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Cannabis is an incredibly unique, mysterious plant. It contains a myriad of active compounds that can make humans feel energetic, sleepy or happy. Furthermore, the herb boasts natural healing benefits for people suffering from chronic pain, epilepsy and depression.

“I found that there is so much out there about cannabis,” said Dr. Caroline MacCallum, a specialist in medical cannabis treatment for chronic pain. “You might feel euphoric or foggy at first, but once you’re a medical user, you don’t feel that way.”

Taking a step back, why does the plant contain these prolific compounds?

By design, just about everything that was naturally created on Earth has a purpose. For cannabis, this includes THC, a compound widely known for its ability to induce feelings of transcending euphoria for recreational users. In the wild, the secondary metabolite (it doesn’t play a direct role in plant growth or reproduction) has several responsibilities, from fending off animals and pests to protecting the plant from persistent sunlight exposure.

Targeting Herbivores

Scientists have made numerous assertions surrounding the natural role of THC in the plant’s natural habitat. Before humans started consuming the herb, it was thriving out in the wild with other plants and animals. In order to ensure its survival, it needed a way to ward off hungry herbivores, such as deer, sheep and squirrels. Researchers believe this is the main purpose of THC in wild cannabis. Curious herbivores would graze on the plant, start feeling dizzy or unproductive and eventually take note to avoid eating it in the future.

This theory is based on a general assumption that animals don’t like feeling intoxicated, which according to a large group of scientists, is not the case. There have been several reports of horses being drawn to psychedelic legumes, bighorn sheep to mind-altering lichen, reindeers to hallucinogenic mushrooms and so on (there’s a long list of such accounts). For cannabis, this suggests that THC may serve other critical roles that go beyond warding off herbivores.

Pest Resistance and UV-B

Cannabis compounds are known to deter pests, making the herb tolerant to some insects that munch on common plants. Traditionally, native farmers would dilute the plant with water and use it as a natural form of insecticide to prevent insects from ravaging their crops. Previous controlled studies have shown that in extract form, cannabis is deadly to termites and mosquito larvae. This was so effective that Arctiid moths would seek out cannabis plants that contain concentrated amounts of THC and consume them for protection against invasive insects.

THC is also believed to help protect the herb from aggressive ultraviolet rays (UV-B). This is why strains that are exposed to high doses of UV-B radiation produce more THC. As the plant is “stressed” from exposure, its natural reaction is to create THC and resin. Reactions to stress in living organisms are usually designed to ease tension and promote balance. It is important to consider that intense exposure to UV-B rays does not increase CBD content in cannabis and only affects the plant’s THC levels.

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