Most cannabis consumers are fairly familiar with two parts of the cannabis plant: The flowers, or buds, and the infamous fan leaves. Five and seven-pointed pot leaves have adorned countless product ads and stacks of marketing materials, while “pot porn,” or page after page of macro photos of top-shelf samples of the art, has graced the pages of popular marijuana magazines and websites for years.
But what about the rest of the plant? Whether one is planning to cultivate or simply consume, it’s helpful to understand the parts of this herb that so frequently appear throughout social media and educational materials.
Understand Indica vs. Sativa
It’s first important to understand the different morphologies, or forms and structures, of indica and sativa strains. Indicas are short and stocky, while sativas are tall and lanky. Of course, from an efficacy perspective, sativas are better for treating depression and PTSD, while indicas are good for arthritis and cancer and are better at pain management. Sativas tend to deliver a more energetic, cerebral high, while indicas are more sedating, delivering the infamous “couchlock” and appetite stimulation (munchies).
A good primer can be found in the following two articles:
These articles give readers a better idea — including plenty of photos — of the difference between the two sometimes dramatically different sub-species of cannabis.
Most of the focus of cannabis anatomy is on the resin-bearing female plants that produce usable medicine and marketable recreational herb. Males are of concern to growers because they must be identified and killed during cultivation, before they pollinate females (which then put valuable energy and resources into producing seeds, not resin).
Breeders obviously use male plants to pollinate females in search of new and unique strains. Growers who work from clones taken from female “mothers” do not have to worry about male plants and their unwelcome pollen appearing in their gardens.
At the top of the plant is the main cola (also called the apical bud), typically the largest collection of flowering buds available on the plant. However, even small plants will produce multiple cola at the end of major branches. The cola is known as the terminal bud because it does not appear along the mid-section of a branch. Using a variety of techniques, gardeners can increase the number of colas present on a flowering female cannabis plant in an effort to produce a greater yield.
While the cola is a section of the cannabis flower at the end of a branch, a calyx is the actual bud itself. It is small sugar leaves (gaining their name from the fact that, in good strains, they are covered in trichomes), tear-shaped nodules, and pistils (see below). For those who smoke or vaporize cannabis flowers, the calyx is what it’s all about and where the highest concentration of trichomes can be found.
The pistil is what many laypeople describe as the “hairs” that poke out from inside each calyx. They first appear as white and then morph to orange, red, and eventually brown. They sometimes curl and bend, as if in search of something. Which they are. Pistils, found only on female plants, function to capture the pollen from a male. Although bright orange pistils are commonly associated with better quality cannabis, they actually contain very few trichomes, offering the plant nothing in terms of aroma (terpenes) or potency (THC).
Fan leaves are the large, protruding leaves that appear along the length of the plant. While most commonly comprised of five individual leaves, fan leaves may sometimes feature seven and even nine leaves (more common in sativa strains). Fan leaves, which become part of the plant’s “trim” during harvest, are of interest to not only those who make cannabis extracts, edibles, and infused products, but also to those who juice them as part of a health regime or disease therapy.
The most important part of the cannabis plant is the nearly microscopic, translucent resin glands that coat the flowers and sometimes fan leaves. Trichomes contain the “miracle molecules” known as cannabinoids and terpenes. With a synergy called the entourage effect, cannabinoids and terpenes work together to deliver medical efficacy or euphoria.
Trichomes and the medically rich resin they produce are used to create a variety of cannabis extractions and concentrates, including kief (loose powder trichomes), hash (old-school pressed trichomes or ice water extraction via “bubble bags”), BHO (Butane Hash Oil), and modern interpretations on the theme like wax, shatter, and glass used in dabbing.
Fan Leaves for Juicing
Although most of the focus of both medical and recreational users is on the flowers of the plant, doctors and researchers are increasingly investigating and documenting the medicinal properties of juicing fan leaves. While this process conveys no psychoactive euphoria whatsoever, it does provide a wealth of THC-A, the acidic precursor to THC that is one of the most valuable cannabinoids for fighting disease and delivering therapy to patients.
About 95 percent of the THC in any sample of cannabis is actually produced at the moment it is burned or vaporized, a process called decarboxylation. Until this application of heat occurs, the vast majority of THC is stored in the plant in the form of THC-A, a cannabinoid that delivers no psychoactive effect. While controversial and requiring more research — including human trials — THC-A is believed to convey considerable medical efficacy for a variety of diseases.
The only unfortunate aspect of juicing is that it involves a consistent regime and requires more than 20 large fan leaves per day, per patient. Those in prohibitionist states, even those who grow their own, will be hard pressed to maintain a steady supply of leaves from plants high in THC-A for the purpose of juicing. Those in states like Oregon and California, where both indoor and outdoor gardens are plentiful, will find cannabis juicing most appealing and practical due to the ready availability of plant trim.
The next time a cartoon drawing of a cannabis plant appears in a video or advertisement, remember the various parts of the plant that work together to create the golden resin in which can be found the cannabinoids and terpenes that are the essence of the character of the cannabis plant.