ISSUE 6Plant Basics
Cannabis sativa
Ruth ChambersWhen Cannabis enthusiasts start discussing “The Plant”, it often becomes a minefield of botanical terms & horticultural references that most mere mortals, for those that haven’t been bitten by the bug yet, can’t even begin to decipher.

Here we give you some botany basics of Cannabis sativa.

The Cannabis Genus
Important to know first, the female plants are used for commercial purposes, while the male plants are used by breeders to pollinate females & selectively breed new varieties with desirable traits.

Cannabis sativa is described as:
  • An herbaceous, flowering annual, dioecious in nature
  • The leaves are palmately compound with serrate leaflets
  • The growth habit is tall & laxly branched with long, narrow leaflets
Dioecious: separate male & female plants
C. sativa & C. indica are photoperiod plants. This means the developmental responses of the plant are dictated by the light & dark periods. Long daylight hours during summer promotes vegetative growth. When daylight hours shorten to less than 12 hours during the autumn months, flowering is triggered. The flowering cycle is 7 – 11 weeks, depending on the strain.

C. ruderalis is a more compact, hardier species, reputedly more resistant to pest & diseases but most importantly, flowers depending on maturity (autoflowering), rather than light cycle as with photoperiod plants. They are known to contain higher levels of CBD (cannabidiol) & has a very short lifecycle, only 5 – 10 weeks.

By crossing the C. ruderalis species with existing popular strains, this new breed of cannabis has been developed, gaining popularity rapidly over the last few years. Many of the popular strains are now available as autoflower or photoperiod.
C. sativaC. indicaC. hybrid
Varieties (Strains)
The flower of the female cannabis plant is ultimately what you’re after when growing cannabis. Those dank, sticky, stinky sinsemilla buds, arranged in dense colas, covered in glistening trichomes.
Sinsemilla: “without seeds” seedless cannabis flowers produced by unfertilised female plants that produce dense, quality flowers, with a higher resin content, as energy is focused on flower rather than seed production.
Cola: the cluster of flowers that form tightly along the upper portion of the main stems & large branches of a mature female cannabis plant, where the plant receives the greatest light exposure.
Modern cannabis should all be seen as some type of hybrid with varying ratios of C. sativa & C. indica indicated as (e.g. Sativa 40% : Indica 60% or Sativa 30% : Indica 70%). There are 10,000s of strains (varieties in botany-speak) available today, each with a unique combination of cannabinoids & terpenes, with the most amazing names, including gems like “Headband”, “Purple Urkle”, “Amnesia Haze”, "Gorilla Glue #4”, “9 Pound Hammer” & “Wedding Cake”.

Seed houses & breeders spend years developing various strains (varieties) through selective breeding, then stabilising genetics to ensure consistency & provide premium quality seeds to the cannabis market.
These resin-filled glands that cover the female plant’s flowers & small sugar leaves in the colas, contain the precious cannabinoids & terpenes (chemical compounds) that we ultimately covet.
Trichomes: small mushroom-like glandular outgrowths of the epidermal cells (uni- or multi-cellular), that start developing when the plant starts flowering.
“Trichoma”: Greek for “hair” 

Chemical Compounds
Cannabinoids: Major active chemical compounds that have medicinal, therapeutic & psychoactive effects.
Over 100 different cannabinoids (active compounds) have been identified to date, while the cannabis plant produces over 750 known compounds in total.

The most familiar are:
THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid found in raw & live cannabis. Exposure to heat will cause decarboxylation, that converts the THCA to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which has psychoactive effects.

CBDA (cannabidiolic acid) non-psychoactive & preferred for medicinal purposes. When heated (decarboxylated), it converts to CBD (cannabidiol).
Other well-known cannabinoids include: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin), cannabichromene (CBC), cannabigerol (CBG) & cannabinol (CBN).

This is only a very basic breakdown, as it gets extremely involved on a chemistry level, dealing with all the cannabinoids.
Terpenes: Organic, aromatic compounds found in all flowers, including cannabis. Terpenes contribute to the distinctive smell & flavour of each variety.
Many terpenes also have potential medical value that is still being explored, as they are well known for their therapeutic effects in other plants.

Common terpenes are myrcene (musky, earthy), linalool (floral, lavender), caryophyllene (spicy, peppery), humulene (earthy, woody), terpinolene (smoky, herbal), limonene (citrus, bitter) & pinene (pine, sweet), but there are up to 100 terpenes identified in cannabis plants to date.

The combination of terpenes & cannabinoids differs from one strain to the next. Researchers believe that the combination of terpenes & cannabinoids are responsible for the “entourage effect”. This phenomenon occurs when the combination of compounds creates a unique effect when combined, but not when used individually.
Cannabis vs. Hemp
Cannabis & hemp are both types of cannabis. Hemp refers to a fibre crop with the most astounding known uses. Hemp has been bred to contain very low THC levels (less than 0.3% by dry weight). Cannabis bred for the medicinal & recreational markets contain higher levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC & a wide range of cannabinoids & terpenes.
Botanically Speaking
The renowned botanist Carl Linnaeus named Cannabis sativa as a unique species in 1753 from samples collected worldwide, classifying the plant officially within the botanical taxonomy system.

Cannabis indica was named in 1785 by French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck
as a separate species from specimens collected in India.

Cannabis ruderalis was identified in southern Siberia & parts of Russia in 1924 & named by Russian botanist Dmitrij Janischewski. (A ruderalis species refers to a plant that is first to colonise land after a disturbance, removing competition.) 
Landrace: A variety of cannabis that has adapted to the local environment of a specific geographic location.
Another term you’ll often hear as you become familiar with the cannabis plant is landrace.

As cannabis was dispersed along the trade routes centuries ago, plants adapted to their local environments. As a highly adaptable plant, the environment shaped the properties & features of the various landraces, radically changing their features.
Warm tropical climates shape plants differently from hostile mountain climes.
These original varieties’ names are somehow linked to their country of origin such as: our beloved South African Durban Poison & Malawi, Afghani, Hindi Kush, Thai, Panama Red, Mazar, Puto Rojo (Columbia), Lamb’s Bread (Jamaica) & Acapulco Gold (Mexico).

From those humble beginnings, cannabis has evolved in modern times, exploding in a crazy variety of genetic combinations across the globe. The plant’s propensity to cross readily with other varieties of cannabis through pollination, is a double-edged sword.

One the one hand, new varieties (strains) can easily be produced through selective breeding practices, bringing the desired characteristics while suppressing the undesirable traits.
On the other hand, the pure landrace genetics have been lost throughout the history of the plant, due to the introduction of non-native varieties into existing landrace plantations over time, which then cross-pollinated the females, thereby diluting the pure genetics.