On a late 2015 trip to the Hawaiian Islands, I had the pleasure of experiencing a cultivar of Kava unlike any other I had experienced previously. This variety was called Hiwa (pronounced HEE-vuh), and I had the pleasure of experiencing this incredible cultivar over a full 2-day period with a native Hawaiian who grew it, harvested it, and prepared it for us. This farmer grows almost exclusively Hiwa, and gave many wonderful and detailed reasons why this is. I soon found out for myself as this Kava experience was unlike any other I’ve ever had.
Danny’s farm is located in a remote area of the island of Oahu. Roads gave way to dirt roads, houses turned to farmhouses and then to simple structures, open to the outside air, with jutting red posts in the corners straining to hold up silvery tin roofs. One of the farms I visited had several self-built buildings that began as small shacks that grew larger and more intricate as time went on, giving way to a beautiful home that blended in with the jungle landscape.
The place I stayed in was in a guest house that was built by the landowners. The 2 room space doubled as an art studio for the landowner, as 2 sets of damp and tattered mattresses lay heavy in the shadowed corners of this jungle abode. There was no glass in the windows; only screens stapled to the wood framing, to keep out the mosquitos that seemed gleeful to have my pasty white American blood to feast upon. I don’t always feel like I’m in the jungle, but here, even though we’re not too far from “civilization”, the air feels thick, almost palpably salty, growing thicker as the heat of midday slowly rolls in.
Soon, we settled in, ate some food, and then were given a tour the Hiwa plants throughout the property. Hiwa, also called “Black Kava”, has deep purple stems, propping up the usual beautiful, heart-shaped and silky Kava leaves. I was stunned by how deeply purple the stems were, which looked jet black in anything other than direct sunlight. Take a look at the photo to the right; Hiwa definitely has a look all it’s own. I immediately felt a deep reverence and respect for the plants that towered above my head, with their spindly, knotty nodes as thick as my wrists. These plants were over 10 years old, and I was told that these particular plants came from cuttings that can be traced back to ceremonial use by Hawaiian priests. Whether or not that’s actually true, I like the imagery and the possibility just the same.
It’s also easy to see why this particular cultivar was associated with magic and ritual in Ancient Hawaii. But it didn’t end with just looks.
Once we completed the tour and I took enough pictures to satisfy my desire to get at least one good photo, we were given more information about this curious Hawaiian Hiwa Kava, originally named for the location it comes from. According to our host, this cultivar was reserved only for strict ceremonial use, and typically only by kahuanas or chiefs. I particularly liked the fact that this was used in ritual, and in all my studies of ancient Hawaiian culture, I found very little documented evidence of Kava being used ritualistically or for Shamanic purposes such as vision questing. I was informed that Hiwa was most certainly a true plant medicine, and was used for traveling by high priests quite regularly.
I couldn’t help wondering if the possible use of Kava on Easter Island had characteristics similar to Hiwa.
One of the curious aspects of Hiwa is it’s unique ability to open the Head Pico, similar to the Head Chakra in the Chinese system of medicine. Speaking of, I was told there are 3 main Picos in Hawaiian culture; the head, belly, and genital picos. Pico literally translated means “belly button” or “umbilical cord”, but also can refer to the 3 chakra-like system of Hawaiian energy channels.
It opens the head pico by providing waking visions when in a trance state, and for imparting vivid dreams later once sleep finds its way to the priest. Hiva is not a particularly sleepy Kava, though, and I found that it was simultaneously energizing and deeply relaxing at the same time. I was told that Hiva was most definitely used to help connect priests to the spirit world, and was certainly the main cultivar used for this purpose.
Speaking of, as darkness fell, we were readied for the Kava ceremony. It was important that we disconnected from the internet, from our computers and iPhones, and simply sat with the jungle. We were coaxed into a state that feels so natural, but is often a million miles away in my California home. As our focus shifted to the jungle around us, it was astonishing how many creatures began to announce their presence and how many were staking out their territory. The only other time I felt anything similar to this is when my wife and I ventured into primary Amazonian rainforest for as authentic Ayahusaca experience. It was truly a magical moment of realization and awakening for me.
