Have you ever wondered how a Kava plant grows from a tiny seed all the way to a mature, flowering plant? Well, you are in luck because this informative article covers every stage of the life cycle. From a tiny shoot, to taking cuttings, to growing a mature flowering Kava plant that’s ready for harvest; we’ll cover it all.
So, my first fun fact about Kava plants is that they went sterile a long, long time ago. That means they no longer produce seeds, no matter how many insects (or humans) try to pollenate their oddly beautiful flowers. All Kava propagates the next generation through cuttings. Various methods have been tried by Kava farmers all over the world. In my 20+ years of working with Kava plants, I’ve tried every method I could get my hands on. For me, though, the best way I’ve found to propagate new cuttings, is by placing them horizontally in some rich soil. Kava mostly grows on islands in topical areas, and islands almost all arose from volcanoes. This means rich, sandy soil. take a look at this second photo:
Notice how a short section of a Kava stem has been submerged about halfway into the rich, volcanic soil. The soil can be kept fairly moist, and needs to be kept out of direct sunlight. Believe it or not, despite Kava plants thriving in tropical climates, they prefer about 30% shade throughout their life cycle, and even more shade when they’re just babies.
Now it may have occurred to you to ask about that section of Kava. How do you know what section to take in order to make a new cutting? Well, that’s the easy part. Kava stems look a lot like bamboo, just knobbier. So, as a plant grows, the stem gets a bunch of very noticeable nodes as it goes. Depending on the variety, some plants may get really crooked with very short internodal lengths, and others may have long internodal lengths and remain quite straight throughout their life. Take a look at this photo, which shows the nodes of a Kava stem:
This variety is called “Mo’a” and it tends to have shorter internodal lengths, and can get quite knobby. Notice how the nodes are darker at the nodal point, and how it gets greener along the stem. This is one of the main ways of discerning different varieties of Kava. (If you look to the right, you can see the stem cutting that this plant is growing out of.) The plants take on these colorings very early on, but the colors can get much more intense as the plant matures.
Every cutting needs at least one node in order to produce a new plant, but I have found that at least 2 nodes are ideal. With two nodes on the cutting, what happens is one node will take on rooting, while the other node will sprout shoots. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but if I’m not working from just a few cuttings, and can afford to have each of them have 2 nodes, that seems to work out the best.
Take a look at the following photo; this shows a cutting that just a month old. This one was started from a very short node, and was placed into a well-drained box with just a few inches of soil. The box was then kept fairly wet, watered every day, and placed in partial sun. These plants were started on the Big Island of Hawaii, so the soil was taken directly from the ground.
This is a very happy and healthy Kava plant! Already, you can see its variety by its markings on the stem. It’s difficult to see from here, but this is a Nene variety of Kava. This Hawaiian cultivar is known for it’s mild flavor, and it’s lighter Kavalactone content.
Also notice that this cutting only has a single node on it. Since the stem was placed in the soil horizontally, the roots and the shoot grew from the same place. If you instead choose to plant it vertically, two nodes are almost required. Look at the following photo. See how these Kava shoots look in comparison. They were planted in the same soil, but with plenty of Perlite mixed in, and were placed horizontally instead.
The other common propagation method is to plant the stems vertically. This seems to
work best when the Kava plants are mature, and the stem length is at least several inches. Take a look at this baby on the left, as well as this more mature plant on the right. Both are Nene cultivars, and are from plants that are about 7 years old.
The one on the left was planted in an aeroponics cloner that uses intermittent sprays of water. This tends to make amazingly beautiful root bundles that transfer well to rich soil. If you choose this route of Kava propagation, make sure that the soil is very well drained, has plenty of Perlite or similar aerating medium, and plan to have a number of your new plants die off. The ones that survive, though, will make great Mother Plants for future generations of Kava.
The one on the right, if you look closely, has a tiny shoot just under my pinkie finger. This is where the new plant will sprout from, and the rest of the stem that I have in my hand will darken and dry out. They stay attached to the new plant though, as you can see in the picture of the Mo’a above. If this happens and you don’t like the dead stem sitting there, it IS safe to cut it anywhere above the new Kava stem that sprouted.
Here is one more example of a vertical planting of a new Kava plant. This was stuck directly in rich, well-drained soil, about 1″-2″ below the soil line. The node is left above the soil line to allow the new shoot to take hold. This one isn’t as happy as the others, as some of the new leaves died off, and new shoots began to sprout. I’ll let you know the fate of this plant.
As the Kava plants takes hold, there will likely be a sudden burst of new shoots emerging from each of the nodes. And, in many
instances, new shoots will emerge from those new shoots. Depending on the type of Kava plant you planted, longer internodal stem lengths will typically produce plants with long leaf stems as well, often getting so heavy that they will droop to the ground.
Here’s a great example of that on your right. An already established stem had a burst of new stems emerging from them. In fact, this particular Kava plant has stems and leaves coming from seemingly everywhere. Look closely, and you can see how the new leaf develops inside the stem of the existing leaf. The stem splits, and like a chicken from an egg, the new leaf works to break free, and then unfurl. You can see the same process in the photo below.
Next up are flowers. There’s really no need to spend a lot of time on this because flowers are quite irrelevant to the Kava plant. They’re other-worldy rather than pretty, they don’t have much of a scent to them, and they won’t produce seeds no matter how hard you try.
