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The Many Names and Uses of Cannabis sativa

Updated on May 9, 2014
Cannabis sativa L.
Cannabis sativa L. | Source
Cannabis leave with its typical shape and venation.
Cannabis leave with its typical shape and venation. | Source
Cannabis sativa male flowers.
Cannabis sativa male flowers. | Source
Cannabis sative female flowers and exuding trichomes.
Cannabis sative female flowers and exuding trichomes. | Source

An unusual plant

Cannabis is among the first plants domesticated by humans and it has been used, selected and cultivated for at least twelve thousand years and regulated or banned for the last seventy throughout the world. All varieties and cultivars of cannabis belong to one species only Cannabis sativa L. from the family Cannabaceae in which hops, Humulus lupulus, the main flavour ingredient in many types of beer and as such widely cultivated for use by the brewing industry, is also included. Some authors claim that the genus Cannabis composes three species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. All these “species” interbreed easily and their distinction is highly questionable in many aspects, thus favouring the grouping into one single species. Being an annual, dioecious, flowering herb, Cannabis is yet a very unusual plant. Cannabis is predominantly a dioecious plant; that is it has distinct female and male individuals; although several monoecious varieties have been described and it is not uncommon to find mixed populations of monoecious and dioecious specimens. It was one of the first plants to be karyotyped; i.e. its 20 chromosomes described. However, Cannabis has one of the most complex mechanisms of sex determination among plants not yet fully understood. Today, apart from its biparental reproduction, authors believe that sex determination in Cannabis is highly influenced by environmental factors as it is observed with many plant species. Due to its very old selection made by humans, Cannabis grows in a variety of conditions, as one easily expects from its worldwide popularity.

Male and Female Plants

Cannabis is indigenous from Central Asia and South Asia. It can grow up to 6 m tall and present palmately compound leaves, in which the leaflets radiate from the base of the leave, or digitate leaves, i.e. the leaflets resemble fingers given the overall leaf appearance of a hand. Whether palmate or digitate, the leaflets are serrated and their number, up to thirteen, depends on the growing conditions, position on the plant body and variety; usually Cannabis leaves have seven to nine leaflets. Closer to the growing apices, the number of leaflets reduces to just one on the top of flowering plants. Apart from its typical and popular shape, Cannabis leaves have also a peculiar venation pattern, which make its identification from other plants with similar leaf shapes easier even for persons poorly familiar with the plant. Both male and female flowers are borne in inflorescences, however male flowers occur in panicles (much ramified inflorescences) and female flowers occur in racemes (unbranched inflorescences). This distinction led the Chinese to identify dioecy in Cannabis quite early, around 3 B.C. , giving different names to both female and male plants. All known varieties of Cannabis are wind-pollinated. More than 400 different chemicals have been identified so far in Cannabis and the most (in)famous ones, about 60, are grouped in what is called cannabinoids. Their most famous member is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound of Cannabis. Cannabinoids, terpenoids and many others chemicals are secreted as a resinous sap in glandular hairs, trichomes, that occur most abundantly on the floral calyxes and bracts of female plants giving these plants their typical gluey and sticky texture. The secretion of this resin is for defense purposes against herbivory. However, with humans the effect is the opposite, as we all know.

Cannabis native origin

A very old crop

The oldest archeological evidence of Cannabis use dates back to the Neolithic age in China. It is believed that Cannabis was first cultivated as a source of fibers as it still is today, with the varieties called hemp (varieties of Cannabis that are rich in fibers and contain very little THC and are therefore useless as a drug). The Chinese later used hemp to make clothes, shoes, ropes, and also an early form of paper. However, what catapulted hemp to sudden fame and fortune and caused it to spread more or less rapidly westwards in the first millennium B.C. was the spread of the habit of pot-smoking originally from South-central Asia, where it is believed that the drug-bearing varieties of the plant were originally selected and cultivated. Supporting this theory are the many different names given to these varieties, through time and direction of spread. The classical Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 480 BC) reported that the inhabitants of Scythia would often inhale the vapors of hemp-seed smoke, both as ritual and for their own pleasurable recreation. The Roman physician Pedanius Dioscorides mentioned the plant’s medicinal properties in his herbal encyclopedia De materia medica in AD 70.