I’m always curious about how authentic Kava is prepared. I’ve never had the courage to have someone chew some roots and spit them into a bowl like Hawaiians used to do, but something that makes more than a subtle difference for me is when Kava drinks are made from fresh roots instead of dried and powdered root. Having attended a Kava Festival a couple of weeks before, the Hawaiian Kava Council offered samples of several varieties of ‘Awa at the festival. They offered 2 versions of each variety they offered; one was made from fresh root, and the other was the same variety made from freshly dried and powdered root.
The difference in flavor between the two was remarkable. But what moved me more was how different the effects of freshly-squeezed roots are to powdered root. Now, I’m no pushover, and unless I have an experience myself that is ineffable, I tend to doubt just about everything initially. So, I have long-believed that there couldn’t be much of a difference between freshly-ground Kava root and freshly-dried Kava root that’s freshly-ground. After all, all the drying does is remove the large amount of water from the Kava plant. Since Kava is about 80% water, and dried roots contain about 12% water content, I figured there couldn’t be anything more than a subtle difference between the two.
Wow, was I wrong.
Even at the festival, the flavor of the fresh extracted root was noticeably more — not earthy or “planty”, but more natural, perhaps. There was a more woody or “rooty” flavor to the dried and ground Kava. It wasn’t a big difference, but it was enough to have a definite preference for the fresh Kava root.
Anyway, back to the Kava ceremony. As we imbibed in folklore and tall tales of ancient Hawaiians, I was stunned at the depth of the spiritual and Shamanistic world that was being conveyed to me. This, by the way, was taking place as our first shell of Hiva Kava was scooped out of a large wooden poi bowl, hand-turned from koa wood. I couldn’t help wondering if Kava bowls (called XXXXXXXXX), had been fashioned after the simple poi bowl, but that would remain a mystery.
I’m not new to Kava drinking, nor am I new to fresh Kava extractions either. But it could have been the setting, it could have been my relatively empty stomach, but this Hiwa Kava took a very definite hold of me in a way I hadn’t quite experienced before. I didn’t feel a heavy body sensation, but felt a very cerebral effect start to weave its way into my consciousness. The jungle around me took on a beautifully crisp glow. Things seemed to pulse and flow in a rhythm that I hadn’t noticed before. The insects and frogs chirping away seemed to speak a language that I could almost understand. I could feel my inhibitions lowering, as the discussion took on an intensity that surprised a seasoned teaching plant explorer as myself.
As the second shell took hold, I didn’t feel that different from how I feel at the opening rounds of an Ayahuasca experience. Colors became a little more saturated, and I began to feel less like an intruder, and more at one, and at peace with the jungle around me. I felt like I was somehow blending in more than I had ever felt before. At the same time, I felt a sense of compassion for a people I knew so little about. I was taught Hawaiians were “heathens” that needed civilizing. But here, out in the jungle, with creatures and a human making such incredible music around me, I realized that the Hawaiian culture was most-likely a deeply spiritual people who were in harmony with the island world around them.
Yes, it could have been the Kava talking, but this experience further cemented my interest in discovering the true Hawaiian history and culture, some of which I outline in two articles on that very subject; one called “The Lost History of Hawaii and Kava” and “Kava and the Howlies”.
As the evening wore on, and stories were told of a people who held great reverence for their gods and their people and their lands, several more shells of Kava passed my way and found their way into spaces I didn’t know I had within me. Eventually, the conversation turned to the dreams that Hiwa Kava is supposed to facilitate. Being an avid lucid dreamer most of my life, and taking a personal interest in herbs that help induce dreaming (see www.DreamHerbs.com), this aspect of the Kava experience enticed me perhaps most of all.
Never fearful of violent or scary dreams, I nonetheless wondered if there was a common thread with dreams that the Hiwa might induce. Although there were several tales of dark dreams, there were others that were playful in nature. From what I was told, Hiwa was mostly ingested with a specific purpose and intent, and never recreationally. Whether it was to foretell a future outcome of a plethora of events, to connect with dead ancestors, or to decipher an illness, Hiva Kava and recreation seemed to be mutually incompatible.
I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty, as I had no specific intent other than to learn about and experience this particular cultivar. But my host reassured me that the fact that my intent was pure, and that I may someday write about or share my experience with this ancient and sacred plant, was intent enough. Either way, it’s difficult to not feel reverence for this plant and its people when the night sky dappled with stars and a jungle laden with squeaks and chirps and squawks and howls enveloped and surrounded me.
