Plants have always fascinated us and will undoubtedly continue to do so. All the more so if we can make use of them. Cannabis is, beyond doubt, a perfect example of both extraordinary and useful plant. It also has considerable symbolic, historical, pop cultural and, most importantly, industrial significance. Along with the increase of social awareness and scientific progress, more and more people appreciate it, more and more branches of the economy see potential in it. It is safe to say today that cannabis is the plant of the future.
It is therefore important to disenchant cannabis unfavorable image and befriend it a little. It’s good to know why it is worth changing perception.
Where did cannabis come from?
Cannabis or Hemp (Cannabis L.), today fully domesticated species of plant widely cultivated all around the world, originated probably in Asia. It can also be found on other continents in a subtropical climate (or temperate, such as the ‘Finola’ variety) but their presence results from naturalisation (spreading in a foreign environment) of plants introduced by humans (usually fugitives from local crops) to the state of secondary wilderness.
Naturally Cannabis require quite high temperatures, a lot of sunlight and humidity. It took a liking for the river and lake banks in particular. It also feels perfectly when close to the agricultural activity of a man – perhaps that is why they managed to attract human attention. Some researchers emphasize the role that a characteristic, attractive smell of cannabis could play in its domestication – perhaps this property aroused the interest of our ancestors. As it turned out quickly, this plant cooperates exceptionally well with us when it comes to cultivation. Its unique features enable efficient utility manipulation: cannabis is a plant commonly used in many branches of human activity.
Why is cannabis so special?
Cannabis is absolutely unique within its kingdom: it is anemogamous (pollination of flowers takes place through the wind), dioecious (in other words: sexually isolated, only male or female flowers are found on a single plant) and their sex, as in humans, is determined by X and Y chromosomes. All these features are rarely found in plants, but cannabis happened to develop all three of them at once.
Apart from purely biological, botanical fascination, it’s worth to pay attention to cannabis features, of which we can make an actual use.
Cannabis high plasticity is demonstrated, for example, by its natural response to the space – if planted in high density, it forms a strong central stem; if given an open space, it’s branches will spread to the sides and flourish. Thanks to this, cannabis can be grown with high performance and low effort in order to obtain fiber as well as flowers or seeds. Plastic are also plant’s genes that we have learned to manipulate in the name of personal benefit. Due to domestication and artificial selection, we can obtain more desirable raw material with less effort on our side. We grow plants with diverse content of active substances, diverse smell, diverse size and color of leaves or flowers. We owe it mainly to the manipulation-favouring location of alleles on chromosomes – responsible for the plant desired characteristics – and their simple, Mendelian principle of inheritance.
The simplicity of interference with the cannabis genotype undoubtedly facilitates its breeding. It is, however, a somewhat secondary feature – first we limit the diversity of plants to a minimum, so that we can freely shape them and create new varieties.
Cannabis diversity and taxonomy
People, setting up new cultivations, often created cannabis populations with just a few seeds – a few parenting individuals representing desirable traits. This often led to a phenomenon called ‘the bottleneck’ – an isolated, small fraction of the population with limited genetic pool creates new mutations and completely, in a sense, new varieties. It is therefore appropriate to distinguish cannabis species on the basis of their usefulness developed over the years of selective breeding.
Most botanists today agree on the claim that Cannabis is a polyphyletic species (consisting of 2,3 or 4 species, depending on opinion), although in this case taxonomy seems to be an extremely complex issue. Some are opposed to the idea of abstracting its species, describing it as monotypic, but polymorphic (one species, but manifesting in different varieties which can interbreed). However, two species (or, according to some, subspecies) are commonly distinguished: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Variations within them are usually determined based on the dominance of one of two active substances: THC or CBD.
Cannabis use once and today
Scientists involved in ethnobotanics suggest that these substances were the reason why cannabis was historically cultivated in the first place. The presence of psychoactive THC, used in various types of spiritual ceremonies, was particularly desirable. It is then not surprising that selective breeding towards achieving psychoactive effects has been carried out ever since local communities became interested in cannabis. Of course, the benefits of cultivation were much greater – the seeds provided nutritious food and the fiber was used as a durable raw material, for example, for weaving ropes. The production of hemp fiber flourished for good in the 20th century, when the growers began to cross different varieties of cannabis on a larger scale. The term ‘industrial hemp‘ was created, and the hemp itself began to be more and more appreciated.
Cannabis, therefore, has an enormous potential both as an ecological alternative for an everyday use materials as well as an innovative – but fully natural – medicine, invaluable in the fight against dangerous diseases. Everything points to the fact that the cultivation of these plants lays in the future of modern, sustainable agriculture. It is now the time to start perceiving them through the prism of a multitude of useful applications rather than, often discouraging, popculture connotations.
Clarke R.C., Merlin M., 2016: Cannabis Domestication, Breeding History, Present-day Genetic Diversity, and Future Prospects. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 35(5-6), 293-327