Medical and recreational cannabis users know that the cannabis plant is a versatile creature. It offers a diverse range of effects and medicinal benefits across the spectrum of sativa, indica, and hybrid strains. But many cannabis consumers may not know much about the plant itself. How is it grown? Can different growing techniques affect the quality or the safety of cannabis?
In this installment of WeEdu we’ll be talking about the lifecycle of this plant, the various parts of the plant and their functions, and how different growing techniques can impact your cannabis.
Because cannabis growers control the light cycle and nutrient availability, it’s easy to forget that cannabis grows very similarly to most other plants. All plants need sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water in order to live and grow. In this respect, cannabis plants are no different. Their roots absorb nutrients from the soil and the stalk holds the plant upright while various stems support the leaves and buds. It’s those last two components of the plant that make the cannabis plant particularly interesting. Let’s take a closer look at what, exactly, is unique about the cannabis plant.
One part of the cannabis plant that even non-smokers will recognize is the iconic leaf. Each cannabis leaf typically contains seven leaflets, though occasionally indica plants may produce leaves with nine leaflets, and some sativa strains have even produced up to 13 leaflets. Sativa leaves tend to be long and slender, while indica leaves tend to be shorter and broader.
Just like any other plant, cannabis uses its leaves during respiration and photosynthesis. You may remember from Biology class that photosynthesis is how plants feed themselves. The cells in a plant’s leaves capture sunlight and convert it into glucose. In order to make that conversion happen, plants also need carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. They get molecules of each element from environmental carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H20).
The most important part of the cannabis plant is the bud, which is the cannabis plant’s flower. When you buy cannabis from your local dispensary, you’re buying the dried buds (or flower) of a cannabis plant. If you buy concentrates, including vape pens, you’re buying the concentrated cannabinoids and terpenes that have been extracted from the plant’s buds and leaves. Edibles are also typically made using concentrates extracted from the buds and leaves of a cannabis plant.
Cannabis buds contain the highest concentration of cannabinoids like THC and CBD compared to other parts of the plant. Of course, the leaves do contain some cannabinoids, which is why they’re often used in pressing concentrates or making edibles. But the THC concentration in leaves isn’t really enough to be worth smoking. Most cannabis leaves contain around 4% THC. If that sounds like a lot, consider the fact that the buds of a cannabis plant can contain up to 30% THC!
Just like most other dioecious (two-gender) plants, only female cannabis plants are capable of producing flowers. That means that every bag of cannabis that you purchase from a dispensary came from a female plant. Male cannabis plants exist to produce pollen, which is then transferred by wind or insects to pollinate the flowers on a female plant. Cannabis growers must separate male cannabis plants out as early as possible in a growing season because if the female flowers are pollinated, the cannabis plant will then produce seeds. There’s nothing inherently dangerous about this, but most cannabis consumers prefer seedless buds because the seeds are unpleasant to smoke and contain virtually no THC (less than 1% concentration).
Have you ever admired a particularly well-grown batch of weed? Did you notice the tiny, crystalline stalks that emanate off the bud? Those milky/translucent little glands are called trichomes, and they’re where many of the cannabinoids form during the cannabis plant’s growth cycle.
Trichomes serve a number of roles. In the wild, they protect the seeds of a flowering cannabis plant, and they contain aromatic terpenes and cannabinoids that attract pollinators while warding off insects and animals that may otherwise try to eat the buds. It’s worth remembering that humans seek out intoxicating substances like cannabis, but many animals in the wild view intoxication as a detriment to survival.
The individual buds of a cannabis plant are supported by a sprawling network of stems. They help keep the flowering buds growing upright. Like the leaves, cannabis stems do contain some THC. Some lab analyses show THC concentrations hovering around 1% for many stems in an average batch of cannabis. However, some stems contain much more THC - around 9%! This disparity may be due to factors like trichome concentrations found on the stems. In theory, a stem from inside a very trichome-heavy bud could have a higher THC concentration than external stems or stems from a less-resinous cannabis plant.
As you can see, cannabis is an incredibly useful plant. Every part of the plant contains some concentration of cannabinoids, which is why many people use stems, leaves, and bud trim from a cannabis harvest to make edibles and topicals. The fibers of the cannabis plant can also be used to manufacture ropes and textiles, which were among the most historically-significant uses of hemp before cannabis prohibition.
Plant Life Cycle
The cannabis plant grows more or less like any other flowering plant. It starts with a cannabis seed, which must be germinated (exposed to water and sunlight) for growth to begin. After a few weeks the seedling enters a vegetative growth stage, effectively becoming a young cannabis plant. The vegetative stage typically lasts one to two months, depending on the strain being grown and its genetics. Once the plant starts to flower, growers will control factors like light exposure and nutrient delivery in order to manipulate the size of the buds and the trichome production within the plant.
