Home Sources of CBD Hemp vs. Cannabis: The Plants

Hemp vs. Cannabis: The Plants

Both cannabis and hemp are members of the same species, Cannabis sativa, which is one of humanity’s oldest domesticated crops. Throughout history, we have grown different varieties of Cannabis sativa for different purposes. Over thousands of years of genetic selection for function, coupled with varying growing environments, two distinct plants have emerged that are very different in their cultivation and use.

Tall, sturdy plants were grown by early civilizations to make a variety of clothing, rope, sails, and building materials. These plants were bred with other plants of similar characteristics, leading to the type of cannabis we now know as hemp. Today hemp plants are grown predominantly for their fiber while others are grown primarily for their seeds to produce oil. We use industrial hemp in a very large number of applications, from car parts to cooking oils, clothing to body creams.

Meanwhile in different parts of the world, other Cannabis sativa plants became popular for medicinal and religious purposes, and eventually these plants were bred for their resinous trichomes (more on that later). This led to the unique varieties we now use for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes. Today, medicinal cannabis plants consist of more euphoric THC-rich varieties, non-euphoric CBD-rich varieties, and points in between. In this book, we refer to these plants as simply “cannabis.”

What’s in a Name?

Throughout this book, we refer to the plant you might know as “marijuana,” “weed,” or “pot” as simply “cannabis,” which is the proper name of the plant. We refrain from using the name “marijuana” because it is historically and racially charged. Hemp is a common and acceptable name for this distinct cousin of cannabis, and useful for distinguishing the two Cannabis sativa plants in discussion.

Cannabis sativa, regardless of whether it is a fiber or seed plant (hemp) or a medicinal plant (cannabis), all have the same structural features: stems, stalks, roots, flowers, and leaves.

Hemp vs. Cannabis: The Plants

The basic anatomy of the cannabis plant. Hemp plant anatomy, while not exactly the same, is very similar.

Cannabis plants vary in height from 3 to 15 feet tall and have multiple branches with five to seven delicate serrated leaves spread like the fingers of an open hand. The plant’s leaves and flowers are covered, as is the entire plant, with tiny sticky hairs. These hairs, like the hairs on so many other plant species, are almost microscopic spikes that develop on the plant’s skin.

The technical term for these plant hairs is trichomes, and it’s a term you will hear a lot in reference to cannabis because these trichomes are where almost all the good stuff is stored. Trichomes may resemble hair, but they’re not the same as our hair or the hair on your dog. Trichomes are living cells. They run the gamut in how they look and feel and get classified as either simple or glandular. Glandular trichomes, the ones found on cannabis and hemp, produce and store oils on the plant’s surface.

All Cannabis sativa plants (hemp and cannabis) develop glandular trichomes. Just as mammal hair serves various protective purposes, including insulation and camouflage, so do trichomes. Trichomes provide a protective layer to the leaves and flowers from frost and UV rays. They also help reduce evaporation by protecting the plant from wind and heat. In many cases, trichomes protect plants from insects as well, with some structures so stiff or irritating (Stinging Nettle, for example) that they can keeps even large herbivores away.

In these trichomes, there is an oily resin of biologically active phytochemicals produced by plants: flavonoids, terpenoids, phenolic compounds, and cannabinoids, among others.

Some phytochemicals (flavonoids) give plants their pretty colors, like the blue in blueberries and the red in raspberries; other phytochemicals (terpenes) give plants their distinctive aromas, like basil, sage, and rosemary. The phenolic compounds found in cannabis trichomes have antioxidant properties, an essential component of a healthy diet.

There are lots of different phytochemicals in all the plant foods you eat, and some sources consider them to be nutrients. However, unlike vitamins and minerals, they’re not found to be essential nutrients, and there aren’t any established dietary reference intakes. Phytochemicals, like the active compounds in echinacea, for example, are extracted from plants, processed, and sold as dietary supplements. They’re generally considered to be safe, but there’s not much regulation regarding their dosages or even effectiveness.

Cannabinoids are the phytochemicals most people know of in cannabis: THC, for example, and CBD. More specifically, they are referred to phytocannabinoids, meaning they come from plants, unlike the endogenous cannabinoids (anadamide and 2-AG) that our bodies naturally produce.

As the plant grows and develops, the chemical composition of the trichomes changes dramatically. The “chemical cocktail” found within the trichomes of each strain has a different therapeutic effect that is unique to that strain, and even to that plant. There are many factors that contribute to the final chemical makeup of the plant: genetics, where it is grown (indoor, outdoor, greenhouse), what it is fed, when and how it is harvested, and how it is cured, to name but a few. Both cannabis and hemp plants develop these trichomes; however, because historically cannabis has been cultivated for medicinal and recreational use, it’s been bred to maximize the development of trichomes. This makes cannabis a much richer source of phytochemicals and cannabinoids.

Industrial hemp plants are genetically predisposed to grow tall and lanky with small flowers, using much of its energy for developing fibers. Medicinal cannabis plants, on the other hand, are designed for phytochemical production, growing shorter and bushier, with more branches that support more flowers and therefore an abundance of therapeutic compounds.

On cannabis, trichomes (and all the good phytochemicals that are stored in their resin) form in abundance on the flowers and upper leaves of female plants, and to a lesser extent on the lower leaves, branches, and stems. Male plants also develop trichomes but far less than the female plants, which is why cannabis growers focus on female plants almost exclusively.

Another useful way to think about the hemp versus cannabis distinction, according to Martin Lee, is in resin content. Generally speaking, hemp plants are low in this phytochemical-rich oil, and cannabis plants are high-resin plants.

As mentioned earlier, historically cannabis cultivation has focused on developing and maximizing trichome production, largely for THC content and the terpenes that give each varietal strain its particular character. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of the more famous strains like Maui Wowie, Lemon Haze, and Blue Dream. Today, with our improved understanding of CBD and all its therapeutic properties, many cannabis producers have begun to focus on CBD-rich plants. There are several cannabis plants whose primary cannabinoid is CBD, with very low levels of THC.

In its cocktail of cannabinoids, there is proportionally more CBD in hemp than in cannabis: Hemp naturally produces a higher proportion of CBD as compared to other phytocannabinoids, like THC. You can think of it as a pie chart of phytocannabinoids, where in hemp’s pie chart, the CBD slice is bigger than in cannabis’s. This is one of the reasons that hemp has become such a popular source of CBD and has in turn led to an industrial hemp farming revival here in the US after decades of prohibition. That said, because hemp doesn’t naturally produce much in the way of trichomes (as compared to cannabis), it takes far more hemp to get an equivalent amount of CBD. In other words, the cannabis phytocannabinoid pie is just bigger than hemp’s. This presents a solid argument as to why CBD extraction might not be the best use of hemp, especially considering the myriad of other important uses we have discovered for hemp.

Hemp is an extremely versatile plant. In fact, back in 1938, Popular Mechanics magazine touted hemp as “the new billion-dollar crop,” stating that it “can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane.” Here are just a few of the most exciting applications for hemp:

  • Hempcrete (insulation for construction)
  • Plastic
  • Clothing (antibacterial and odor fighting)
  • Energy storage as a superconductor
  • Biofuel
  • Food (seeds, oil, protein)