April showers brought May flowers!
Across North America, springtime has pushed the chill out of the air and brought vibrant greens back to the fields and trees. As we inch toward summer and the days grow longer and warmer, the frequent precipitation experienced by most of the continent through April has successfully induced the colorful buds of soon-to-be blossoming flowers. However, not all flowers require the same level of anticipation. The cannabis plant – its flower, or bud as it’s colloquially known – is available year-round.
While experienced cannabis consumers may be familiar with all the parts of the plant and their uses, to inexperienced users or just those who are curious to learn more about the plant, the terminology associated with the cannabis plant can be overwhelming and intimidating.
Here we provide a short, reader-friendly primer on the key parts of the cannabis plant that may help overcome the barrier to category entry that plant nomenclature may pose.
Let’s Talk About Sex
While it’s not vital for the consumer to have a deep knowledge of botany, it is useful to have an awareness of some key points about cannabis plants. A particularly important fact about cannabis is that it is a dioecious plant, which means there are both males and females of the species. Quite literally, dioecious means “double house” and indicates the male and female parts are located separately, each on its own plant.
Generally, the male plants produce pollen, which fertilize female plants to produce seeds. To further complicate the situation, it is also possible for the cannabis plants to be a hermaphrodite, where both male and female parts occur on the same plant, allowing it to self-pollinate and produce its own seeds. Luckily for the consumer, only unfertilized female plants produce cannabinoid-rich flowers that make it to market, so the complexities of sexing plants are left to the experts.
Some key structural features help identify female cannabis plants compared to male cannabis plants, including:
Females develop flowers at their nodes later than males.
Female flowers develop from their thin, pear-shaped bracts that have fine hairs coming from them; male flowers, or pollen sacs, start as small, ball-shaped outcropping that do not have hairs.
Female flowers are fertilized when their stigma catches pollen released from the males’ pollen sacs.
Females are shorter in overall stature.
Females have thinner stems with more branches and leaves – they are bushier.
Plant Parts – From Roots Through Buds
Cannabis plants, like all plants, are biochemical factories that turn sunlight into energy and produce oxygen. Cannabis plants are unique in that they produce a much sought-after group of phytochemicals - cannabinoids. To fully understand the value of the cannabis plant, it helps to break down the anatomy and learn more about how each component plays a role in what the plant produces.
Let’s start from the ground up…
Roots are the absolute foundation of the cannabis plant. The roots anchor the plant, provide stability to the plant as it grows, bring water and nutrients into the plant, and store starches and sugars produced via photosynthesis. Interestingly, cannabis plant roots have recently received renewed interest, as research suggests that they do not contain significant levels of cannabinoids or other phytocannabinoids, but they do contain a number of active compounds with potential medical benefits.
Stem or Stalk
The stem, sometimes called the stalk, is the above-ground nutrient and water super-highway which provides the ultrastructure for the rest of the plant’s components. Nodes, which occur at specific outcroppings along the length of the stem, give rise to leaves and branches.
Nodes & Branches
Nodes are a true hot spot of activity on the cannabis plant. Branches, leaves, and flowers all grow from the nodes. It’s at the nodes that a plant’s hormones are produced and where their sex apparatus grows. Branches and the leaves help the process of photosynthesis by transforming the light energy of the sun into sugars and other nutrients the plant needs to thrive through its lifecycle.
The fan leaves of the cannabis plant are broad-based leaves with five, seven, nine, or more finger-like projections, known as leaflets, that have serrated edges. The fan leaves are arguably the most important leaves on the plant as they help the plant breathe through transpiration and capture energy via sunlight to provide the plant energy for all its functions. While fan leaves do not typically make their way into products or for sale in-market, they are finding popularity as a food and beverage additive in their raw form, where it also appears to have potential as a beneficial nutritional supplement.
Sugar leaves have serrated edges like fan leaves, but they are small and seem to grow directly out of flowers rather than out of distinct nodes on the stem like fan leaves. Sugar leaves get their name from their appearance, as they are often covered in white crystalline structures called trichomes. Whether, and the extent to which, sugar leaves house trichomes depends on the genetics of the particular cannabis plant.
Flowers or Buds
Flowers, sometimes called buds, are the pièce de resistance of the cannabis plant and, as noted above, are only developed in female plants. Female plants have bracts, which are small, tear-shaped leaves covered with resin glands that encapsulate the reproductive parts of the plant and contain the highest concentrations of cannabinoids and terpenes. Additionally, the calyx cells, which are not clearly visible to the naked eye, occur in a translucent layer at the flower’s base and are its main THC production site. Flowers themselves have two main parts – the stigma and pistil – and, most importantly, form colas and produce trichomes, the buds and phytochemical production sites, respectively, which are explored further below.
Pistil & Stigma
Pistils are the cannabis flower’s reproductive parts, housing the ovule or prospective seed, and contain a pair of protruding stigma, which are hair-like strands that extend out from the flower. The main purpose of the stigmas is to catch pollen when it’s released by nearby male plants. Over the course of the cannabis plant’s maturation, the stigmas' coloring begins as off-white and progresses to yellow, orange, red, and finally, brown. Red to dark red hairs on a cannabis plant’s flowers are typically indicative that it is ready for harvest.
The cola is where flowers aggregate and bunch up into a larger bud, which is sometimes also called a nugget or nug. The main cola is the largest of these flower aggregates and typically occurs at the very top of the cannabis plant’s stem; thus, this main cola is also called the apical bud. The colas are home to the cannabinoid- and terpene-rich parts of the plant, and thus are its most highly valued part. As such, growers have developed plant training methods that result in multiple cola forming per plant to maximize yield per plant.
Trichomes are the tiny powerhouses of the cannabis plant. Clear, sticky, mushroom-shaped glands, trichomes form in a thick layer on flowers, which provide protection from insects and UV light. These delicate little machines produce and store the most consumer-relevant parts of the flower, including cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, terpenes, like pinene and caryophyllene, and flavonoids, which are phytocompounds that contribute to the smell, taste, and colour of the resulting processed flower as well as other products.trichomes form in a thick layer on flowers, which provide protection from insects and UV light. These delicate little machines produce and store the most consumer-relevant parts of the flower, including cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, terpenes, like pinene and caryophyllene, and flavonoids, which are phytocompounds that contribute to the smell, taste, and colour of the resulting processed flower as well as other products.
Let’s Keep Growing
Here we’ve summarized some key structural parts of the cannabis plant, identified areas that produce and store phytochemicals like cannabinoids and terpenes, and highlighted the main differences between male and female cannabis plants and their method of reproduction. Understanding the basics of the cannabis plant can help any consumer, company, or researcher make decisions surrounding cannabis with more confidence.
Cannabis plants are dioecious and imperfect; both male and female plants are needed for female flowers to go to seed.
Unfertilized female (or feminized) cannabis plants produce the flowers from which practically all cannabis-containing products are derived.
Other parts of the plant, besides the flower, are finding use in foods, beverages, and other preparations.
Trichomes are magical, miniature machines that produce and store all of the key compounds associated with cannabis – cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids – and they literally put the sticky in your sticky-icky.
If you are interested in learning more about how HCD Research can help you explore the world of cannabinoids, please contact Allison Gutkowski at Allison.Gutkowski@hcdi.net.
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