What is Cannabis? Overview of the Marijuana Plant

cannabis plant

Our cannabis smoker’s association hosts an open medical morning each month, where local people who have read about the therapeutic effect of cannabis come and  discuss their own treatments, or find out about the subject.

One thing I’ve discovered during these meetings is that most people know very little about the plant itself, yet may be attempting to grow their own medicines.

This article gets to the basics of what is a cannabis plant – from which all else follows. I hope all new growers find it useful.

What is Cannabis?

So, what is cannabis? You may know it as weed, spliff, MJ, marijuana, skunk, dope, herb, pot, grass, ganja, sensi – the nicknames are endless but what do they mean?

They refer to the dried flower of the cannabis plant, which is smoked or vaporized to release one of its main chemical constituents – THC – which is inhaled for a pleasant and recreational effect.

But how much do you know about the cannabis plant itself? If you are thinking about growing your own supply, or taking it as a medication, then you should understand what cannabis really is.

Cannabis: A Misleadingly Represented Gift From Nature

On the one hand, it is described as a gateway drug to addiction and wasted lives, and as such should be persecuted as a social evil. In the past, marijuana users were ferociously persecuted and pointed out as scourges.

The relentless war drug produced and sponsored a huge amount of negative propaganda saying marijuana destroyed lives, incited to violence and caused severe brain damage.

short term negative effects of marijuana

On the other hand, many famous artists, actors and athletes have proudly stated that they use cannabis and even attribute their success to it.

Additionally, medical research is establishing factual evidence for a long historical use of cannabis as a medicine – and isolated medical trials are being backed up by a huge amount of anecdotal evidence as patients share their case histories over the internet.

spiritual image of buddha with marijuana leaves

The old images of reefer madness and the hapless stoner are being replaced with the successful businessman and the self-medicating silver surfer.

In spite of all these different portrayals of cannabis in the media, the plant itself, Cannabis sativa, is quite a simple thing. If you strip away all the meanings mankind has attached to it, it would seem quite innocuous.

So let’s remove these layers – reefer madness – inept stoner – silver-haired toker, and look at the plant itself.

The Botany of Cannabis

The genetic ancestors of modern Cannabis strains still grow naturally in the wild. Known as “landrace strains” these plants are found as far east as Japan, throughout mid-Asia and across the Indias, spreading across to the southern Americas.

As the plant has evolved to suit its differing habitats, some broad differences have developed, leading to the creation of 3 main sub-species of the genus (family):

Cannabis Indica

12,000 years ago, cannabis was being farmed in the Steppes of Central Asia. This was most likely the sub-species Cannabis Indica, well suited to high altitudes,cool springs and autumns.

Limited to a height of around 1.5m, with wide fleshy leaves that maximise photosynthesis in a thin summer light intensity, indica strains finish flowering in a fast 7-8 weeks before winter sets in at the end of September.

An indica dominant strain tends to be more corporeal in effect – a lazy relaxing stone.

cannabis indica characteristics

Cannabis Sativa

As the Chinese spread medicinal use of cannabis into Southern Asia and down through the Himalayas into southern India, plant morphology changed as it adapted to the new environment.

A new sub-species formed, the distinctive Cannabis Sativa,  Leaflets narrowed and lengthened in order to control transpiration rates at higher temperatures. Seeds germinated earlier, grew taller (up to 3m) and flowered for a much longer period (up to 16 weeks).

The recreational effect of a sativa dominant strain is largely cerebral, energetic, and psychoactive.

cannabis sativa characteristics

Cannabis Ruderalis

Until recently, ruderelis was dismissed as uninteresting. This sub-strain developed in Russia as a response to extremely short summers.

Low in THC content and characterized by accelerated plant growth, the life-cycle of the ruderelis strain from seed to harvest could be as short as 9-12 weeks. But ruderalis is significant in one major factor: unlike its cousins, it is  not photo-period: flowering is triggered by the age (not size or light) of the plant. 

Extensive cross-breeding has led to the development of  autoflowering cannabis strains – moderately high in THC, with fast vegetative growth and a seed to harvest outdoors of 9 – 12 weeks.

Modern Cannabis Strains

Where cannabis is native to an area, locals have grown and harvested it for centuries – making Moroccan and Hindi Kush hashish or using it in spiritual ceremonies in South America and Africa for example.

But the past 50 years have seen major expansions in the variations available as specialist seed breeders searched the world for breeding stock. They cross-bred different landrace strains many times over in order to enhance certain characteristics whilst excluding others.

Most modern popular varieties available have developed way beyond their original ancestry and list as their genetic history other modern cross-breeds (e.g. skunk x white widow). The majority of strains are not pure indica or pure sativa, but a blend of the two.

Just as the lavender you buy in a garden center has larger flowers, more vibrant colors, and stronger perfume than wild lavender, these cannabis strains will produce bigger buds with higher resin production. Recently,  one aspect of this line of development has become apparent.

Up until 2010, the goal of cannabis seed breeders was to create strains that delivered the most intense recreational effect.

One way to achieve this was to selectively breed out the CBD content as CBD dampens the psychoactive effect of THC. A variety with 15% THC and 1% CBD would seem much “stronger” than the same plant with 15% THC and 10% CBD. By 2014, 99% of strains available would contain such a small amount of CBD that it hardly registers in chromatography analysis.

