What makes Hawaiian 'Awa "Hawaiian"? Where did Hawaiian 'Awa originate? How many varieties of Kava grow in Hawaii? What makes Kali Kava™ American? We'll dive into these questions in this blog post. While there is no one clear answer for the origin of Hawaiian 'Awa, there are several credible theories and many hard facts that explain some of the mysteries around both "Hawaiian" Kava varieties as well as many of the non-Hawaiian varieties that are grown in Hawaii today. We can find clues and evidence in the following: 1. The Folklore of kava, passed down by oral tradition from the Kupuna. 2. The history of modern Kava growing industry in Hawaii and 3. Modern genetic testing results. Then we'll discus, what makes Hawaiian 'Awa "Hawaiian" and what makes Kali Kava™ "American". Read more to find out.
Hawaiian Folklore and the origins of Hawaiian 'Awa
Let's look at the folklore of Hawaiian 'Awa to find clues as to its origins. We know that Hawaii was populated in not one, but several migrations of people from other Polynesian Islands such as Tahiti, the Marquesas, and Samoa. Several traditional 'Awa chants substantiate the notion that Kava came to Hawaii on one or more migrations from other islands. Contained in some of these chants are references to the Gods Kanaloa and Kane, who were known to have been avid 'Awa drinkers in Hawaiian folk lore. Take the following chant which is performed while harvesting Hawaiian 'Awa:
E ka 'Awa a Kane
I ulu i Kahiki,
I mule i Kahiki,
I a'a i Kahiki,
I kumu i Kahiki,
I lala i Kahiki,
I Iau i Kahiki,
I mu'o i Kahiki,
I pua i Kahiki,
I ki'i mai nei au i ko kino
E Kane e, ho mai i ola.
According to Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert, authors of the Hawaiian English Dictionary, "Kahiki" is defined as, "Tahiti," or "Any foreign country, abroad, foreign". Before we go further, lets translate the full chant to English according to their dictionary:
o 'Awa of Kane,
That grew in Kahiki,
Rooted in Kahiki,
Bore rootlets in Kahiki,
Grew a stalk in Kahiki,
Branched in Kahiki,
Leafed in Kahiki,
Bore leaf buds in Kahiki,
Blossomed in Kahiki,
I have come to take your body
To be used as medicine for (__________)
o Kane, grant him health.
So from this chant, it is acknowledged that Kava came literally from Tahiti, or some other foreign land. This is in line with the current genetic studies of Hawaiian Kava which point to Hawaiian Kava originating from two distinct varieties in the Marquesas. The word Kava itself is Marquesan and Tongan for "Bitter".
Other significant chants were recorded in the notes of David Malo, a Hawaiian who became a Christian in the mid-19th century. Malo became the pastor of his church in a Hawaiian village where he recorded detailed accounts of Hawaiian traditions. When he died, his notes were published in 1951 and compiled into a book called "Hawaiian Antiquities". His first hand accounts offer incredible insight into the traditional lifestyles of Hawaiians. Interestingly, contained in his notes is a chant that refers to the possible origins of Hawaiian 'Awa. Mentioned in this chant are the Hawaiian Kava drinking gods Kane and Kanaloa:
He miki oe Kane;
He miki oe Kanaloa.
o Kanaloa hea oe?
o Kanaloa inu awa.
Mai Kahiki ka awa,
Mai Upolu ka awa,
Mai Wawau ka awa.
E hano awa hua,
E hano awa puaka.
Halapa i ke akua i Iaau wai Ia!
Amama, ua noa.
Lele wale aku lao
Translating this, again from Pukea and Elbert:
Active art thou, Kane,
Active art thou, Kanaloa,
What Kanaloa are you?
Kanaloa the 'awa drinker.
From Kahiki came the 'awa,
From 'Upolu came the 'awa,
From Wawau came the 'awa.
Homage to the frothy 'awa,
Homage to the well strained 'awa,
May the essence reach unto the gods!
The tabu is lifted, removed,
It flies away.