Now, some Kava can make me sleepy, but whether it was the excitement of the day, the stories that now danced in my head, or the coolness of the jungle floor, I wasn’t feeling particularly sleepy from the Kava that firmly had my entire consciousness and body in it’s gentle grasp. But, a significant intent of this particular evening, was to experience the vivid dreams that are said to accompany Hiva ingestion. Something I could attest to, even at this point in the evening, was the visual nature of this cultivar. That, in itself, already made this experience worth it.
The fire dimmed as the coals burned the last of their wooden fuel, and the coolness of the night slinked in and wrapped itself around me. It was time to lay down to see if sleep might find me, hopefully transforming my sleeping reality into one more vivid than my waking one. As we crawled onto the bare mattress, checking first for the worms I was warned sometimes take up residence in them (but like the dark dampness and not the taste of human flesh), the din of the jungle seemed to carve out a pathway between the ceremony site and our sleeping space.
But, soon after our movement ceased, courageous creatures once again began their three hundred and sixty degree symphony around us, framing the evening in sound. I was relaxed, but exhilarated, and between twilight visions and the sounds of the jungle, the night passed in stops and starts. I don’t think I was ever in a cycle of sleep long enough to allow for R.E.M. dreaming, and decided, sometime in the middle of the night, to write this passage you’re reading now.
Morning broke sooner than I expected, but just in time to satiate my grumbling belly. The Kava from the night before filled me up for a few hours, but decided to work its way through me slowly, triggering several trips to the outhouse in the middle of the night. Something that took me by surprise were how the walls moved as I flashed my light in an effort to illuminate my path. Geckos, chameleons and other insects seemed to like the inside of the guest house better than the outside, as they all scattered the moment my light hit them. I thought perhaps they may even have been sleeping in the bed with us, but I left that investigation for my return.
The day mostly consisted of learning more techniques to grow Kava, other ways to propagate it, and other methods of harvesting it. Being in the business for years, I’ve seen my share of Kava planting to harvesting and beyond (some of which I finally wrote about in an article called “How to Grow and Propagate Kava” elsewhere on this website), but every farmer has his own techniques for propagation, growing, cultivating, harvesting, and processing this ancient plant and its roots. Our host used raised beds, a technique I have yet to see up close or try for our own Kava.
I was amazed at how much easier harvesting Kava is from raised beds. Roots are freed much more easily, it’s much easier to selectively harvest the roots to preserve as much of the existing plants as possible, and it’s easier to be selective about what exactly and how much you want to harvest. A single mature Kava plant that’s 6′ – 9′ tall, will typically provide about XXXXXXXXXXX of fresh Kava root. We harvested only a portion of one mature plant, and took several cuttings to prepare for rooting.
I plan to write about this experience in “How to Harvest Kava” which may or may not be complete at this time.
Sooner than I wanted, night fell upon us once again. It was a hot day, and despite draping ourselves with long sleeved shirts and a sheet of bug spray, the heat is the most draining aspect of tropical regions of the world. This excited me today, though, because I was hoping that my long day in the sun and my lack of sleep the night before would be fertile ground for vivid dreams this evening.
And dream I did.
But first, this evening’s Kava ceremony: It was similar to last night’s, but I understood now why our host wanted us to experience two nights of ‘Awa instead of just one. This evening, we were already acclimated to the heat, to the jungle, and to that state of mind that took even me, an experienced Zen practitioner, time to settle into. This evening began much more naturally, as little to no instruction was given, and the Kava ceremony itself began wordlessly. All the players knew their parts, and I was enthralled with the dance we all knew we were engaging in silently, effortlessly, and with quiet excitement.
The shells found their way to my brain just as quickly, and this evening, I didn’t even think about how many shells passed my lips. From the way I was feeling, I guessed it may have been about 6 or more, but there was no point in trying to count, especially in that ineffable moment of reverie. Stories were shared a little more openly, some personal information was shared, and walls broke down for a few hours as we were just people sharing an ancient plant that was used to bring people together. I can be overly sensitive, but this evening made me want to cry at its simplicity, at it’s stark and silent beauty, where everything seemed to be in perfect alignment and perfect harmony.
