When my grandmother made ravioli from scratch, took me mushroom collecting in the New England woods, and grew parsley, tomatoes and basil, she was carrying on traditions from the “old country.” But the point of this article has more to do with my grandfather’s wine, derived every fall from grapes.
They could have been Concord grapes, I don’t really know. I do remember the stacked cases with colorful labels, simply processed. The clusters were washed with a garden hose, passed through a grinder (stems and all), and allowed to ferment before pressing and storing in rich smelling oak barrels. The connection here is not just about my ancestral culture, but about the connection between plants and people. It’s a metaphor for how we impact plants and how they impact us.
There is a strong association between culture and wine. The same goes for hops (beer) and, increasingly, cannabis and society. Michael Pollan eloquently presented compelling stories of the human-plant dynamic in his 2001 book The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, suggesting that some plants have assured their continued survival by appealing to basic human desires. I don’t need to ascribe plants with intentional designs on us. The parallel I wish to draw is simpler and can be seen both with grape (Vitis spp.) and kava (Piper methysticum).
If you have ever toured a winery, looked over a wine list, or considered a glass of red or white, you may have noticed that wine can come from a wide variety (technically cultivars) of grapes: Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec, Shiraz. There are hundreds if not thousands of grape cultivars that have been selected by humans. The impact between the grape plant and people goes both ways. With clear cultural roots, wine eclipses kava unless you are from Fiji, Vanuatu, or other places where kava is cultural.
Over 100 distinct kava cultivars have been created as kava has defined the cultures that have embraced it. Vincent LeBot’s 1992 book Kava: The Pacific Drug (retitled in 1997 as Kava: The Pacific Elixir: The Definitive Guide to Its Ethnobotany, History and Chemistry) clearly demonstrated the impact of kava on local communities, noting its daily use—included all social rituals. Offered to visiting dignitaries, it has been consumed by President Lyndon Johnson, China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Prince Charles, and, ironically considering the connection of wine to the Pope, John Paul II.
With both grapes (and wine) and kava (the plant and the drink), the relationship between the plant and people works both ways. Vanuatu and Fiji would be very different places without kava. Culturally, life for people there would be very different without kava, just as Italians would be very different without grapes and wine.
The intertwining theme of plants and people impacting each other is often cast in terms of how we have fallen out of balance with nature, recognizing our impact on the environment instead of our place within it. I believe that our bias toward things natural stems from the fact that we do recognize our interdependence with the natural world. Demanding transparency and sustainable herbal supply chains of industry are part of what we inherently know to expect.
It’s a rich field to be sure. I was recently reminded of Piper connections while at the University of Mississippi’s 17th International Conference on the Science of Botanicals held in Oxford, MS. There in the lobby I recognized a plant borrowed from their medicinal garden as kava. Nearby was a similar plant that I was able to identify as betel (Piper betle). Same genus, similar leaves, both with psychotropic properties, and yet very different chemistries.
Psychoactive compounds in kava, called kavalactones, are well known. Their analysis across a variety of cultivars has revealed that native kava drinkers knew about them too. It’s been determined that native cultivated preferences have favored short acting, pleasant-feeling inducing kavalactones over those with longer, and sometimes unpleasant-feeling actions.
Chemically distinct cultivars have long been recognized and, like grape cultivars, have acquired various distinct names. For dietary supplements and other uses outside the cultures and regions where kava has long been known, establishment of appropriate botanical standards can include an analysis of the amount of total kavalactones and their relative composition.
Kavalactones can be measured by employing HPLC analytical techniques. Recognition of an official method of analysis is something that AOAC will work toward as it establishes a working group this fall at its 131st annual meeting. This represents another important milestone in the incorporation of botanical materials into current cultural practices. I think it’s safe to say that wine is here to stay and that kava may or may not have a significant impact on our culture. As for cannabis, we’ll have to see. AOAC has a working group for that too.