Exceptionally versatile and valuable, the Cannabis plant can be used in a vast array of products ranging from paper and clothing to building materials and fuel. Pushing its historical use of medicine aside in the 20th century, most recently, Cannabis has been known primarily for its psychoactive effects in humans. Only now as the industry continues to expand Cannabis research, its medicinal properties and uses continue to unfold and pique the interest of patients, healthcare professionals, and cultivators alike. The rebirth of Cannabis as a medicine is upon us. Let’s take a deeper look at this incredible plant and understand why it’s so special.
Beyond the Leaf
The five- or seven-bladed leaf that has become iconic with the Cannabis plant is actually the least important of its features. While this image serves as a common rallying flag to both the industry and cultural aspect surrounding it, the plant itself is much more complex than it’s distinguishing leaves.
Cannabis, like many plants, is a flowering species that undergoes multiple life stages. The plant’s “buds” (or racemes) are actually branches of tiny, tightly clustered flowers of the female plant. They reach their final form after a slow, controlled drying process, at which point they are snipped off and ready for consumption.
There are many uses for the leaves, stalks and seeds of the plant, however most Cannabis cultivators harvest only its flowers, as they hold the highest concentration of trichomes. Tiny, crystalline growths found on the flower buds, these trichomes produce the oils that contain the majority of Cannabis’ medical properties.
A Not-So-Simple Seed
Cannabis is a dioecious species of plant, meaning there are both female and male plants that grow independently of one another. As opposed to many self-pollinating flowers, Cannabis requires a male reproductive organ (“male”) in order to create seed. When a male’s pollen is caught by the female’s stigmas, it initiates the seed development, which is the plant’s only natural method of reproduction.
As the seeds develop inside the bracts of the female flower, their color changes, progressing from off-white, to pale green and finally becomes a rich, tiger-striped brown, indicating its ripeness. The female plant continues to carry the seeds to term, whereas the male’s role is finished. The male generally dies long before the female finishes its life cycle.
The Cannabis Life Cycle
The life stages of the Cannabis plant are generally divided into the following three phases:
Phase One: Propagation
In the beginning, the plant is very tiny, simply trying to “establish a foothold” in its environment. There are two different ways plants can be produced in this stage: by growing a seed, or via rooted cutting, known by horticulturists as “cloning.” A clone is a genetic copy of the parent plant, which is created by cutting a branch from the “mother” plant and placing it in a special solution to stimulate root growth. Once its roots are developed, the plant begins stretching upward towards the light, signaling the next life phase.
Phase Two: Vegetative Growth
During this stage, the plant is adding as much mass as possible to its frame. In ideal growing conditions, it can grow many times its original height in just a matter of weeks. From a tiny, two-leaved seedling comes a plant. This is also the stage in which cultivators are able to identify the gender of their plants. Traditionally, for flower production, the males are culled from the crop, and the females become the sole focus for proceeding.
Phase Three: Flowering
The key to this phase is controlling the plant’s environment and mimicking nature, especially with respect to light. For instance, exposure to less than 12 hours of light per day, a cycle similar to an outdoor setting in autumn, allows the plant to enter the flower stage of development. At this point, it undergoes an initial burst of growth and vigor, triggering a natural reproductive response to create more surface area that allows for increased flower production, which in turn creates more area for seed population in females, that in nature would then create the next generation of plants.
During this growth spurt, plants can double or triple in size before their vertical height eventually slows, thus signaling the plants to concentrate their energy and resources on producing flowers.
As the weeks pass by and the light diminishes, the flowers begin to develop rapidly, spreading throughout the female plants. As the flowers continue to grow, the stems become totally covered with fully formed racemes, or “buds. ” As the buds grow larger and denser, their crystalline trichomes undergo a maturation process of their own.
If the plant is allowed to continue flowering for an extended period, it will eventually die on the vine. Careful adjustment of the plant’s light exposure however, i.e., a natural change of season outdoors, harsh winters notwithstanding, increasing its exposure above 12 hours per day indoors, will allow the plant to return back to a vegetative state. It can then begin the cycle anew, shooting fresh green branches out of old, brown stumps.
Rejuvenating a plant in this fashion rarely takes place in commercial Cannabis production, as the plants are usually harvested at peak ripeness rather than left to die or revegetate.