Story by Michael Hagar
Humans and cannabis have coexisted and coevolved for thousands of years. Some of the earliest recordings of cannabis use date back far before the birth of Christ, and written reports of the spiritual use of cannabis go as far back as the Vedic period of India between 2000-1400 BCE. Throughout history we’ve learned more about this multifunctional plant, including how to classify it scientifically, unlock the secrets behind how its consumption affects the human body and use its unique properties and characteristics for recreational, medicinal and industrial purposes. In this first cannabis crash course we’d like to explore the taxonomy of cannabis and other interesting facts about the plant.
First and foremost, let’s review how all life is classified scientifically by what’s known as “taxonomic rank.” You may recall this information from high school biology class, but in case you don’t, the first level of taxonomic rank is called a domain. Following a domain comes what’s known as a kingdom, which in the US typically includes Animalia, Bacteria/Eubacteria, Fungi, Protista and Archaea/Archaeabacteria. Kingdoms are then broken down further in phylum and traditionally followed by class, order, family, genus and finally species. Altogether there are eight major taxonomic ranks but, as with anything in science, these rankings are subject to change as we discover more about biology.
So how is cannabis classified in this system? The United States Department of Agriculture has provided the groundwork here for us, and has even gone further than the taxonomic description above. Rather than burden yourself with the technicality of subkingdoms, superdivisions, subclasses, etc., let’s instead venture down the ladder and look at the family, genus, and species of cannabis. Cannabis belongs to the family of Cannabaceae, which is known as the “hemp family” according to the USDA, the genus of Cannabis L. (hemp), and finally the species known as Cannabis sativa L., also known famously as “marijuana.” This is where things get really interesting and in order to progress further in our understanding we need to shift gears and review a little bit about what species and subspecies are.
The next stop on our cannabis taxonomy adventure places us at the concept of “binomial nomenclature.” Also referred to as binominal nomenclature or binary nomenclature, binomial nomenclature as defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary is “a system of nomenclature in which each species of animal or plant receives a name of two terms of which the first identifies the genus to which it belongs and the second the species itself.” This formal system of naming species using the Latin language was invented by Swedish physician, zoologist and botanist Carl Linnaeus in the year 1753. His work made its mark on history and this particular contribution to science led Linnaeus to be dubbed the “father of modern taxonomy.”
Some common scientific names you might recognize using this system include Homo sapiens, Canis lupus, and Felis catus, which refer to human beings, the gray or timber wolf, and domesticated or feral cats. So how does this information apply to the cannabis plant?
The genus that all cannabis species and subspecies belong to is Cannabis. Classically speaking, sativa, indica and ruderalis are the three main species of cannabis and each vary greatly in characteristics that follow below:
C. Sativa: Although pure sativas are hard to find, these cannabis plants typically grow tall, and have long branches and long narrow leaves. This species is native to India, has a much lower tolerance to environmental factors such as frost than its heartier Indica counterpart, and typically produces a very stimulating high through the production of high levels of THC and low levels of CBD.
C. Indica: Indica strains are native to the geographic regions in and around Afghanistan, Turkestan, and Pakistan. This species of cannabis grows shorter than sativas and has characteristics such as wide leaves, dense flowers or buds, shorter flowering times than sativas, and can handle a much more rugged climate and environment. Some indica strains can produce relatively balanced levels of THC and CBD and generally cause a sedating high.
C. Ruderalis: This wild species of cannabis is native to Europe and, in particular, Russia. They are typically short and shrub like, do not grow taller than a few feet, are low in psychoactivity, and flower automatically based on age versus changes in light cycles. Due to the unique characteristics of auto-flowering and producing high CBD and low THC content C. ruderalis can be used to create hybrids of C. sativa, C. indica and even industrial hemp. By mixing and matching Cannabis Ruderalis with other subspecies of cannabis, unique combinations of desired traits can be explored be breeders and growers alike.
Despite all we’ve reviewed regarding the classical nomenclature and taxonomy of cannabis there appears to be a growing movement that may rewrite some of these categoriesin an interesting way. In 2014 a study was presented at the International Cannabis Research Society where a revised vernacular nomenclature was proposed based on the work of John McPartland and Geoffrey Guy. While studying the genetics of the cannabis plant, McPartland determined that C. indica and C. sativa are not separate species but are in fact subspecies of the same species. By using what’s known as “DNA barcodes” to make his observations, McPartland turned more than 40 years of cannabis classification on its side.
What does McPartland’s discovery imply? As it turns out, what was formerly known as C. sativa should referred to as C. indica, given its origins from India and the Indian subcontinent. What was formerly known as Cannabis indica could now be viewed as Cannabis afghanica based on its geographic origins in Afghanistan, Turkestan, and Pakistan. Last but not least, the small shrubby autoflowering Cannabis ruderalis would now be referred to as Cannabis sativa. Whether or not this new classification system takes hold remains to be seen, but the conversation has been started and will hopefully lead to healthy debate among scientists and cannabis experts in the years to come. Please join us next month for Part Two of our cannabis crash course, where we will explore how cannabinoids affect the human body and what compounds other than THC and CBD play a role in generating the “high” experienced by humans.