The cannabis plant, its makeup and chemistry

Like other plants, cannabis is made up of hundreds of chemical compounds. It also comes in many different types. Some people refer to indica, sativa, or ruderalis types. But all of these belong to the same species: Cannabis sativa L. – a member of the Cannabaceae family. Many people are familiar with cannabis by the name hemp. Another of its close relatives is Humulus Iupulus L., better known as hops, a key ingredient of beer. 

Cannabis is said to originate in the arid climates of Central Asia (Eurasian steppe), most likely the Hindu—Kush region. Straddling the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the 800—kilometer—long mountain range was an integral part of the ancient Silk Road. The Silk Road provided a network of trade routes connecting Eurasia. The road and maritime trading routes moved various goods, including cannabis, in its various forms (hemp fibers, oil-rich seeds, intoxicants, and medicines), to the east beyond the Korean peninsula and west beyond the Mediterranean Sea. Nowadays, cannabis can be found growing in places all around the world, except in humid, tropical rain forests. 

There are male and female cannabis plants, each with a distinct way of blooming. The cannabis plant has a lifespan of one year. The plant typically reaches a height of two to three meters (seven to 10 feet), after which it blooms and the growth ceases. After fertilization, the seeds mature and the plant dies. 

More than 700 cultivated varieties (cultivars) of cannabis are thought to exist. The difference between distinct cannabis varieties is not solely determined by the cannabinoid content, but also the specific terpene content. These chemical constituents act as distinct biochemical markers, and can be used to ‘map the current chemical diversity of cannabis‘. By analyzing the concentrations of these compounds, researchers can identify specific cannabis plants with defined chemical profiles. For the purposes of medicine development, these particular plants can be used in clinical trials to determine their specific biological actions, and later introduced as new varieties to the existing product range. 

Such analytical insights have led to a better understanding of cannabis taxonomy (scientific classification of plants). 

In the past, the distinction between sat/’va and ind/ca has presented much debate. The classification was based upon differences in chemical composition, especially the differences in terpene content. However, to date there is no conclusive research displaying distinct ancestral lines for Cannabis ind/ca or sativa. So, although cannabis plants can significantly differ from one another, the scientific emphasis has shifted to a hypothesis that all cannabis falls under Cannabis sativa.