This chant specifically references physical locations of Kahiki which we've already translated to Tahiti where it is suspected that the two original varieties of Hawaiian Kava came from. 'Uplolu is an island in Samoa, in which 'Ava Lea from 'Uplolu has been genetically identified as being identical to the Hawaiian cultivar Nene. Wawau means "Va'vau" which is an Island known for some of the best kava in Tonga. The chant is substantiates what we believe to be true about the origins of Hawaiian 'Awa.
Yet another chant is recorded by Hawaiian historian Margaret Tittcomb in her writings from 1948 by an unknown source in 1894. The chant tells of a famous king, again from "Kahiki", named Makali'i, who with his crew sailed to Hawaii and brought kava alongside Kane and Kanaloa:
He "awa keia no"u no Awini,
He kanaka lawai"a au
No na pall huIa'ana nei
o Laupahoehoenui me Laupahoehoeiki,
Na Kane me Kanaloa i kanu,
No"u akua 0 ka Iewa Iani, ka Iewa nu"u,
o ka "awa POpoIo a Kane i kau iluna,
I ulu iluna, i Iau iluna, i 0"0 iluna,
I hului ia e Makali"i pa"a iluna
I ki"ina ia i ka "iole moku ka "alibi
Helelei ilalo nei, ulu laha i ka honua
Aha'i ka manu kau iluna 0 ka la'au
Tho mai ka 'awa hiwa me ka makea
o ka papa'ele me ka papakea
o ka mo'i me ka mokihana,
o ka nene me kawaimakaakamanu,
Ho'awa ko 'awa e Kane i ka wai
Ina ka 'awa, pupu i ka fa
No ko pulapula no Hanoalele
Amama ua noa, lele wale ho'i.
Here is 'awa from me, Awini,
A fisherman I am
Of the inaccessible cliffs
Of greater Laupahoehoe of lesser Laupahoehoe,
A plant set out by Kane and Kanaloa,
My gods of the heavens above and the heavens below,
The 'awa popolo of Kane, that existed above,
Grew above, leafed above, ripened above.
It was seized by Makali'i and hung on high.
The rat ascended and chewed the rope that held it.
Down it fell, multiplied and spread over the earth.
The birds carried some up into the trees,
The 'awa hiwa and the makea came down,
A pair were they.
The dark papa and the light papa,
A pair were they.
The mo'i and the mokihana,
A pair were they.
The nene and the ka-wai-maka-a-ka-mau,
A pair were they.
The 'awa of Kane is mixed with water,
The 'awa is drunk, fish is eaten for aftertaste.
This is for your offspring, Hanoalele,
Amama, it is freed, it has flown.
(Source: Tittcomb 1948)
Again mentioned in this chant are the primordial Gods Kane and Kanaloa. Interestingly, the Kava was hung by a rope, presumably to keep it fresh, or dry, or out of reach of humans, or away from pestilence during some difficult time. A rat chews the rope an it falls to Earth and spreads and flourishes, some varieties with the help of birds, which is suggestive of seeds which is only documented in wild and early domesticated kavas in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. The chant suggests that Kava was brought to Hawaii by both Gods and Humans-Meaning that it could have been both a native plant when the first Hawaiians arrived AND it was also brought from other places and naturalized. Either way, it was offered to the Gods and held in reverence.
So now that we've covered the folkloric account of how Kava came to Hawaii lets recap: Some folklore suggests that it came from ancestral lands such as Kahiki (Tahiti), Wa'Wau (Va'Vau, Tonga), and 'Upolou (Samoa), whereas some folklore suggests that the Gods Kane and Kanaloa brought it and it was already there when Hawaiian ancestors had arrived. We know for sure that multiple migrations brought new varieties of Kava to Hawaii including recent trips from Western scientists as you'll read below.
