How to Grow and Propagate Kava

Kava Flower © Keith CleversleyGrowing Kava Plants | How to Grow Kava

Unfortunately, 100% of all Kava seeds are sterile. That means the only way to grow Kava plants is by taking cuttings.  Fortunately, Kava plants propagate easily by cuttings, and after a little instruction and some practice, you can have your own Kava garden that will produce those treasured roots within just 2 years.  Even though Kava loves shade, it does grow to several feet tall in a short time, making it a very rewarding plant.

Take a look at the beautiful photo to the left.  That’s our Hawaiian Nene ‘Awa plant flowering in October of 2015. Thinking myself an amateur botanist, I’ve tried everything to seeds to grow with Kava plants, but it’s always been in vain.

Now, to propagate Kava, here is a general guide:

01. WHERE TO PLANT THEM: As with most things in life; location, location, location is just as important with Kava propagating. Kava, as you might guess, needs fertile, but loose soil to allow the roots to stretch their legs and maximize their size.  The soil shouldn’t be so loose that it can easily dry out, but make sure you’re not planting in anything hard-packed. Something that can really help regulate water is coconut husks; a common growing medium for hydroponics growers. mix it about 15% with your chosen soil, mix in about 10% garden-grade sand, and you’ll be super pleased.

Another key factor is shade! Despite Kava being happiest in super sunny, tropical regions of the world, Kava is best grown in partial shade.  This is especially true of young Kava cuttings; the sun can easily burn and dry out the leaves. So a simple shade structure with a shading material is a must, or a location that is not full sun would work equally as well.  Once plants are at least 3 years old, they can be moved into full sun to encourage maximum growth rates.

Image © Keith Cleversley
Image © Keith Cleversley

02. HOW TO CUT THEM: You’re going to need a relatively established mother plant, at least 2 years old, and at least 12 inches or taller, preferably with multiple shoots. You also need to make sure that the plant you’re going to take cuttings from has at least 2-5 nodes on the plant stem if you want to maximize the plant you’re taking cuttings from.  Plant nodes are the “knuckles” of the Kava plant, one of which you can see in the image to the right.  As a general guide, please ensure that the stem itself is at least the thickness of about 2 or 3 pencils or pens stuck together.

In my experience, and after speaking with several Kava farmers, the thicker the stem, the better chance you have of getting a successful rooting. Thicker stems are less likely to rot, as the stem gets woodier as time goes on.  Also, always try to use the more rot-resistant woody mid-portion of the stem.  By taking mid-stem, you’re leaving the lower part of the stem on the plant to then grow and flourish as if it were pruned to encourage growth.

Some varieties of Kava are thinner by nature, but experience and discussions all point to a good stem thickness having a direct correlation with successful propagation.

Either way, though, I’d be curious if others have had success with thinner stems or younger plants; I’ve managed to get younger plants to propagate, but I do find that better established plants make for stronger propagated plants as well.  I know what has worked for us over the past 20 years, and once I find something that works, I tend to stick with it.  This isn’t to say I don’t still experiment with every combination I can think of, but after countless failed experiments, this is what I do with all of our cuttings.

So, cuttings from Kava plants can be taken as single nodes at a time, but I’ve seen very successful plantings with 3 or more nodes. I’ll usually get 2 of the 3 nodes to grow shoots, whereas with single nodes, I can get as few as 2 in 6 to root.  Farmers I’ve spoken with all agree that taking cuttings with at least 2 nodes will usually develop faster than single node cuttings.

Kava Double Node
Image © Keith Cleversley

Always make sure that you take your cutting using a very clean, very sharp knife.  Being as sterile as possible will help ensure that no mold or fungus will ruin your chances of rooting before you even get started. And, don’t cut in the middle of the stem, between the nodes.  Since Kava loves its moisture, it’s critical to remain mindful of minimizing rot.  When a cutting has long stems extending out from the nodes or knuckles, you’re only increasing the chance of that part rotting, and ruining your chances of rooting. Cut close to the node, but not too close…trust what feels “right” to you.

03. HOW TO PLANT THEM: Again, there are a number of techniques that Kava farmers have tried to maximize the cuttings that “take”. In my experience, partly because of limited space, I’ve first rooted the cuttings completely in loose soil in our nursery space. Maintaining moisture is one of the keys in getting your cuttings to successfully root, and it’s much easier to maintain an adequate moisture level in controlled conditions.  I’ve found that a humidity dome isn’t necessary, but I have found better success, at least in the rooting stage, when I’ve added a humidity dome or tent.