As we were directed to look upwards towards the moon, we were privy to a natural occurrence called a “moonbow”. I’d never heard of such a thing, but there it was, as clear as day; a beautiful ring around the room, replete with the colors of the rainbow. I didn’t feel the need to attach any meaning to this lovely event, and let the evening continue to entice us into its silvery glow.
The fire whimpered and smoked as an offering of Kava was once again made to the gods, this time squeezing the glowing embers from the few remaining coals. It was time for bed again, and this time, my weary body couldn’t wait to get horizontal. We all hugged briefly, said our XXXXXXXXXX’s, and we once again made our way to our inviting, bare mattresses.
I don’t know if it was a little cooler this evening or if I was running a little cooler, but everything felt a little more comfortable than it did the previous eve. This time, sleep found its way to me almost as quickly as the time it took me to tuck myself in. And, almost as quickly, a series of dreams took hold of me throughout the night. None of them became lucid, and they were more narratives than they were first-person experiences, but they were some of the most vivid I had ever experienced.
Not surprisingly, most of my dreams were related to Kava. Whether it was variations on the Kava I was looking at, photographing, tasting, drying, growing, pruning, harvesting, or cultivating, just as my days were dominated with Kava, so were my dreams.
I wasn’t expecting anything prophetic from my dreams, but I was perhaps hoping for a spiritual element to my dreams. As with any true teacher plant, one needs to get familiar with the plant, to literally build up a relationship with the plant as we not only learn its effects, but as we grow more accustomed to those effects. When teaching others about teaching plants and plant medicines, I often refer to the initial stages of these kinds of experiences as the Las Vegas aspect of the plant. It’s easy to be wowed by the shiny lights and shimmering displays, but those are only the distractions. Once we are familiar with that aspect of a teacher plant, and allow it to pass through us without mention, that’s when we open ourselves to a true spiritual journey with a plant teacher.
The Kava felt no different. My dreams were so laden with my subjective visions of my recent experiences, and I was so focused on those experiences as the narratives swept me away throughout the night, there wasn’t room for much else. But, the experience was ebulliently tangible, it made it vividly clear that if I chose to continue working with this plant in this way, that some amazing things would begin to reveal themselves to me.
Just as my experiences with Peyote within the Native American Church, felt very different from my experiences with Ayahuasca with a Curandero in the depths of the Amazon, this Kava experience felt as though it seamlessly fit into the same family. Whether these sacred plants tap into a specific part of our psyche, I can’t be certain, but there is a commonality to each of these experiences that unites them. I wasn’t the least bit disappointed, and looked forward to devoting more than just two days to this incredible new teacher in my ever-evolving spiritual journey.
Would I drink Hiva Kava daily?
Do I recommend drinking this Black ‘Awa every day?
Was the experience throughly enjoyable?
It certainly was.
Did it get scary at all?
Not for a second, but I do have a newfound respect for this plant and the unique power and personality of the different varieties. I’m content to continue drinking my Noble Kava root from Vanuatu daily, with doses of Hawaiian Kava (in much shorter supply), interspersed. Although I now see why Hawaiian varieties are thought to have such distinct personalities to them.
Speaking of, my favorite daily drinking combination continues to be Hawaiian Mo’a mixed with Nene, or our own super fresh Borogu from Vanuatu with a 4-2-6 or 2-4-6 Kavalactone lineup.
I want to take a moment to offer a very sincere thanks to all of the forces that brought this experience, and especially to my Hawaiian host, who opened up his private space to me and my wife for so much time. I’m thankful to all the other Hawaiian farmers and nursery owners who trusted me enough to give me some time to discuss Kava and Hawaiian culture. I’m now even more painfully aware of the distrust that Hawaiians typically have for the howlie, and only want to respect that disconnect, while being as gracious and informed and respectful a guest as possible to hopefully do my small part in mending some very bitter fences.
Kava has definitely been a central uniter in this regard, and as I continue to revisit the Hawaiian islands, I’m hoping that my connections and my knowledge of Hawaiian history continue to evolve with me. I already feel more spiritually awake than before this trip started, I have a much deeper compassion for the plight of the Hawaiian people, and I have been moved to study as much as I can about a culture that was almost wiped out by Western diseases by 1900, while having their Kingdom taken from them by the United States in the 1950’s.