Reviewing the Modern History of the Hawaiian Kava Growing Industry
During the 1980's Dr. Vincent Lebot from Vanuatu performed an impressive survey of all Pacific kava cultivars in his noble quest to document and categorize the cultivars by morphotype, zymotype and chemotype, to get a better understanding of how kava arrived at each island and when it arrived. Lebot had determined that Hawaiian kava had a very narrow genetic base and on one of his stops in the 80's he brought several kava varieties to Hawaii to widen this narrow genetic diversity of cultivars growing there. He established these varieties at the Lyon Botanical Garden at the University of Hawaii Manoa, and at the Kahanu gardens in Hana, Maui. Upon his return in 2002, he had found that these collections were neglected and like many of the Hawaiian varieties, had acquired disease and were in danger of dying off. What was left of these collections were salvaged by collectors and historians at the Association for Hawaiian 'Awa. Together with collections from expeditions into the ancestral valleys across Hawaii, the AHA built a full catalog of old Hawaiian varieties as well as several non-Hawaiian varieties such as ISA and IWI from Papua New Guinea, Borogu from Vanuatu, 'Ava Lea and La'au from Samoa, Rahmwanger and Rhamadel from Micronesia, as well as Hina from Tonga among others. These varieties are now found growing in private homes, botanical gardens, plant nurseries, as well as on large commercial kava farms, and are freely bought and sold.
In addition to the Kava that was found natively and brought by Lebot and others, the Kingdom of Tonga also brought with it Tongan Kava cultivars to be grown on Hawaiian land. As reported in The Contemporary Pacific publication in Spring 1999:
"In September 1997, Tonga leased 3,766 acres of freehold land in Hawai‘i near the town of Hale‘iwa on O‘ahu’s north shore at a reported cost of us $333,333. The country also negotiated for a further 1,600 acres of land to be leased for agricultural purposes from the Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate. This was one of five projects discussed by the king in his address from the throne at the close of the 97th Legislative Assembly on 20 November. Negotiations with foreign firms are progressing for the construction of an oil storage tank to service local and regional markets. The king also mentioned new cash crops and develop ments in fisheries."
This massive project was observed and witnessed first hand by several researchers and historians that were involved in the Hawaiian Kava industry at the time. Undoubtedly some of the Kava that was planted in Oahu appeared similar to Hawaiian kava and became integrated into what is now simply "Hawaiian" kava.
Simultaneously in the 1990's an early 2000's the cultivar ISA from Papua New Guinea became a growers favorite because of its vigorous growth, high yields, potent chemotype, and resistance to diseases that most Hawaiian Kava would succumb to. It therefore became widely distributed throughout Hawaii and can still be found in Hawaiian Awa bars and in farms and gardens toady. These days commercial Hawaiian farms are growing both Hawaiian cultivars such as Mahakea, Hiwa, Hono Kane Iki, Hina Tonga, ISA, Borogu, Ava La'au and a mix of other non-Hawaiian cultivars that have been given to the farmers by collectors, nurseries, and kava historians.
Genetic Testing Reveals a Very Narrow Genetic Base
It is thought that the original Noble varieties of Hawaiian Kava came from 2 original plants from Nuku Hiva, Marquesas: A red stemmed variety and a spotted green stemmed variety. 2015 Genetic marker testing of Hawaiian Kava showed such striking similarity to the rest of the Polynesian group of cultivars that it was determined that very few genes are responsible for all of the different varieties. We also know that certain varieties such Nene are genetically identical to 'Ava Lea in Samoa. Without a doubt, future genetic marker testing will reveal interesting results as to the origins of several documented and forgotten varieties of Kava growing in Hawaii.
What makes Hawaiian 'Awa "Hawaiian"?
As you can see, there are multiple explanations for how Kava came to be growing in Hawaii, from Kane and Kanaloa to the Kingdom of Tonga to researchers and collectors leaking plants to the public, Hawaii has an assortment of cultivars from many different regions across the Pacific. Since thorough scientific documentation of Hawaiian 'Awa varieties began around the same time of the 'Awa boom and the destructive wildcrafting of old 'awa patches, there is some confusion as to how many native varieties Hawaii actually possessed and how long those varieties had been growing in Hawaii. There are records before the 'Awa boom that suggest anywhere from 14 to 30 varieties of 'Awa that were described in Hawaiian language. Not included in the "Hawaiian" "Awa cultivar list are interesting ones such as the yellow Kava that the God's tend to prefer, produces multiple days of effects, bears fruits and seeds that the birds spread, grows up trees, and is recorded in Hawaiian lore. Many varieties for one reason or another, didn't make the official list.
