the species of pepper described here as an additive to betel quids cannot be determined with certainty. The “canange flower” is very likely the blossom of the ylang-ylang tree (Cananga odorata; cf. essential oils).


Piper spp.—masho-hara

The Tanimuka and Yucuna Indians of the Río Miritiparaná (Amazonia) boil the very aromatic leaves of one Piper species to prepare a drink that is said to invigorate the elderly (Schultes 1993, 135*). Other species of Piper that are also known as masho-hara or yauardi-hena are used as ritual snuffs in Amazonia. The Muinane from the region of La Pedrera make a snuff from the dried leaves of a Piper species and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). Shamans chew or smoke various Piper species to track down cases of witchcraft. The Canelo use a Piper species that they call guayusa (cf. Ilex guayusa) as a stimulant (Schultes and Raffauf 1990, 367 f.*). One Piper species endemic to Papua New Guinea that has not yet been botanically described contains kavalactones (cf. keu).


The pepper species (Piper sp.) known in Aztec as mecaxochitl, “cord flower,” is used as an additive to Indian cacao drinks. (From Hernández, 1942/46 [Orig. pub. 1615]*)



The infructescences of the long pepper (Piper longum) and black pepper (Piper nigrum) have been used as spices, stimulants, and aphrodisiacs. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)




See also the entries for Piper auritumPiper betlePiper methysticum, and Macropiper excelsum.


Atal, C. K., K. L. Dhar, and J. Singh. 1975. The chemistry of Indian Piper species. Lloydia 38:256–64.


Avella, Eliseo, Pedro P. Díaz, and Aura M. P. de Díaz. 1994. Constituents from Piper divaricatumPlanta Medica 60:195.


Costa, Mirtes, Luiz C. di Stasi, Mizue Kirizawa, Sigrid L.J. Mendaçolli, Cecilia Gomes, and Gustaf Trolin. 1989. Screening in mice of some medicinal plants used for analgesic purposes in the state of São Paulo. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 27:25–33.


Goethes, Johann Wolfgang v., ed. Ananga-Ranga. 1985. Orientalische Liebeslehre. Munich: Goldmann.


Hölzl, Josef, S. Wiltrud Juretzek, and Elisabeth Stahl-Biskup. 1993. Piper. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 5:52–59. Berlin: Springer.


Ilyas, M. 1976. Spices in India. Economic Botany 30:273–80.


Rätsch, Christian. 1995. Piper longum, der ayurvedische Scharfmacher. Dao 6/95:68.