How the flowers emerge, though is quite interesting. When they first begin, they seem to have been “stuck” onto the plant, as if a Kava Elf came along in the middle of the night and pasted a bunch of Kava flowers in odd places. They start off really skinny, and always appear at the emergence point of Kava leaves. In this not-so-rare photo, it’s flowering just as a new leaf is emerging. The flowering cycle is also difficult to predict. This flower began around July. It’s the peak of summer, and this particular 6 month old plant flowered like crazy.
The flower keeps growing outward, staying quite slim, making more of a stick than a flower. Take a look at the image on the left. This is a flower in adolescence. This is another few weeks in, as the flowering cycle for Kava lasts a few months. I’ve tried everything I could think of (I know it’s in vain, but it was fun to try), to try to get seeds from a Kava plant, but it’s no different than trying to get water from a stone.
Usually, in flowering cycles, plants stop producing leaves, but not Kava. Throughout the flowering cycle, leaves continue to grow at an amazing pace. Before you know it, the flowers reach maturity, stick around for a while, and just die off.
I haven’t seen more than one flowering cycle per year, but the time of the cycle isn’t
always predictable. It often seems to depend on when I take cuttings, when they take root, and where in the various places I keep my Kava plants they are.
There are many choices for the first two years of your Kava plant’s life. As excited as you might be to have home-harvested Kava roots, it takes a minimum of two years for them to mature. Growing Kava plants is definitely an exercise in patience, and on many levels. There will probably be many times you will want to cut off a few roots to sample them, perhaps to make yourself and a friend a shell of Kava. But, the Kavalactone content, like a fine wine, takes time to materialize and develop. Two years is actually the minimum time for a plant to mature; a much better time (that will likely yield a higher Kavalactone content and a smoother taste) is four to five years. We try to harvest all of our roots at a minimum of 5 years of age.
During that growing cycle, there are many options for your Kava plant. What are most prized are what are called “lateral” roots. Those are the roots that grow along the ground. And, there are many ways to encourage the growth of those lateral roots. This part of the Kava plant is always seeking oxygen. One of the best ways to accomplish lateral growth is to have your Kava plant suspended slightly above the ground, or to have the main bundle of your Kava plant in a closed container. A closed container will keep out some air and as much light as possible.
You might initially think that a standard flower pot might do the trick, but that’s the catch; you’ve got to have a place for those lateral roots to go. So, one of the best containers we’ve found is a burlap sack. Just as we’re transplanting our new Kava plants, we fill half of a burlap sack with rich, well-aerated soil. Then, we place the baby Kava plant at the top, and cover it with an inch or two of soil. We take the rest of the burlap sack, and tie it very loosely around the stem of the plant. You can then simply place that plant and sack on the ground. (I usually dig out a very shallow hole for the sack to rest in.)
This allows you to water, but also allows for increased drainage. And then, as roots grow out and reach the edge of the burlap sack, they will poke through looking for both oxygen and Earth. They’re smart enough (or at least gravity helps them to be smart enough) to reach out from the sack and stretch towards the Earth. From my experience, these lateral roots also tend to grow extra thick, increasing the harvest of lateral roots, and giving you even more prized Kava than you may have had if you planted it directly into the soil.
This is where growing Kava plants turns into science if you’re interested in maximizing your root harvest.
Finally. You’ve started your plants from cuttings, you’ve seen them at least through two years of growth, and finally want to harvest some
kava roots. It is possible to save your Kava plant when you harvest, but no matter what method you chose at the start, you’ll only get a good amount of Kava if you sacrifice the plant.
The good news is that during that two year wait, you probably got really good at rooting new cuttings. Your plants sprang up to at least six feet tall, and you took many different cuttings, and made lots of new plants. We space planting about one year apart, so there is a continual supply of Kava year after year. Once Kava takes hold and is happy, it grows like crazy, and will last many years.
So, take a look at the image to the right. This is a mature Kava plant, about 5 years old. This is the part of the stump just above the ground, where there are a lot of lateral roots. Look at all the stems coming of off this stump to the right — those are the prized lateral Kava roots, although the chips that you get from the stump can often make for smoother drinking Kava.
The stump itself can get quite large. I’ve included the image on the left to give you a good idea of the size of the stump. Now for the bad news; Kava contains about 80% water. That means that if you harvest 100 lbs of root, you will only end up with about 20 lbs of dried root material. In the recent marketplace, with the explosion of Kava bars throughout Oceania, this little fact is causing a shortage of Kava. Growers get a lot more money for “green” Kava roots, which are non-dried, fresh Kava roots.
Drying your Kava roots can also take some time. Kavalactones start to break down at just 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can’t just place your newly-harvested Kava roots into an oven to dry . Typically the roots are dried in large enclosed shaded structures, with exhaust fans and often dehumidifiers. This allows for plenty of airflow, while providing enough heat to dry the roots. Roots can take quite some time to properly dry as well.
Kava roots are like sponges, and will absorb any moisture in the surrounding environment. What this means is that they are also susceptible to mold and fungus. Roots must constantly be rotated, not allowing any to stay in one position for too long.
Kava is definitely a plant of patience. I think it’s one of the most Zen plants there are, as every step of the process requires repetition and patience on many levels. We have to initially wait at least two years for our prize, so if you’re are someone who feeds on instant gratification, growing Kava might not be for you. But the prize, when it arrives is one of the sweetest I’ve ever known.
Settling in with a shell of Kava that you’ve grown yourself is a joy like few others. And I don’t doubt for one second that it’s my own bias, but I’ve never grown sweeter, better drinking Kava root than the ones I’ve planted, grown, and harvested myself in my own Private Reserve garden in the great outdoors.
– by Bryan Kava
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