Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photos by Joshua McCullough
Ed Johnston’s verdant farm on the North Hilo coast looks more like a landscaped garden than a commercial nursery. Here at his Alia Point ‘Awa Nursery, samples of the thirteen surviving Hawaiian cultivars of ‘awa all grow scattered along a mountain stream. They are bush-size plants with jointed stems reminiscent of bamboo — except that these stems, unlike straight up-and-down bamboo, tend to twist and branch, and they support heart-shaped leaves. The leaves look pretty much the same in all varieties of ‘awa (also known as kava); it’s the plants’ stems and each cultivar’s unique combinations of chemicals called kavalactones that distinguish them.
The ancient Hawaiians were well aware of those differences and put the thirteen cultivars to varying medicinal uses. The Mo‘i cultivar, for instance, has relatively straight stems, so dark that they’re often almost black; often offered ceremonially to the gods, Mo‘i also treated headaches and urinary problems. ‘Awa Nene has green internodes—the sections of stem between the joints—that are heavily mottled with purple spots; in old times, Johnston notes, “It was used for calming upset babies.” Hawaiians traditionally used Papa ‘Ele‘ele, which has short, stout, dark purple-colored internodes, to treat urinary conditions.
When Mark Twain visited Hawai‘i in 1866, he saw ‘awa for sale in the local markets. “It is said that but for the use of this root, the destruction of the people in former times by certain diseases would have been far greater than it was,” he wrote. Being Twain, he also noted he’d heard skepticism about those claims. Indeed, though its patterns of consumption have varied widely in the last two centuries, the question of ‘awa’s relationship to human health is still alive and well today—and in labs as far away as Minnesota and Aachen, Germany, promising new discoveries are now being made.