It begs the question, "What makes Hawaiian Kava 'Hawaiian'"? Is it a certain number of generations grown on Hawaiian soil? If so, how many? Is it that Native Hawaiians as opposed to Marquesans, stewarded varieties from Tahiti and Tonga and beyond and they are now Hawaiian? Is it the simple naming of a variety, such as calling the genetically identical Samoan 'Ava Lea, "Nene"? Perhaps its an official publication that deems a variety officially Hawaiian, or an outsider. For that matter, what makes any variety of Kava belong to any one culture? Perhaps its when a variety is brought to a new land and adapts, mutates, and makes a noticeable and heritable change in appearance or utility, is selected for, propagated, given a name, and is grown for generations until the mutation is stable and the name becomes accepted to describe the new variety. Sounds reasonable.
American Kava Culture and American Kava
America is a Kava drinking nation. There are 3 million Pacific Islanders that call America and its territories "home". Kalapus and kava circles are commonplace among Pacific Islanders seeking to keep their culture alive. Meanwhile over 450 Kava bars thrive and introduce Kava to whoever is curious and willing to try it. Indeed, there are more Kava bars in America than there are in Vanuatu and Fiji combined. Both traditional Kava drinking and the Kava Bar culture in America are evolving and adapting to become "American." For example, at a Tongan American Kava circle, it is not uncommon to see a more relaxed version than the traditional Kalapu. Members sit in chairs at a table and drink Kava from a non traditional Home Depot bucket that was made from a Kava making machine, rather than sitting on a traditional mat with hand squeezed kava around a Kumete. At a Kava bar, there are also elements of traditional culture fused with modern twists such as flavored kava drinks or kava in different, non-traditional forms such as concentrates and extracts. America, like all cultures who have encountered Kava, has developed its own unique Kava culture that is both similar and different from the traditions of the South Pacific.
Similar to Hawaii, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, Micronesia, the Solomons and every other island that has inherited kava, America has also acquired Kava plants through trade routes, trading for currency, goods, or services, and brought them to new lands. 1600 years ago, Hawaii was the last stop for kava. Recently Kava was traded for through a common trade route, and brought to a new land where it was meticulously cared for and allowed (forced) to adapt to a new, harsh environment. Because of the relationship that Kava built with its human stewards, it was able to receive the care that it needed to adapt and grow in its new foreign environment. After 30 generations of growth and selection from tens of thousands of plants, adaptations occurred which were recognized, selected for, propagated, and replanted. When the adaptations became heritable and stuck for the future generations of the plant, the plants were given new variety names to signify that they are different than the plants they originally came from. This is the story of every kava variety that exists today.
The new land in the story above is California, the adaptations are cold (-2C) and heat (45C) tolerance, low humidity tolerance (10%), salinity and drought tolerance, and disease resistance plus vigorous growth and very high kavalactone content. This is what makes Kali Kava™ (American Kava), different from the Pacific Kava that it originated from, the same way that Hawaiian Kava is different from the Marquesan Kava and Tongan Kava that it came from. Presently in Florida, Kali Kava™ cultivars are undergoing a new series of adaptations to Myakka soils, Cat 4 hurricanes, freezes followed by 30C day time temps, and more. The plant is again, beginning to adapt to yet another new environment with new stewards.
The remarkable journey of Kava, from its roots in the Pacific Islands to its successful cultivation in America, is a testament to the unbreakable bond between human culture and Kava. Kava's journey, spanning multiple cultures with over 400 cultivars, begs questions such as, "What makes a new cultivar belong to a new culture rather culture that it was acquired from?" Kali Kava™ American adapted cultivars, have endured extreme conditions, from freezing cold to scorching heat, and has evolved to thrive in low humidity, saltiness, and drought. This resilience, coupled with its enhanced disease resistance, vigorous growth, and high kavalactone content, sets Kali Kava™ apart, marking it as a unique variant of the ancient Pacific Kava from which it came. Thus, as we appreciate the innovation and the excitement of the American Kava Growing Industry, we must also acknowledge the remarkable story of survival, stewardship, and adaptation that brought this potent plant from the Pacific to our farms and to our shells.