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Cannabis Plant Anatomy – Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know

There are few modern symbols today that stand out as much as the green cannabis leaf. However, many cannabis users, old and new, have never had the chance to see an adult plant up close, given its restricted status and classification as a ‘Schedule I’ substance.  

Even if you have been lucky enough to see a cannabis bud up close and personal, you may have wondered about the function those sugary crystals serve, or the bright orange hairs, or the dense knobs surrounded by tiny leaves, for that matter.  

We’ve written this article specifically to address all of the above, helping cannabis lovers familiarise themselves with how the various components of the plant work.  

Understanding the Difference between Marijuana Plant Sexes 

Right off the bat, we need to consider the fact that mast cannabis buds are dioecious in nature – there are clear and distinct differences between the male and female ones. For instance, the cannabinoid-rich flowers are always female while the pollen sacs producing ones are male.  

However, it is quite possible that some plants emerge as monoecious in nature – they can harbour both pollen sacs and flowers, although this isn’t too common.  

For rather obvious reasons – female plants garner a lot more attention in the cannabis research world – for one, they produce significantly higher cannabinoids, including the key psychoactive compound THC. 

Many cannabis experts see male plants as ‘undesirable’, owing to their generally low cannabinoid potential. It is also believed that higher exposure to female plants will encourage them to seed faster. Still, male plants play a critical role as far as cultivation and breeding goes. In addition, they are also useful due to their abundant supply of fibres.  

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the anatomy of a cannabis plant.  

The Anatomy of a Cannabis Plant 

Here are the most crucial components of a cannabis plant: 

The Roots 

It’s important to start here because the roots suck in water and essential nutrients from the soil into the plant. As the seed continues to grow, a central taproot will also grow and spread into a fibrous network safely housed within the soil.  

Cannabis plants are typically characterised by small, white-looking roots which like to fill out their respective potting mediums. So eventually, a sponge-like root network is conceived to keep up with the high water demand.  

The Branches and Stems 

Cannabis plants typically grow from a single central stem which branches off into nodes of leaves on either side. The central stem’s role is to provide structural support and house a system of vascular tubes, supplying the plant with water and essential nutrients. If the entire plant were a town or city, you can think of the stem as the main arterial highway.  

Xylem is another component of the central stem system, which helps the water and nutrients seamlessly move around in the tubes.  

The Fan-like Leaves 

This is without the doubt the most identifiable part of a cannabis plant – however, many cannabis users are under the misconception that the fan leaves are responsible for the THC content. This isn’t true, as the fan leaves themselves have fairly low THC levels.  

Cannabis leaves, much like the leaves of any plant, really, serve the same function – to collect solar energy and act as a shade to protect the buds from sunburn.  

Initial Structures (Pre-sex) 

Modified leaf structures known as bracts house potential pollen sacs/buds-to-be. These ‘pre-flowering’ structures are pear-shaped bundles, tightly nestled around braches that grow away from the main stem.  

If you see white, whip-like hairs surfacing from the bract, the plant you’re looking at is a female. If you observe a bract that looks full and bulbous – kind of like crab claws – it is a male plant which produces pollen sacs. 

To maintain an even grow, plants must be ‘sexed’ before the pollen has a chance to emerge – the pollen has a tendency to spread to female plants very easily and produce seeds. Apart from seed production, fertilised plants do not yield resin, which means they do not provide for a good cannabis smoking experience.  

Therefore, seasoned breeders pollinate flowers under strictly controlled conditions to eliminate the possibility of cross contamination. 

The Flowers (or Buds)   

Flowers play a variety of signature roles, such as attracting pollinators, producing key compounds for the plant and producing seeds, once they have been fertilised.  

Every female plant flourishes into a main flowering top called the cola. To boost yields in low growth areas, growers have learned to create several main colas through methods like LST (low-stress training), topping and pinching.  

While the main cola (apical bud) grows at the top-most tip of the plant, smaller cola clusters also grow along the neighbouring sites of lower branches. 

The Pistil and Stigma  

The pistil is essentially the reproductive part of a female flower, while the vibrant, hair-like strands you may have seen on the pistil are known as stigmas – the latter serve a unique purpose in that they collect pollen from the male flowers.  

Over the course of a cannabis plant’s maturity cycle, the stigmas will start to go from a white hue to a progressively yellow to orange, then red, and finally, a brown hue. Even though they play their part in the reproductive process, they add very little in terms of potency or taste.  

The Calyx and Trichome 

Calyxes are recognisable by their compact teardrop fold shape and constitute most of the bud. They clearly stand apart from the surrounding sugar leaves and when fertilised, act as the seed incubator for the female plant. When not fertilised, calyxes serve as the main ‘trichome hub’ for cannabis.  

Trichomes are, in fact, the minutest component of the cannabis plant, but they are interestingly enough, the main attraction.  

They can be distinguished as small, hair-like formations, responsible for producing the resin within cannabis plants, and creating the medicinal as well as psychoactive effect (the high) that the herb is so famous for.  

However, as far the plant is concerned, trichomes act as a shield against infection and disease, as well as a predator and UV repellent. To delve into more detail, there are 3 types of trichomes running along the entire plant which vary in size.  

The largest among these are produced on the calyxes and the sugar leaves that surround them. It is these trichomes that contain the most amount of terpenes and cannabinoids. They will start out clear but tend to take a cloudy appearance with an amber hue, as they develop.  

How to Pick High-quality Buds  

Now that we are familiar with the basic anatomy of a cannabis plant, can we really distinguish between good-quality and bad-quality marijuana plants? We certainly can! 

First of all, generally poor-quality cannabis is something you’d want to avoid entirely, even if the price is insanely too-good-to-be-true. You’re wasting money because not only will the high be lacklustre, but you’ll also be inviting really bad headaches and sleepy vibes.  

Second, pay attention to the colour of the flower – if it looks lighter than usual, you can bet its poor quality buds. Good-quality buds are supposed to look nice and dense. They’re not only hard to squeeze but also make this crunchy sound when squeezed – it’s hard to miss and you’ll know for sure that you have good-quality stuff on your hands.  

Now, let’s examine the colour – the ‘greenness’ is more or less representative of the plant’s health. It shows how the plant was cared for during the fertilisation and growing process – plus, it also shows if the curing and drying process was properly carried out. This is extremely important.  

A healthy plant will see the green practically popping due to all the rich trichomes – picture walking into an HDTV store and seeing the colour of grass or trees pop in the product demo videos. That’s the colour you’re looking for. The buds look like they’ve just been plugged from the plant, even though they have probably been dried and cured several weeks prior.  

If you notice that the buds are too leafy, then they were not cared for in the best conditions. Leaves don’t really get you high, which means carelessness on the grower’s part.  

Also, if that iconic cannabis smell isn’t there, then the flower is not good quality. Some strains have an earthy smell – but the smell is a cannabis kind of earthy fragrance, not a soil kind of earthy smell. You’ll know for sure after you have smoked a few good quality strains 

Another thing to note is that good-quality herb is always really sticky – not because of humidity but because of the rich and goeey trichomes. However, they should also be crispy and crunchy to the touch, just to reiterate.  

The more crystals you see on the plant, the better – this means it is high in THC. Once you’ve grinded your herb, you’ll see brown hairs (pistils) which are also characteristic of high quality.  





Cultivation information, and media is given for those of our clients who live in countries where cannabis cultivation is decriminalised or legal, or to those that operate within a licensed model. We encourage all readers to be aware of their local laws and to ensure they do not break them.


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