Its many different uses

In late medieval Germany and Italy, hemp was also employed in cooked dishes, as filling in pies and tortes, or boiled in a soup. Due to its climate, the mild and colder European summer might have been one of the reasons why Cannabis was not smoked throughout Europe and was instead cultivated mostly as hemp for its fibers. Without humid and hot summers, canniboids concentration in European hemp was not as high has in its native region. Therefore, its effects were mild at best if sensed at all and smoking it in Europe was not that appealing in those times. Apart from its main textile function, hemp was also used for ropes on many ships, including those of Christopher Columbus. The Spaniards brought hemp to the New World and cultivated in Chile in 1545, where early settlers grew it as an economically useful fiber crop. Soon after, the Portuguese introduced it in Brazil and it did not take long to move up north. By 1607 was already being cultivated in Virginia, USA. Early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper. George Washington lobbied for the production of Cannabis and he himself was a grower. Cannabis was used in early patent medications, and even sold in Manhattan as a candy “Arabian Gunje of Enchantment – A most pleasurable and harmless stimulant” from about 1864 through 1900.

Detail of fibers in Cannabis stem.
Detail of fibers in Cannabis stem. | Source
Another look on hemp fibers.
Another look on hemp fibers. | Source

Banned but more popular

The benefits and disadvantages of Cannabis use, namely its cannabinoids as a recreational drug, are highly controversial and this debate is not new. Some historians suggest that the drive to outlaw cannabis in the early twentieth century came out of the culture wars. In fact many argue that its banning was made to destroy the growing hemp industry that threatened well established industries as timber, as the main source of paper, and the then recently invented nylon for which the replacement of the traditional resource, hemp, was integral to the new product's success as textile. However, although popular as a recreational drug among musicians, artists and writers, some say Shakespeare might have been one of its many famous consumers, the most severe effects of constant cannabinoids use were quite well known in the Old World. In fact, the prolonged use of cannabinoids, specifically hashish, an extract of Cannabis resinous secretions, and namely their much visible effects, gave birth to a very well known word – assassin. Assassin comes from the Medieval Latin assassinus, which comes from Arabic ḥashshāshīn, plural of ḥashshāsh. Hashshāsh was a worthless person, literally, a hashish user which was frequently hired or used to commit homicide at those times. In medieval Europe, Northern Africa and Eastern Mediterranean, hashish was mostly eaten. Under its intoxicanting effect, ḥashshāshīn fueled their brains with grotesque und unearthly visions and paranoia. The Arabs believed they could hear the words and even read the thoughts of others at a distance. Thus, it was not surprising that only the most atrocious and heinous murders could only be committed by hashish consumers, the ḥashshāshīn – the assassins. The Assassins Creed, ring a bell?

14th-century painting of the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk by a hashshashin.
14th-century painting of the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk by a hashshashin. | Source

Some curious facts:

  • One of the first plants domesticated by humans.
  • Its effects gave rise to the word assassin.
  • Its the most popular recreational drug after alchool.
  • It is estimated that nearly 4% of the world population consumes cannabis yearly.

Cannabis is not considered to be a lethal plant and the typical feeling of mild euphoria, relaxation, and the sense that time is passing slowly subside within a few hours. Except to the extent that it may invite automobile accidents, robberies and all sorts of crazy accidents. In addition to the many uses of hemp as fiber for clothing and paper, as food, oil, building material, cordage, jewelry, water purification and weed control, hemp has also been investigated as a possible biofuel source. Hemp has long been used as food, basically all parts of the plant are edible. The seeds contain protein, healthy fatty acids, and vitamins. The United Nations estimates that nearly 4 percent of the world’s population, or 160 million people, consume the drug every year. Illegal cannabis production is estimated to take up over a half-million acres worldwide and yield forty-two thousand metric tons, making cannabis a roughly $400 billion crop worldwide and the most popular drug after alchool.

Hemp field in France, the second world hemp producer after China.
Hemp field in France, the second world hemp producer after China. | Source

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