Levin: Cannabis Sativa

Jan 21, 2016

Back in the nineties, my late mother-in-law, a Bohemian artist, owned a home-studio in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, not far from the center of town. Her sloped backyard supported a hapless vegetable garden, which eked out its existence in sandy, nutrient-poor soil, typical of much of Cape Cod. In the center of her garden grew a truly impressive pot plant that loomed over the vegetables the way the World Trade Center once loomed over Wall Street.

The plant could easily be seen from both Commercial Street and Main Street, which ran above her property. In fact, neighbors who lived in the small condo on Main Street, uphill from her garden, could track the plant’s daily growth rate.

Back then, growing marijuana in an American backyard was considered verboten – but times have certainly changed.

Currently, recreational marijuana has been legalized in four states, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, as well as the District of Columbia. Many others regulate the sale of medical marijuana, eleven of which are very likely to sanction recreational use; Vermont included.

As a naturalist, I find it interesting that for more than five thousand years, like wheat and corn, marijuana co-evolved with humans. But unlike wheat and corn, the very same species was selectively propagated for two distinctly different purposes: fiber and drug. As fiber, hemp reached Europe and America from China; as drug, pot reached Africa from India; and then, through the slave trade, was brought to the New World. From there marijuana radiated everywhere else.

Marijuana hasn’t escaped the recent revolution in taxonomy and technological horticulture. When I was an undergraduate in the cobwebbed late sixties, it was classified as a single species, Cannabis sativa. Back then, the leaves were smoked and the seeds saved. Today, botanists recognize two species, C. sativa and C. indica.

Sativa, the plant Grandma Adrienne grew, hails from the tropics, rarely flowers outside Hawaii and California, and grows tall without much help.

Indica is a squat, cold-hardy native of the mountains of central Asia, where the concentrated resin extracted from the unpollinated female flowers becomes hashish.

By 2010, a million would-be Gregor-Mendels selectively crossed the two species to increase resin content and began to grow the hybrid plants indoors, often in the closet, under lights. Today, only unfertilized female flower buds are harvested, while male plants and all leaves are mulched.

Grandma Adrienne certainly would be amazed to learn how technology has transformed her controversial muse.