The Anatomy of the Cannabis Plant
Though cannabis is ubiquitous in our society, most users never get the opportunity to see a cannabis plant in person. We live in an age where you can walk into a dispensary, purchase perfectly-trimmed, crystal-coated buds and enjoy them at home without ever thinking twice about how that plant came to be. Regardless of the convenience of cannabis today, it’s important that people understand the anatomy of the cannabis plant. Knowledge is power and the more you know about this multifaceted plant, the better you can self-medicate.
Male vs. Female
In the botanical world, plants fall into three different types of reproductive categories: hermaphrodite, monoecious and dioecious. Hermaphrodite plants produce both male and female reproductive organs in their flowers. Monoecious plants produce two different flowers on the same plant, whereas dioecious plants, like cannabis, grow as either a male or female plant.
Male cannabis plants initiate seed production by pollinating female plants. When developing a new strain, producers grow males and females together to cross-pollinate and breed new genetics. In cannabis production, female-only gardens are the standard to prevent the females from producing seeds. Growers can guarantee a female plant by starting from a clone or feminized seeds.
When female plants aren't pollinated, their energy is dedicated to flowering, enabling them to produce large, resin-coated flowers that are harvested and trimmed. These cannabinoid-rich, seedless buds (or sensimilla) are then sold as recreational and medicinal cannabis.
Male plants can be identified by the small pollen sacs that grown near the base of the fan leaves. The moment these pollen sacs are discovered, it’s crucial to rid the garden of the male plant. If pollen reaches the pistils of a flowering female plant, the buds will be full of seeds and not usable as a quality, medicinal product. Prior to flowering, pistils sometimes grow out of leaf nodes and can be an identifier of a female cannabis plant.
The roots of a cannabis plant consist of one strong root, the taproot, that eventually develops a network of secondary roots. Beneath the soil (or hydroponic alternative), cannabis roots exist as an anchor and to pull nutrients into the plant. Healthy roots are key to a productive harvest.
Main Stem, Nodes and Branches
The main stem is the central stalk that grows vertically from the roots of the plant. Water and nutrients are carried throughout the main stem to all other parts of the plant. As the plant grows, leaf nodes develop in pairs on either side of the stem. The plant’s branches then grow out of these leaf nodes.
Leaves: Fan and Sugar
The seven-pointed cannabis leaf is an iconic, universal symbol. Fan leaves are typically comprised of seven or nine leaflets and have serrated edges. These leaves grow symmetrically in pairs along the main stem and branches. In general, indica strains have wider, dark leaves, while sativa strains have skinny, lighter green leaves. Fan leaves soak up all the available light which turns into energy for the plant.
Unlike the fan leaf, sugar leaves contain a high concentration of cannabinoids. This is because sugar leaves are coated with crystal-like trichomes (hence the name) and grow within the bud itself. When harvesting cannabis, the ends of sugar leaves are trimmed from the flower to result in a compact bud. These trimmings are often used to make edibles or concentrates.
The flowers, or buds, of the female cannabis plant are the potent, cannabinoid-rich product that we consume. These resin-coated buds are harvested, cured, trimmed and sold as recreational and medical marijuana. Though the concentration varies by strain, the buds have the highest amount of cannabinoids.
The cola is a large cluster of buds that grow together at the end of a branch. The main cola, also called the apical bud, is conical and dense and grows at the very top of the female cannabis plant. Smaller colas, often just referred to as buds, grow throughout the plant.
Bract and Calyx
While the cola is the cluster at the end of the branch, the calyx is the bud itself. The calyx is the first part of the flower that develops. It is essentially a cluster of tightly-formed sugar leaves and pistils. The bract is a green, teardrop-shaped “leaf” that encapsulates and protects the calyx.
Pistil: Stigma, Style and Ovary
The pistil is the female reproductive structure that is comprised of the stigma, style, and ovary. These little hair-like structures emerge from the calyx and are produced to collect pollen from the male plant to reproduce. During the flowering phase, pistils change in color from white to orange red to brown, depending on the strain. Located at the very tip of the pistil, the stigma is the point of pollination. The stem-like style allows the pollen to travel from the stigma to the ovary. The ovary is where fertilization occurs and seeds develop.
Trichomes are the tiny, mushroom-shaped resin glands found on the surface of the bud. These trichomes are a treasured part of the plant. The majority of the bud’s cannabinoid-rich resin are encased in these crystal-like glands. Trichomes on female cannabis plants also produce terpenes which are the therapeutic aroma compounds that are responsible for the scent and flavor of buds. Though they create the scent that many cannabis consumers pine for, trichomes originally developed as a protective mechanism against weather and a deterrent to wildlife.