The Science Behind Cannabis: The Plant

May 8, 2019 | Custom Cannabis

Cannabis is complex. From seed to extraction, there are hundreds of variables that go into the end product, but at its heart cannabis is a plant like any other. In this blog series, we’ll dive into the science behind cannabis to demystify how cannabis works, where it comes from, and provide some insights to help you make informed decisions about cannabis on your journey toward wellness.

Part 1: The Plant

While beautiful and unique in many ways, the cannabis plant is structurally consistent with many other flowering plants. A hearty, annual grower, part of what makes cannabis unique is its long history of medicinal use and the intricate design of its buds.


Cannabis is one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops. Its history goes back nearly 12,000 years, originating in Central Asia, and since that time cannabis has very slowly made its way around the globe before appearing in North America in the 1900s.

An ancient medicine

Medicinal use of cannabis has a significant history as well, going as far back as 4000 B.C. in ancient China, and making its way through Korea, India, Russia, Germany all before the common era. Over the last 2,000 years, cannabis has spread through most parts of the world.

Parts of the Plant

The cannabis plant is intricately designed by nature. Each part of the plant plays an important role in its growth and survival and in the medicinal compounds it produces.

Cannabis Seeds

Every cannabis plant starts as a seed produced when a male plant pollinates a female plant. From here, the seed requires germination to begin its journey as a plant. The cannabis used to create medicine is always female, as female plants produce buds and male plants do not. If you’re familiar with the typical “look” of a cannabis plant, chances are you’re looking at a female plant.

Fan Leaf

Cannabis leaves are easily recognizable thanks to their prevalence on apparel, merchandise, and even cannabis brand logos (this imagery generally features a cannabis sativa leaf, but more about species in Part 2 of this blog series). While they’ve become iconic, cannabis leaves are not used in the production of medicine or similar cannabis products. That doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable, however, as the fan leaves as an essential part of the photosynthesis process.


The female cannabis flower is the primary source from which many cannabis products are derived. Also referred to as a “bud,” flowers are intricate and tightly woven. A cola is a dense collection of buds, with the largest cola forming at the top of the plant, referred to as the main cola, or apical bud. The flowers are comprised of sugar leaves, bracts, calyx, pistils, stigmas, and trichomes.

Bracts and Calyx
The bract is comprised of small leaves (often referred to as ‘sugar leaves’ for their trichome-coated appearance which looks similar to that of a sugary coating) formed to protect the translucent calyx. This hosts the reproductive sections of the female flower and is home to a high concentration of important compounds, including cannabinoids.

Pistils and Stigmas
Stigmas are the tiny white hair-like structures protruding from the pistils. With a sticky resin coating, their natural function is to catch pollen from male plants. While stigmas start white, they become yellow and eventually take on an amber hue when it’s time to harvest. This amber colour makes them easy to identify on dried flower.

Trichomes are the tiny mushroom-shaped resin-producing glands of the cannabis plant. These appear almost everywhere, including the leaves, steam, and bracts, and are responsible for the crystal-covered look and sticky feel of cannabis. Trichomes develop naturally as protection for the cannabis plant from natural predators and environmental conditions. In addition to their protective role, trichomes are responsible for the plant’s rich cannabinoid (including THC and CBD) and terpene profile.


Understanding the complex structures of the cannabis plant allows us to understand better how it works. As a patient, being able to identify each part of the plant can hopefully “demystify” cannabis. If you order dried flower as part of your prescription, take a moment to look it over and appreciate one of nature’s oldest medicines.


Read about the different species of the cannabis plant in Part 2 of our “The Science Behind Cannabis” series. Coming soon.