When you place the cutting in the soil, plant it horizontally, so the eye at the knuckle is pointing up. If you look at the drawing above, the large circle is the eye.  That’s the place where new shoots are most-likely to emerge.  I also completely cover the cutting, so no part of it is sticking above the soil.  But again, I make sure that the soil is loosely placed on top of the cutting, rather than packed down.

My favorite soil is potting soil, partly because it’s sterilized.  When blended with coconut husks specifically made for planting are great for moisture regulation. My “secret” Kava rooting blend is 75% potting soil, 15% coconut husks, and 10% sand.  Remember that the richest potting soil is the best for Kava plants trying to root.

After a few weeks of patient care, you should see new shoots emerging from the soil! Congratulations!

04. HOW TO CARE FOR THEM: Getting a cutting to root is most of the challenge of propagating Kava. But, equally as important is getting that cutting to flourish once you’ve successfully gotten it to root. Always remember that young Kava plants love their shade, and although adequate sun is absolutely required, make sure none of your cuttings are exposed to direct sunlight, even when they’re safely tucked underneath some loose topsoil. I use a 30% shade cloth, but I’ve spoken with some nurseries who use 50% shade cloth for their plants.  I’m a little impatient, so I always use 30%, but a better, more patient method would be to use 50% for the young cuttings, until they root and establish themselves, moving to a 50% shade cloth after that.

It’s fun to experiment once you get a good mother plant, so if anyone has experience with different levels of shade, I’m all ears.

Also, make sure your soil stays moist without water-logging it.  Young Kava roots can be quite finicky, and they can drown easily.  Make sure whatever pots you place your cuttings into drains easily.  My favorite starter pots for cuttings are coconut husk pots.  They’re a little more espensive, and they’re not reusable, but they do allow for proper drainage, they allow oxygen to seep into the soil, and they can be placed directly into the place they’re going to grow for the next number of years.

05. ONCE THEY’RE GROWING: Once you’ve got your new Kava plants established, it’s time to transplant them to their permanent home! For best results, make sure your new Kava plants are at least 12″ tall before transplanting them. Kava often loses battles with weeds, so it’s important to clear whatever space you’re moving your plants to of all weeds.  A light spraying of natural weed killer prior to transplanting your young plants is acceptable if there is a weed problem where you’re moving the plants to. But, know that Kava can be very sensitive to some weed killers, so be as sparing as possible.

Remember that moisture, moisture, moisture with proper drainage is the key. When placing the plants into their new holes, it’s a good idea to water just the holes prior to placing the plants in them.  And know that it takes time for the roots to establish themselves in their new home.  Don’t expect vigorous growth for at least 1-2, and sometimes 3 months after transplanting.

If the soil is quite different than the soil you grew the cuttings in, it’s not unusual for transplanted plants to lose their leaves. Don’t fret, have patience, and wait for new sets of shoots and leaves to appear.

Speaking of, planting the young plants on the peak of a 12″ tall mound has proven to be quite effective.  This requires more care with watering because the water drains away very easily, but the ridge has shown to markedly improve root growth, sometimes by a large amount.  This is probably why Kava is often grown on hillsides, which allow for great drainage.

When it comes to water, as long as you have proper drainage, I’ve never seen my plants complain of too much water.  Just like our Mitragyna speciosa plants, the more water we give them, the happier they are, especially on really hot days.  Too wet is just as bad as too dry for Kava, though, so don’t douse your plants with water just because you want to get them growing as fast as possible. It’s a balance and an art, and the best advice I can give you is to listen to your plants.  They will always tell you what they need and don’t need by the shape of their leaves, the color of the leaves, and so on.

Look elsewhere on this website for tips on harvesting your Kava plants once they’re reached maturity. After all that work, and years of dedication to your plants, one of the most satisfying parts of the entire process is that first shell of freshly-pounded Kava root.  The effects are quite similar to powdered root, but the taste of freshly-pounded roots is vastly different than a powdered, dried root.

And, fresh roots can be frozen and kept somewhat indefinitely.  Please offer any personal experiences below; I’d love to hear about your growing and cultivating experiences with Kava plants!


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