When the buds are fully grown and the grower has decided to harvest their cannabis, they must then cut off the branches that contain cannabis buds, dry the plant matter, and “cure” the cannabis buds. Curing involves regulating the moisture content after hang-drying the buds with the goal of retaining flavorful terpenes and cannabinoids without letting the plant matter get moldy. Cannabis genetics can only do so much; the curing process determines whether a harvest will produce top-shelf cannabis or a dry, flavorless yield, which is why it’s such an important part of the process that brings your cannabis from farm to coffee table.
How Is Cannabis Grown and How Do Growing Techniques Affect Cannabis?
So far, we’ve talked about cannabis growth as it pertains to soil grow operations. Planting seeds in soil is the simplest method because it mimics natural growing conditions in the wild, but it’s not the only way to grow cannabis. Experienced growers often move beyond soil grows to experiment with other methods, such as hydroponic grow operations. Hydroponically-grown cannabis is raised using a small pool of water and liquid minerals/nutrients as a growing medium instead of soil.
Both soil-based and hydroponic growing techniques are considered safe and effective methods of producing high-quality cannabis. However, there are a few practices that some growers engage in (using both soil and hydroponic systems) which could produce inferior or even dangerous cannabis. These chemical additives may be an issue when buying cannabis on the black market, but rest assured: most states with legal cannabis (including Nevada) enforce strict safety testing and require regular crop analyses. Though testing may be burdensome on growers, it helps ensure that you, the consumer, are only getting clean, safe cannabis.
Some growers use special fertilizers to encourage a fast-growing, high-yielding cannabis crop. While many commercially-available fertilizers are perfectly safe to use and produce a high-quality harvest, others contain potentially hazardous additives like heavy metals, which can be absorbed by the roots and circulated inside the plant all the way to the buds. Legal growers are usually required to follow some type of best practices, such as performing a thorough nutrient flush prior to harvesting, but black market cannabis may not have been grown or harvested safely.
Cheap, low-grade fertilizers are one of the biggest causes of heavy metal contamination in cannabis. Growers should only use safe, tested fertilizers that have been approved by either a federal or state-level agency. This is why cannabis purchased through the legal market undergoes careful testing and chemical analysis - not just for cannabinoid measurements but also for quality control.
Plant Growth Regulators (PGRs)
Another potential hazard in poorly-grown and/or black-market cannabis is the use of plant growth regulators, or PGRs. While cannabis grown with fertilizer can still be safe (depending on the type of fertilizer used and how extensively the plant is flushed for nutrients), PGRs disrupt the hormone production and distribution within plants. The goal is to stunt the plants’ growth - which may sound counterproductive, but PGRs are typically used by indoor growers hoping to develop a short, easily-manageable “bushy” plant that won’t take up too much room.
PGRs are known to produce subpar-tasting cannabis and may potentially put consumers at risk of targeted health problems like liver damage or even cancer, though more research is necessary in this field. Again, this is generally not a cause for concern in states that have passed medical and/or recreational cannabis laws, which require laboratory analysis of cannabis as well as other safety regulations.
Every farmer has to deal with pests, whether they’re growing cabbage or cannabis. Pesticide use is commonly accepted in agriculture because the FDA has conducted extensive studies detailing which pesticides are safe to use on food products and in what concentrations. Cannabis is different. Because cannabis buds are usually smoked or vaped instead of being eaten (like most fruits and vegetables), there’s still a lot of debate on how safe chemical pesticide use is. Many pesticides produce other chemicals as a byproduct when they’ve been heated, which isn’t a concern with edible produce but could be detrimental if you smoke a joint using cannabis that’s contaminated with these harmful chemicals. Some pesticides when heated will even produce hydrogen cyanide, a compound that was used as a chemical weapon during World War I.
Of course, there are organic alternatives to chemical pesticides. Many growers use natural options like neem oil to ward off insects. Much like PGRs, pesticides are not a cause for concern in most legal markets. States like Nevada and Oregon, for example, tightly regulate the use of pesticides and make laboratory analyses mandatory for all cannabis grows. Other states, like Massachusetts, have banned the use of chemical pesticides on cannabis altogether.
You can rest assured that any product you order through Blackbird has undergone extensive inspection and lab analysis compliant with state legislation. Our partner dispensaries provide nothing but safe, high-quality cannabis that you can feel good about smoking, vaping, eating, or otherwise medicating with.
What Comes Next?
So far, we’ve covered the basics of cannabis: what it is, how it’s grown, and how its cannabinoids interact with your body - but what exactly is the history of human cannabis use? You may think cannabis wasn’t widely used until hippies popularized the plant in the 1960s, but its history actually dates back thousands of years! In our next installment of WeEdu, we’ll talk about the history of cannabis cultivation and use by humans as well as the plant’s medicinal, recreational, and ceremonial uses.