Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
*Kava [Proto-Polynesian, from Proto Oceanic *kawaRi through Proto Central Pacific *kawa]

Kawa ~ Kawakawa


Macropiper excelsum (Piperaceae)

Analogous inherited name: Kawariki (see separate page)

IKawakawa is a shrub of the forest interior in the North Island and northern South Island, and can grow to about 6 metres tall. In appearance it is very similar to the tropical kava, and it has analogous medicinal and narcotic properties, so it is not at all surprising that it was accorded the names kawa and kawakawa in Aotearoa. The leaves have of the two species have a similar appearance, with the veins radiating out from where the petiole (leaf-stalk) joins the leaf, but the heart-shaped leaves of the kawakawa are smaller than those of the tropical kava, and relatively wider, with a longer leaf-stalk (on mature plants, kawakawa leaves can reach about 10 cm long and 12 cm wide, whereas relatively more tapered kava leaves can reach about 30 x 23 cm, but the petioles are short, up to about 3 cm). There are separate male and female inflorescences on erect spikes, sometimes a tree will have flowers mostly of one or the other sex. The plants are very frost tender -- in the severe winter of 2009 we lost a strong, 10 year-old tree but fortunately some seedlings in more sheltered spots survived unscathed.

In Aotearoa kawakawa became a sacred tree, with many religious, cultural and medicinal attributes and uses. Kawakawa branchlets were (and are still) used in sprinkling water in purification rituals, and worn at funerals as symbols of death. (The rangiora, Brachyglotis repanda, is the corresponding symbol of life.) The word kawa itself has taken on the meaning of the rubrics and the ceremonies themselves for the opening of houses, completion of a waka, baptism of a child, and marae protocol generally, and is also a generic term for sprigs of plants used for sprinkling or other purposes in various rituals. As in several other Eastern Polynesian languages, kawa is also a general term for an unpleasant taste, either sour or bitter.

The root of the tropical kava (Piper methysticum) is perhaps the most important part of the plant, from which the traditional drink is brewed, but the roots of the kawa (Macropiper excelsum) do not appear to have been used for this or any other notable purpose. Andrew Crowe notes that the berries are small but very sweet, perhaps the tastiest of native fruit, although the hard seeds are generally spat out -- however, he thinks that these may in fact have culinary uses like those of the pepper vine (Piper nigrum). He also quotes an early writer who claimed approvingly that the berries were stimulant and an aphrodisiac.

The steamed leaves and decoctions of the leaves and bark of Macropiper exelsum -- i.e. the shrub known as kawa or kawakawa -- were used for treating a wide range of skin disorders, and poultices of the leaves were also used for treating toothaches and headaches. Apparently nineteenth century European settlers also used it for flavouring beer. Others used the dried leaves as a substitute for tea. Maori drank similar decoctions as a tonic -- water infused with kawakawa was generally regarded as a "blood purifier", and some found it excellent for asthma or bronchitis. Kawakawa was also widely thought to be a remedy for venereal disease (as were various spcies of Piper in other parts of the Pacific).

One anonymous source quoted by Murdoch Riley implies that the mild narcotic or anaesthetic effect of infusions of the leaves in hot water was magnified with fatal results for insect pests if the leaves were ignited: "The leaves burnt in a room will kill mosquitoes, and will also render human beings insensible." (Herbal, p.201). This kind of fumigation was also said to keep rats and mice away from kumara pits. An overdose of kawakawa leaves will kill rats, but certain insects are addicted to them: the leaves are often riddled with holes, although seldom devoured completely, so perhaps the marauders pay a price for their pleasure!

A leaf or sprig placed underneath a woman or between her breasts prior to intercourse was thought to help ensure conception. The one mention of kawakawa leaves in Nga Möteatea refers to this quality.

'Kei whea taku heru?'
'Tënä ka riro i te tähae pöriro,
Tïraumoko nei, moenga hau nei,
Moenga rau kawakawa nei.'
'Where is my comb?'
'Verily it has been taken by a bastard thief,
The fatherless one, conceived in the open air,
Conceived haphazardly on a leafy couch.'

[NM Part 2, pp. 88-9]
This very ancient song recounts part of a saga concerning happenings in Hawaiiki during the period just before the settlement of Aotearoa. The "bastard thief" was Ruatapu, one of the sons of the hero Uenuku, and who, having been disowned by his father, plotted revenge against his older brother, Kahutia-te-rangi. Uenuku treasured the comb which came from a whale bone fashioned by Whatitata (for whom this song was composed), and in the song Kahutia-te-Rangi, Uenuku's older and unquestionably legitimate son, notices that the comb is missing. In the Mäori text, the "leafy couch" is specified as consisting of kawakawa leaves. This would have made conception almost inevitable, and its mention implies that it was intended in this case, but the fact that it happened in the open air, so there was no takapau wharanui (the carefully-woven sleeping mat, the symbol of legitimacy) beneath the couple, implied that as far as the father was concerned this was nonetheless a somewhat casual affair and the offspring would be inferior in status to those of more regular unions.


Kawakawa Kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum)

PPN: *Kava Piper methysticum (Piperaceae)
Mäori Reflex: Kawa, kawakawa (Macropiper escelsum [Piperaceae])

Tongan: Kava (Piper methysticum [Piperaceae])
Niuean: Kava (P. methysticum)
Samoan: 'ava(P. methysticum)
Rapanui: Kava ("bitter tasting")
Tahitian: 'Ava(P. methysticum)
Marquesan: Kava, 'ava (P. methysticum)
Hawaiian: 'awa(P. methysticum)
Tuamotuan: Kava(P. methysticum)
Rarotongan: Kava (P. methysticum [Piperaceae]; Kawakawa Pittosporum rarotongense [Pittosporaceae])

Note: In Mäori, Rarotongan and Tuamotuan kawa or kava also has the sense of "bitter", as in Rapanui, which is not the case for most Western Polynesian languages. The fern Blechnum fluvatile is also sometimes referred to as kawakawa in Mäori; however this appears to simply be a phonological alternation with its other name,kiwakiwa, thus unconnected with PCP *kava.

Closeup of kawakawa leaves.

Young kava plant (Piper methysticum)

Kawakawa Young plant of Macropiper excelsum.

Further information: There is a wealth of information about the medicinal and ritual uses of kawakawa, with many references to other works, in Murdoch Riley's Herbal (pp. 195-206). The NZ Plant Conservation Network's database has several pages with photographs information about the species and its several named varieties: var excelsum (the most widespread form),var peltatum f. delangei (found on the Three Kings), var peltatum f. peltatum (found on the Poor Knights, Great Barrier, and some other offshore islands), var psittacorum (found on the Kermadecs, Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands), and the closely related species Macropiper melchior (found on the Three Kings Islands and now widely cultivated in New Zealand gardens). There is a Maori web site (aoteamoana.co.nz) which has a page with instructions for preparing kawakawa for medicinal use, from the Matauranga Kura Taiao Project. The University of Otago Medical School web site also has a page summarising the traditional medical uses of kawakawa, with further references, and there is a brief summary of information about the plant with some excellent photographs of the inflorescence on the University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences web site.

Photographs: The photograph of Piper methysticum was taken in the Limahuli botanical garden, Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii; the others are from Te Mära Reo. All were taken by R.B.


Hue flower

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand
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