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Medicinal, culinary and unusual botanicals from Australia and around the world
Macropiper latifolium

Vanuatu – plants and kava n stuff

My partner and I visited Vanuatu in June this year for a holiday and some exploring. We visited 3 islands, Espiritu Santo, Efate and Tanna.We thought we could spend the whole 2 weeks on Santo, but with the weather a bit dodgy we decided to get around a bit more and to see the most accessible active volcano in the world, Mt. Yasur on Tanna island.

The locals are pretty easy going and friendly on the whole, transport is simple, hail a passing truck or ute and jump on board; private taxis cost a lot so it’s better to hitch a lift and pay 200-500VT (Vatu, roughly 100 Vatu + AU$1 or so). Weather varies form subtropical in the south to tropical in the northern islands.

A large kava bowl and local kava enthusiast at the Port Vila airport.

Land is very important in Vanuatu, non-citizens can only lease land for 75 years, evidently the productive life of a coconut palm. With land ownership in the hands of all, even the ‘poor’ or those who still prefer the traditional way of life, there’s always some food to be had. The soils are rich and volcanic, and the vegetation lush on the eroded volcanic soils but almost non existent on the new lava flows and around the active volcanoes.

Kava is important, both as a cash crop and as a local inebriant/relaxant. Whilst it was obvious to see that kava is of benefit to the culture, there appeared to be downsides as well, you could tell the heavy kava users by their eyes which were typically bloodshot and soft of yellow.

Macropiper latifolium ‘False Kava’

False Kava was present everywhere we went. It has medicinal uses but is not used as kava. The roots eviently contain beta-asarone (present also in Acorus calamus).

Macropiper latifolium, False Kava, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu.

Here’s a few shots of Piper methysticum ‘Kava’ Whilst not on show everywhere (it was somewhat hard to track down dried kava outside of the airport at Port Vila) it is ubiquitous in the culture. Grown away from prying eyes generally. Vanuatu is a hotspot for kava cultivars.

A green stem Kava cultivar on Tanna, Vanuatu
Green stem kava on Tanna
Green stem kava on Tanna
Kava stump for sale in the Lenakel markets on Tanna, AU$40 or so!

Kava was sold by the stump in the Lenakel markets on Tanna. We passed a group of young men carrying a big stump over a shoulder back home on a Saturday, quite the afternoon to be had from the size of it!

Morinda citrifolia ‘Noni’

Noni is quite common and useful for a range of complaints, all parts of plant used. Called ‘Cheesefruit out here in Australia, stinky cheese smelling fruit.

Opuntia sp. ‘Prickly Pear’ with some graffiti

A novel way of using Prickly Pears as a form of communication.

Turerna ulmifolia on Espiritu Santo

False Damiana growing beach side at Port Olrey, Espiritu Santo. Not a particularly nice smelling Damiana, it is all about ornamental value.

Santalum austrocaledonicum (Sandalwood)
Tanna Island, Vanuatu. Native to the South Pacific and widely exploited for Sandalwood oil and products.

Many islands were home to the Sandalwood of the South Pacific, exploited in the 1800’s and beyond until restrictions were put in place. It is now being grown again commercially with plantations being establisehed.

Mt Yasur on the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu. Smokin.

Mount Yasur is the maker of a spectacular landscape, well worth the visit to see the showers of magma and loud explosions and steam pouring from the ground.


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