Cannabis Botany: a Lesson in Plant Properties
Cannabis is a powerful plant with many applications and has been used by people for centuries. In this post we go over the chemical and physical properties of the plant. Varieties of cannabis are also discussed here. Read on below to learn more.
Active components of the cannabis plant
Phytochemicals can be simply described as the chemicals produced by plants. There are many out there and the word is often used when referring to compounds in plants that could be beneficial to health. An example of a phytochemical many people are familiar with is beta-carotene. Cannabis has its own special phytochemicals that are called cannabinoids.
Many people are familiar with cannabinoids CBD and THC although there are many others. Cannabinoids have overlapping benefits with each other and often work better together than separately. Below is a list of the most common cannabinoids and their effects.
- THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol): Helps with anxiety response, appetite, pain, insomnia, nausea, glaucoma, and muscle spasticity.
- CBD (cannabidiol): Helps with anxiety response, depression, seizures, pain, inflammation, acne and addiction
- CBN (cannabinol): Helps with sleep, appetite stimulation, pain and inflammation. Is also a neuroprotectant and antibacterial.
- CBG (cannabigerol): Helps with IBS, slowing proliferation of cancer cells, glaucoma, pain, inflammation, and is also neuroprotectant. May also stimulate appetite.
- CBC (cannabichromene): Fights cancer, blocks pain and inflammation, helps brain function, acne and depression.
Terpenes are the chemicals in plants that are responsible for their aroma. Flowers and herbs all have terpenes, some of which you may be somewhat familiar with already. A good example of a common terpene is linalool, which is found in lavender. If you have used lavender oil for relaxation purposes, then you have experienced the effects of that terpene.
Cannabis has many terpenes and they are what give specific strains of the plant distinct smell, taste and even effect. These smells and tastes give the plant advantages in their growth as some terpenes will help attract pollinators to the plant, while others can deter predators.
The flowers are the most important part of the cannabis plant when it comes to medicinal value. Also known as “bud”, they are responsible for producing cannabinoids and terpenes that provide health benefits. Those who smoke cannabis consume raw flowers that have been dried. Only female plants create flowers while male plants have pollen sacs needed for plant breeding. Both male and female plants can be used for fiber, which we will discuss in the following section.
Trichomes are integral to the production of chemicals by the cannabis plants. Terpenes and cannabinoids are both found in trichomes. Female cannabis plants produce these trichomes and appear as small hairs on the flowers of the plant. Those hair-like structures are actually glands that have a sticky texture to them. They also come in different colors so they give different variations or strains of the plant unique looking flowers.
Hemp vs Marijuana
Thus far, we have employed the word “cannabis” as an umbrella term to reference the plant. This is because cannabis refers to a genus of plants, of which both “hemp” and “marijuana” belong to. There is debate amongst scientists whether hemp and marijuana are distinct species of cannabis or rather just two varieties of subspecies. Legally speaking, in the United States, we define industrial hemp as a plant that contains less than 0.3% of Delta 9 THC content. Marijuana is referred to as a plant that is cultivated specifically for a higher THC content. Next, we will get into how each version of cannabis is cultivated and used.
Industrial hemp uses
Hemp is a valuable crop that can be harvested for fiber, seeds and medicine. As previously stated, hemp is distinct from marijuana legally and botanically speaking due to its low THC content.
Fiber from hemp can be turned into fabrics for clothing and shoes. Hemp fiber can also be made into rope. When making paper, hemp fiber can be used as an alternative to wood pulp. Even building materials can be made from hemp. A product called hempcrete combines lime binder with hemp to create something similar to concrete.
Hemp seeds are edible by humans and animals and are commonly included in caged bird feed. Milk can be made from hemp seeds as a dairy alternative. Non edible products made from hemp seed oil include paint, varnishes and soaps.
Medicinal properties are attributed to the high CBD content of hemp but also traces of other cannabinoids mentioned in the ‘cannabinoids’ section previously. Hemp flowers can be smoked to gain the benefits of CBD but more commonly oil is extracted from the plant to be turned into a variety of different products. Applications for hemp oil include edible products like oral tinctures, gummies and capsules. Topical products like lotions and salves made from hemp oil are also popular applications.
Just like hemp, marjiunana is used for medicinal purposes. Unlike hemp, marijuana is not typically cultivated for its fiber. Marijuana consumption comes with a “high” due to the psychoactive properties of THC. Although, the concentration of THC can vary between plants as well as the amount of other cannabinoids present. Concentrations of different chemicals along with terpenes (taste and smell components), make up many varieties of the plant we call “strains”.
Strains refer to the different types of cannabis plants there are, just like there are different types of fruits like apples or tomatoes that have many varieties. Variations of plants have slight differences in taste, smell, and effect. You may be familiar with the words “indica” and “sativa” when describing different strains of marijuana. The way in which these words are used now are much different compared to when they originated.
Early botanical definitions of indica and sativa from the 1800s were for naming two species of cannabis. Cannabis sativa plants are those that were raised for fiber and seed (ie. hemp). Cannabis indica are those which deliver psychoactive effects (ie. marijuana).
Indica vs Sativa
Today, indica and sativa are used among cannabis users to divide strains into two categories.
Indica indicates sedating or relaxing effects
Sativa indicates energizing or uplifting effects.
A third descriptor, “hybrid” , belongs to plants that fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Although all these are commonly used and possibly helpful to predict effect, there is little evidence to back up there being a consistent pattern. Additionally, how each person reacts to a cannabis strain is a very individual experience. Many factors will change how cannabis products affect us in addition to strain including our tolerance, chemistry and consumption method.
- Hemp is a low THC cannabis plant raised for fiber, seeds, and medicine- primarily CBD
- Marijuana is a high THC cannabis plant raised for medicine and psychoactive effects
- Varieties of the plant called strains may have different effects and are split into two categories: indica and sativa.
- Cannabinoids are the active components of cannabis
- Terpenes are taste and smell chemicals
- All of the important chemicals come from flowers harvested from female plants
My name is Amber. I am a cannabinoid consultant and columnist for Happy Trails. I have a Bachelor of Science in Biology. I enjoy learning about things I have passion for, and my family lovingly calls me a “human encyclopedia”. Read more about Amber here.
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