Understanding Cannabis: Its Origin, Its Evolution, and Its Species

Using cannabis to live a better-quality life isn’t anything new.

For thousands of years, humans have grown and processed the plant for a variety of practical and medicinal purposes. Tracing the history of cannabis back to its origins reveals insights to those looking to understand the plant and what makes it flourish.

Where Did Cannabis Originate?

Most scholars think cannabis likely originated in Central Asia. In terms of establishing an exact location, there isn’t yet a conclusive argument. Some have hypothesized that it first appeared in valleys of mountain ranges such as the Altai, Tian Shan, or Hindu Kush. Others argue the plant originated on the sun-filled steppes of Mongolia.

Wherever the plant’s precise birthplace, archeologists have found evidence of cannabis cultivation throughout Central Asia, dating back as far as 12,000 B.C. The plant is nutritious, and because of its fibrous stalks, it was used to make rope, sails, shoes, paper, and any number of other practical items.

Due to its many uses, seeds quickly spread around the globe via travel and trade. By the time humans began to smoke and ingest cannabis, however, the plant had already evolved considerably from the original species that first populated Earth.

The Evolution of Cannabis

To better understand the different species of cannabis, it’s helpful to first have a little understanding of biological taxonomy; this is the method that scientists use to determine how different species of plants and animals are related to one another. Individual species are grouped into genera (the plural of genus), genera are grouped into families, families are grouped into orders, and so on. Using this methodology, scientists are able to understand the relationships and differences between the life we observe on Earth.

Cannabis is a genus of flowering plant from the Cannabaceae family. At some point, over six million years ago, cannabis diverged from the genus homulus, which we recognize today as “hops,” a crucial ingredient in many beers.

Although cannabis is recognized as a distinct genus of plant, the breakdown from genus to species is a controversial subject. Was it environmental or human pressures that caused the appearance of different species of cannabis?

Some have argued that the split took place long before humans began to influence the growth and evolution of cannabis. In the millions of years that cannabis has been around, the climate has heated and cooled in dramatic cycles, causing glacial ice sheets to advance and retreat over the Eurasian continent. During warmer times, glacial ice melted and cannabis spread north. During colder times, glacial advances forced the plant to spread south towards warmer weather.

It’s possible that the movement of glaciers over the millennia has effectively separated certain populations of cannabis, allowing isolated populations to evolve into the different species of cannabis we see in the world today.

What Are the Different Species of Cannabis?

The exact classification of these species is an area of debate, but for most people, it’s helpful to think of the genus Cannabis as broken down into these three species:

  1. sativaTall, thin, branched plants, with narrow leaves. In the wild, this species may grow upwards of 10-feet tall. This species may have psychoactive properties (if it doesn’t, it is usually just called “hemp”). Cannabis sativa means “cultivated cannabis.”
  2. indica – Short, bushy, broad-leafed plants, this species has psychoactive properties. Typically, the leaves of C. indica plants are a darker green than those of C. sativa. Specimens from India prompted this new designation, which is reflected in the name C. Indica.
  3. ruderalis – Short, unbranched, “roadside” plants, this species is weak in psychoactive properties. The name comes from the word ruderal, which refers to plants that colonize lands that have been disturbed by fire, construction, and war, etc.

What Climates Are Best-Suited for Cannabis?

With heat, water, and light, cannabis has the potential to grow in many climates. The environment will strongly influence how the plant grows and how potent the psychoactive affects are going to be. For centuries, growers have exploited the plant’s ability to adapt, evolve, and be cultivated in new ways.

Cannabis grows best in a warm environment with a lot of sunlight and moist, well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. Most strains can’t handle cooler temperatures (below 60°F), but can survive prolonged heat as long as there is sufficient water. While it likes to grow in humid environments, people have cultivated the plants for centuries in the high and dry mountains of Nepal and Afghanistan.

Where Does Cannabis Grow Naturally?

Temperate and tropical regions offer cannabis the best chance to grow naturally, and feral varieties (those that have escaped cultivation) likely exist all over the world.

It might be surprising, but wild cannabis is now growing all over the American midwest. Known as “ditch weed” or “feral cannabis,” these plants are descendants of the hemp that used to be commercially grown in the U.S. For your education and entertainment, watch this video the government released in 1942, which encouraged farmers to grow hemp so the fiber could be used to aid the war effort.

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