Q. I certainly recognize the ubiquitous cannabis leaf. But I really don’t know anything else about the actual plant. Does it really “grow like a weed,” as they say? Signed, Plant Enthusiast
Dear Plant Enthusiast,
While I would prefer my lawn to be full of cannabis plants rather than dandelions, it doesn’t quite grow exactly like a weed. But there are still a lot of interesting facts about how it grows.
That 7-blade leaf you often see is just one kind of leaf.
There are three subspecies that fall under the taxonomic genus Cannabis: sativa, indica, and ruderalis. Sativa plants have the recognizable sharp 7-blade leaf. They grow tall and thin. Indica plants are shorter, more like a shrub. While they too often have a 7-blade leaf, the blades have a wider, rounder look. Ruderalis is the smallest cannabis plant. It’s smaller and less bushy than indica with only five blades. In today’s cannabis market, nearly all plants are hybrids, as cultivators have combined desirable features to produce just the right strain and experience.
The gender of the plant determines its role.
Only female plants produce buds. The male plant’s job is to produce the pollen, causing females to produce seeds for various strains. Determination of the sex of the plant happens when the first nodes (where leaves and stems grow from the stalk) develop. Males produce pollen sacs that look like little oblong balls, and female plants sprout small “hairs.” Under stress, a female plant can turn into a self-pollinating, hermaphroditic plant, using its energy to produce seeds as a means of survival.
Cannabis is not pollinated by “the birds and birds,” but by the air.
Cannabis is anemophilous, meaning it uses the wind to disperse its pollen, which can travel up to 30 miles to adhere to a microscopic target on the female plant. Cultivation facilities must be very diligent to separate male and female plants as soon as possible. The male plants are often destroyed.
Sativa and indica plant blooms are triggered by 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. For outdoor growers, the summer solstice marks the height of growing season. That is also why growing cannabis indoors takes so much electricity (and how illegal grow operations are often discovered). Ruderalis is the exception; it auto-flowers, which means it blooms at a predictable time rather than a 12/12 light schedule.
Not all cannabis is for consumption.
Hemp is a type of cannabis sativa that won’t get you high, but is a useful fiber. It grows in a single tight row (like corn), is pest- and drought-resistant, and can be used to produce up to 25,000 consumer goods. Male hemp plants produce a softer material, which makes it more useful in producing textiles and apparel. Female hemp grows a stronger, coarser fiber that is ideal for durable products, like car door panels and ropes.
Hemp fields can be a threat to outdoor cannabis grows.
Hemp pollen can travel for miles, and can pollinate female cannabis plants. Some states are trying to reduce the risk of cross-pollination by requiring a minimum distance between outdoor hemp and cannabis fields.
Many hats for cultivators.
Contemporary cannabis cultivators are part scientist, part botanist, part chemist, part artist, and certainly, part entrepreneur. To learn more about cultivation, I recommend the work of Danny Danko, cultivation editor at High Times.
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