Cultural Keystone Species: Piper Methysticum

Stepping off the plane into the humidity of Hawaii, we arrived at someplace that resembled more of a tiki village than an airport. Somehow, tension in my body dissipated, an experience I would never have associated with an airport. The lack of friction between my sandals and the rainkissed ground facilitated a fall that almost appeared like an intentional lunge, except for the evidence that I clumsily scraped my toe while regaining my balance.

The only piece of advice I had been given before coming to Hawaii was to steer clear of cuts because of the prevalence of staph infections, but here I was, immediately raw, exposed, and vulnerable. Friends insisted that I keep the wound protected and to apply either goldenseal powder or fresh turmeric. Though the phytochemistry of both plants are different, both have essentially evolved to protect themselves against invading pathogens, an adaptation that our own species has flourished from.

From what i understand, this ability for plants to protect themselves is linked to their secondary compounds. Simply put, plants have primary and secondary compounds. Primary compounds in plants correlate with things like metabolism and basic function to keep the plant alive, but it has not always been widely accepted in the scientific community that secondary compounds have an ecological purpose. Secondary compounds include the curcumin found in turmeric that is widely known for its antiviral, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties. But it also includes things like the sedative and relaxing properties of other plants that I have encountered.

It’s easy to imagine why a plant might produce these properties for its own protection from invading pathogens, but I wondered about plant constituents that impact the human brain.

What could be the ecological function of plant properties that are stimulating, sedative, that relax the nervous system, or that produces a feeling of euphoria? There is not a consensus about this question, which leaves a lot of room for imagining.

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After driving down a coastal Hawaiian road in the most timeless meander, I found myself at what locals called “Uncle Robert’s.” The main hub was comprised of a diversity of local entrepreneurs selling locally crafted food & art and to the left of me appeared something like another tiki-hut, but as we moved closer, it was clear that this was a kava bar. Carl, a playful character showed me a small ritual or prayer he does before drinking the kava.

I sipped on the bitter and earthy root extraction, and within a few moments, I felt a refreshing presence in my body and the world around me. I was relaxed, but not drowsy. For someone who is constantly challenged by social situations with my own species, this moment made being human feel so easy. The world in which I was engulfed felt increasingly like kin.

Kava bars are a relatively recent phenomenon, springing up just in the 21st century.

This was not my first encounter with kava and oddly enough, despite this plant thriving in tropical regions, my first meeting of this plant was at a kava bar in North Carolina.In my own Kava bar at home, there is a map of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, where many believe the plant originated.  

Kava, Piper Methysticum, or ‘Awa in Hawaii was introduced nearly 1,500 years ago by Polynesian voyagers. This plant gained such a bold prominence in the culture that it was integral to all aspects of life. In ceremony, Kava was a tool for communicating with the spirit world, but it also helped to navigate the social and political realms. The significance of this plant is so strong that some use the term, “cultural keystone species,” as a reference to its cultural salience, as it collaboratively molded the identity of these people. With colonization of Hawaii in the 1820s, the suppression of what Christian missionaries deemed to be “Pagan” resulted in a decline of kava usage, traditional knowledge, and ultimately culture. Though the link between humans and kava has been irreversibly transformed, this relationship is still alive.

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Ecopsychologists see environmental and psychological imbalances as having a common root, which is our severed connection to our larger ecological community. As the multilayered process of human development continues, not only are ecosystems being degraded, but our psyches also suffer. There is research to show that living in an urbanized world correlates with higher levels of stress. So with the rise of this kind of development, there is a simultaneous rise in the need to alleviate anxiety. Anxiety disorders are considered the most common mental illness in the U.S, affecting 18.1% of people every year. This percentage does not account for the numbers of people seeking alternatives to mainstream treatment, like herbal medicine to support well-being and reduce stress. Kava’s most alluring psychoactive compounds are a group of kavalactones that have been widely studied for its potential to calm the body and mind. Though not considered to be endangered, rapidly shifting Earth is increasing the demand and popularity of this plant. Either way, this bond between Kava and humans is one that deserves recognition before it’s too late. Our own species’ entanglement with this plant is so strong, that the plant itself is sterile, meaning it no longer produces seeds and depends on humans for propagation. Essentially, humans and Kava have co-evolved together.

So back to the question about why plant constituents can influence our brains or nervous systems. Could it be said that medicines that allow humans to cope with stress allow for greater diversity in our own species? Without being able to cope with a world that is overwhelmingly engulfed in crisis after crisis, it’s possible that a more tolerant and insensitive kind of human would dominate. Perhaps that is where we are-in a desperate leap to save not just the life around us, but to rekindle and support sensitivity in our own species.

 

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