This is an embarrassing admission. When I started buying weed in college (an Ivy League making this an even more preposterous admission), I assumed the leaf was the part of the cannabis plant that came in the plastic baggie delivered by my roommate via his older brother after university holidays. (This stuff was so bad it really did look like oregano.) I graduated, got a job and started buying my own. Not only did this stuff kick my ass in comparison to the shit from school but it looked way different – and I still assumed I was rolling crushed leaves in my joints. Now I know better (It’s the bud!) but should know way more. Will you give me a rundown of the anatomy of the cannabis plant?
Laughing Over the Leaf
You’d be shocked the number of highly educated and totally curious (you did say yes and inhale after all) who consume anything delivered in a plastic bag without further investigation. Guilty as charged, myself. Alright, let’s get down to a 101 level of understanding this intricate and delightful specimen - beyond its consumption, of course.
Subspecies: Product Their Environment
There are two subspecies of cannabis: indica and sativa. Sativa plants tend to be taller, more slender and have longer, thinner leaf profiles. Indicas are bushier with stout, rounded leaves. These varying physical characteristics are the result of evolution as the plants adapted to survive in their adopted environments. Over time, plants growing in a hot, humid environment look different from those living on a dry, steep hillside.
There is a third subspecies that has been overlooked: cannabis ruderalis. Ruderalis originates in colder northern regions, grows shorter than the other two types and contains very little THC, the psychoactive property that makes sativa and indica appealing as a recreational substance.
Pollination: Femme Fatales
The cannabis that ubiquitously fills stash jars comes from the female cannabis plant. Naturally (intentional pun), the female is the most useful and desired. Their male counterparts pollinate these ladies with pollen puffs. In the natural environment, males pollinate the females through the wind, creating seeds in the female. The seeds fall to the ground at the end of the grow season, and start anew as a sprout after being nurtured by rainfall. In the “test tube” world of modern cannabis cultivation, clones of branches are cut from a mother – or stock - plant. Males were essential to the cannabis plant’s survival through the centuries and remain crucial as new strains are developed and refined by growers.
There are also hermaphroditic plants that have both male and female traits. These super plants self-pollinate.
To Node or Not to Node
A quick review of the plant’s architecture starts from the bottom of the its thick stalk. Rising from the the bottom, the first lower branches are attached to the thinning stalk’s stem by nodes, or branch junctions. At each node, a new branch can sprout if the grower provides proper lighting to spur growth. The space between these junctions is called the internode.
Leaf: A Striking Symbol
The leaves act as the solar panels providing energy for the plant to grow. The large, five-point fan leaves have come to symbolize the entire pretty lady plant prominently in advertisements, on t-shirts, etc. Incidentally - in some depictions, this leaf bears an uncanny resemblance to the Canadian Maple Leaf. Coincidence that our
neighbor to the north is so cannabis friendly? Another fun fact. The delicious juice extraction from the leaves.
Trichomes: The Sugar Dust Fairy
While the most well-known and documented part of the cannabis plant, the leaves have few crystals, or trichromes. While the leaf is a symbolize, trichomes are the sugar on top! With close inspection, these coat the plant like a frosting of small sugar crystals and are often found on the smaller leaves as well as the bud at the top of the plant. Trichomes develop and change as the plant grows and indicate if the plant is ready for harvest. A plentitude of trichomes on certain strains explain the derivation of their given names, e.g. White Widow, Snowcap, White Rhino.
Cola: The Other Red Can
As we move along towards the top of the plant we approach the cola, or main bud. The cola is covered in trichomes and pistils – the hairy-like subjects with colors (variations of red and including purple) that contrast nicely with the green bud. Along with the pistils are dozens of calyx, which collectively form the bod of the bud – the cola. This group of calyx encase the seeds like cocoon once – if ever – they are pollinated. The cola is where the plant’s tell-tell fragrance derives. It’s also the red pistils of the cola that inspire the names of strains with which we are all too familiar, e.g. Grandaddy Purple, Purple Kush, Red Dragon, Bloody Kush.
We should all know what we’re ingesting. And your cannabis is no exception. So, yes, L.O.L, knowing that the cola is the gold and not the leaf is a great start. Beyond this, understanding how the plant is grown and harvested and by whom is crucial. Meaning if you insist on organic meat, non-GMO produce, wild-caught fish and non-steroid/antibiotic dairy, research the origins of your weed stash. The Stranger, a Seattle Weekly, ran a series of articles on the seedy (it’s too easy. sorry.) behind-the-scenes of cannabis grow ops and their use of pesticides. This young industry is managed and monitored state-by-state. Without federal oversight by the FDA regulations and restrictions are non-existent leading to poor practices by growers. Not to be the Portlandia Police but I fear the years of harm to my lungs as a result of lighting pesticides on fire and inhaling.
Know your plant. Know your grower. Happy Earth Day!