Since the therapeutic importance of CBD has become known, some cannabis seed breeders are now reintroducing CBD content through back breeding with landrace strains or with ruderelis stock.

Most cannabis available to buy will still be from the commercial, recreational, high THC, low CBD varieties, and if you need medicinal marijuana it’s worth considering growing your own cannabis and selecting a specific strain to do so.

You could smoke weed for years, be able to recognize different types, and be your own cannabis enthusiast, but if you have never grown before, or are completely new to the topic, here are some basic facts about the plant’s botany that you need to know to get a successful yield.

Characteristics of the Cannabis Family

Annual Plant

This means that within one season (spring to autumn), the seed germinates, grows, matures, and dies. In order to achieve this, cannabis plants have accelerated growth, reaching up to 3 meters in height within a few months.

It’s a Dioecious Plant

Cannabis is dioecious: some plants will be male and produce pollen, while others are females, producing flowers (buds). Female plants put a lot of energy into flowering until the point when male pollen fertilizes the flowers. Once this has happened, energy is redirected into seed production – and once the seeds ripen, the plant fades and dies. Unpollinated plants go into a resin production frenzy attempting to entrap male pollen before their lifecycle (8-12 weeks after the onset of flowering) ends. 

Unless you intend to breed your own seeds, male plants are useless and should be destroyed to prevent seeding. Alternatively, you can buy feminized seeds which produce only female plants.

All cannabis plants contain the potential to produce flowers of both sexes. This potentiality can be brought forth if the plant is highly stressed, or is grown from a seed produced by such a double-sexed plant. This tendency is called hermaphrodism and should be avoided as a single male flower may ripen unnoticed and pollinate an entire crop.

marijuana pistils up close

Flowers Without Petals

The flowers produced by a female cannabis plant are distinctive: they are not composed of petals, but are formed by close groups of calyx (tear shaped nodules) which cluster around the tops of each stem tip (these clusters are known as the colas). Each calyx sprouts fine hairs called pistils , and is made up of glands (trichomes) which produce resinous terpenes and cannabinoids.

Over 83 Cannabinoids Identified (So Far)

483 chemicals make up the cannabis profile. Over  83 of them are unique to cannabis. These are known as  cannabinoids – e.g. Delta9-THCA,  Delta9 – THC, CBD, CBG. Medical research over the past 30 years has identified the potential role of these unique chemical elements working together with the largest neurological network within mammals – a matching at the cellular level so exact that they have described this network as the endocannabinoid system. It is this peculiarity that means that this one single plant has the potential to treat and alleviate so many differing illnesses.

Photoperiodic Plants

Apart from  autoflowering cannabis strains (which are a recent cross-breeding development) Cannabis is photo-period. This means that  flowering is triggered  by changes in the number of hours of light available  irrespective of age or size. In an artificial environment – the indoor grow room setup – cannabis growers manipulate this: you can keep a plant alive almost indefinitely by providing long hours of light (18 hours a day), thus preventing it from flowering and the progression towards death.

Conversely, growers force young plants into flowering by increasing the number of dark hours to 12 a day (this is known as “flipping into flower). When growing cannabis indoors, the aim is to maximize production, and this is achieved by flowering several young plants simultaneously.

Fan Leaves

Cannabis leaves are highly distinctive – and have featured as a symbol not just of the plant but of a sub-culture, for thousands of years. Each leaf is actually a compound of multiple leaflets, each with a serrated edge, growing in opposite pairs up the stem. The next pair of leaves will grow at right angles to the previous pair. Depending on the sub-species, each leaf will be made of 5, 7, or 8 leaflets in a fan style. The leaves are heavily veined.

Leaves will be a healthy darkish green color, and exude a vibrancy. They are a good indicator of when something is wrong with the plant – under feeding, over watering, pests etc. Get into the habit of just sitting with your plants so you can notice what they are telling you.

Intense Smell

A cannabis plant in flower exudes an extremely strong and particular smell, due to the plant’s terpenes. Good growers take an effort to preserve as much of this smell as possible when drying their harvested flowers through slow drying and curing.

Fast Wet/Dry Cycle

Cannabis plants thrive with a fast wet/dry cycle.  Don’t water a mature plant a little every day: water well, let the plant roots draw all the water out of the soil, get a little dry, and then water thoroughly again.

Energy Demanding

Cannabis plants need a lot of energy to grow so fast in just 3 months, and to produce heavyweight resinous buds. To do this they need a lot of light intensity and specialist nutrients to ensure the correct ratios of chemicals and minerals to maximize photosynthesis. Yes, you can keep a plant alive indoors with low lighting and tomato feed, but you won’t get anywhere near the potential of the plant.

In a Nutshell

Cannabis plants are yet another gift that Mother Nature presents to us. Beyond the poor reputation that the media have portrayed through the years, there is a rich pool of pleasure, healing qualities, and mental clarity awaiting.

For first-timers, the aforementioned characteristics are key to understanding the needs and cycles of your plants. Get to know them better and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful harvest. Happy growing!

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