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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hawaiian Awa

Air Date: Week of

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Kava is one of the top selling herbal supplements in the world. Known for its calming qualities, kava’s roots can be traced to the South Pacific Islands, where it was used for medicinal purposes and in ceremonial gatherings. In Hawaii, kava is more commonly known as awa (ah-va). As Heidi Chang reports, the plant is finding new popularity.


CURWOOD: Kava ranks as one of the most popular herbal supplements these days. It's a member of the pepper family, and was first used in ancient Polynesia, where it was valued for its natural calming effects. Kava was once banned in Hawaii but these days the plant is making a comeback there, in medicine, popular culture, and as a new cash crop. Heidi Chang reports.

CHANG: For 3,000 years, kava has played an important role in South Pacific island culture. Chiefs consumed it as a ceremonial drink, and it was used in social gatherings. Kava was one of the original plants that Polynesian settlers brought to Hawaii over 1,000 years ago. In Hawaii, it is known as awa.

MALY: It was the food, the offering to the gods. But it was also important in family and in daily life.

CHANG: Oral historian, Kepa Maly says native Hawaiians use awa to soothe aches and pains and suppress the appetite to become fit and trim. The root was chewed or made into a drink to calm someone or relieve anxiety. People drank awa socially or after a hard day's work, and it was a sacred offering to the spirits.


MALY: Simply put, "I call to you, this deity, the god that dwells on the mountain, along the mountain ridges and mountain peaks. I call to you, offering you the various awa: .awa lau, awa pu, awa hiwa, awa kea, these different kinds of awa. I call to you to descend and inspire me.”


CHANG: But those traditions ended with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1820's. Some missionaries influenced the Kingdom of Hawaii to ban awa because it conflicted with their religious and moral beliefs. Eventually the ban was lifted, and exporting awa, primarily to Germany to be made into pharmaceuticals, became a thriving business. That stopped with World War II. It wasn't until the last decade that awa began making a comeback.


CHANG: Here at the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, bio-chemist Mel Jackson grinds the most sought after portion of the plant, the root, which can be made into a powder to drink, or processed into teas, capsules, tinctures, or extracts. He says there's a big demand for Hawaiian awa.

JACKSON: Hawaiian awa is unique. It's been here over a thousand years, and even though it's related to kava down in the South Pacific, it's had time to change. And so the chemotype or the kavalactone content, which is a measure of the active ingredient, is very different from that in the South Pacific. Hawaiian awa contains a lot of kavain, which is a very potent, calming active ingredient. And so it's quite highly prized.

CHANG: In the U.S., awa is considered an herbal supplement, so it is not regulated as a drug by the Food and Drug Administration. However, in Germany, the equivalent of the FDA has approved it for prescription use. There it can be prescribed as an alternative to sedatives like valium.

JACKSON: It's very mildly calming. There's no intoxicated effect or feel from it. If you drink fairly large amounts, then you would feel sleepy. But generally you feel centered and calm.

CHANG: Jackson says awa is not addictive. But he cautions, it should not be mixed with any drugs, herbs, or alcohol. Excessive consumption may impair the ability to drive. To educate more people about the plant, tropical horticulturist Ed Johnston co-founded the Association for Hawaiian Awa. Since he started the first awa nursery on the Big Island nearly a decade ago, he has seen demand for the plant grow.

JOHNSTON: Today, there's such a tremendous renaissance, in part because all that stuff the ancient Polynesians knew, we're defining in the laboratory, we're explaining, you know, to the Western mind how this works, through the active ingredients. And the ancient people knew it all along.

CHANG: Some researchers are now studying the effects of awa as an alternative treatment for depression, insomnia, and addictions, and as an aid for weight loss. A study published last year in The Hawaii Medical Journal looked at several South Pacific countries with low rates of cancer. Dr. Gregory Steiner found that as the amount of kava consumed in a country increased, the cancer incidence rate dropped.

Dr. Steiner stresses this does not prove that kava is solely responsible for the lower cancer rate, and that further study is necessary. In a preliminary study, Dr. Steiner also researched kava as an anti-addiction agent. The results will soon appear in the Pacific Health Dialogue, sponsored by the Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine. It shows kava significantly blocks the craving for alcohol.

Photo: Jim HendersonAwa field at Pu'u O Hoku Ranch, Molokai.
(Photo: Jim Henderson)


CHANG: Here on the Big Island of Hawaii, awa's medicinal value is sparking a dramatic revival in cultivating the plant. The leafy green shrub grows up to 12 feet tall and takes about two to three years to mature before it's ready to harvest. John Cross is president of the Hawaiian Pacific Kava Company, the largest grower of awa in the state. In 1998, the company planted its first 20 acres of awa on former sugar cane land.

CROSS: We're trying to diversify our agricultural base. We are trying new crops, to be coming in after sugar cane. And kava is one.

CHANG: For more than a century, sugar dominated Hawaii's agricultural economy, followed by pineapple. But since the 1970's, sugar has steadily declined because of economic competition elsewhere, making hundreds of thousands of acres of prime land available for farming.

James Nakatani heads the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. He says Hawaii is transitioning into a multi-crop state.

NAKATANI: Pineapples would be number one, and then sugar, macadamia nuts, seed corn, coffee, of course papayas and I think that flowers and foliage would be one of the major crops.

CHANG: Where does awa fit in?

NAKATANI: Awa is kind of up and coming, kind of the new kid on the block, and has a lot of potential.


Photo: Greg Yamamoto/The Honolulu AdvertiserJason Keoni Verity, the owner of Hale Noa,
the first awa bar to open in the U.S.
(Photo: Greg Yamamoto/The Honolulu Advertiser)

CHANG: Experts agree, the most effective way to consume awa is the traditional way: by drinking it. So two years ago, Jason Keoni Verity opened the first awa bar in the U.S., here in Honolulu.


CHANG: Verity wanted to create a place that would help nurture and perpetuate the Hawaiian language and culture, as well as community-based economic development.


CHANG: On any given night, local residents and tourists flock to the dimly lit awa bar called Hale Noa. But not everyone is accustomed to drinking the brew that looks like muddy water.

MAN: Oh, the taste is just awful. It's repugnant. But it does have a nice euphoric feeling to the whole mood of things.


MAN: For the effects mainly. It loosens up your spirits. It gets you kind of a good, like a buzz/high.

WOMAN: Like, the taste of it, it's one of those things you don't really want to think about. It's sort of a cross between Vicks Vapor Rub and mud, I think. (Laughs.)


CHANG: These days, the native plant that was once banned is also being used again in contemporary Hawaiian ceremonies. For many like Jason Keoni Verity, the revival of awa has become a symbolic part of a Hawaiian cultural renaissance that began in the '70's.

VERITY: The use, the preparation, and the service of awa is really kind of an expression of culture, expression of identity. It's something that connects our cultures, and, I believe, strengthens us in many ways as Pacific Island people.

CHANG: Meanwhile, people in other parts of the world are just beginning to discover the natural healing properties of this ancient plant. For Living On Earth, I'm Heidi Chang.





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