Anatomy of the Cannabis plant
When it comes to cannabis, the part of the plant that gets all the attention is naturally the bit we’re all growing for: the flowers. But while it’s easy to be enamoured with the beautiful frosty flowers we shouldn’t overlook the rest, because behind the bud there’s a whole plant, with all its component parts, each playing an essential role in bringing us our precious harvest.
Here at Alchimiaweb we strongly believe that the more we know about our favourite plants, the more success we’ll have cultivating them, and the happier we’ll be with the results! For these reasons here we’re going to take a closer look at the cannabis plant and identify all the different elements of its anatomy to help you get to know this wonderful plant a little bit better.
1, male flower, enlarged detail; 2, pollen sac; 3, pollen sac; 4, pollen grain; 5, female flower with bract; 5, female flower, bract removed; 6, female seed cluster, longitudinal section; 7, seed with bract; 8, seed without bract; 9, seed without bract; 10, seed cross section; 11, seed longitudinal section; 12, seed without hull (Franz Eugen Köhler 1887)
The Cannabis seed
For most of us, our introduction to cultivation comes when we buy or are gifted some cannabis seeds for the first time, so let’s set out on our examination of cannabis anatomy starting with the seed.
A healthy, mature cannabis seed will be well-rounded in shape with one pointed end and one flat end. They have a tough outer casing that is rigid to the touch, preventing the seed from being easily crushed. A seam separates the two halves of the shell (also known as the hull or pericarp) and is where the seed opens during germination.
Depending on their genetics, seeds can vary greatly in size, from really tiny (800 seeds per gram) to absolutely massive (15 seeds per gram). In mature seeds the outer shell should be covered with attractive dark markings known as “tiger stripes” which, like snowflakes, are unique to each seed and are in reality a thin layer of cells coating the seed and can be rubbed off easily, revealing the true tan/beige colour of the seed beneath.
Detailed view of a cannabis seed
Inside the seed we will find the embryo of the plant, everything needed to start a new life, dormant until the right conditions of moisture and warmth are met. We have the root, or radicle as it’s known while still in the seed, the cotyledons, those first, fat, rounded embryonic leaves containing the seed’s food reserves for early development. Cannabis is a “dicot” plant, meaning it has two cotyledons. Situated in between the cotyledons, surrounded by the first two true leaves is the apical tip, the point from which the plant will continue growing once germinated.
When we germinate a cannabis seed, the first thing that emerges from the opened seed will be the tap root which will begin to grow downwards, seeking out moisture and nutrition and colonising the substrate. The root system has three main purposes, not only does it anchor the plant in the substrate, it provides it with water and the nutrients, and it also acts as storage for sugars and starches produced by photosynthesis. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the roots in cannabis cultivation, they really are the foundation upon which everything else is built, without healthy roots we won’t harvest beautiful flowers!
Roots themselves can be classified into three types. Firstly the tap root, which is the principal component of the root system, the subterranean counterpart to the plant’s main stem, pushing vertically downwards and shooting off branches as it grows. These branches are the second type, the fibrous roots, which branch off from the tap root, extending outwards to form an underground network approximately the same size as the aerial part of the plant. A third type of roots are known as adventitious roots, these are the thick roots that sometimes sprout from the stem just above ground. These are the roots that make it possible to reproduce plants by taking cuttings and cloning them.
Adventitious root growing from the stem of a clone
Cannabis plants grown from seed will start life with a tap root system that develops into a fibrous root system, while clones don’t have a tap root, starting instead with adventitious roots before developing a fibrous root system. In all cases, a root system needs an adequate balance of moisture and air to be healthy and if care and conditions are right we will be able to see thick, bright white roots with plenty of fine hairs when we transplant.
The root crown
The part of the plant where the roots and stem join is called the root crown, or sometimes collar, or neck. This is a vital part of the plant, the dividing line between upward and downward growth, where the vascular system switches from roots to stem, and one of the places in the plant where most cell division takes place.
The root crown is naturally situated very close to the surface, where aeration is at its most, however some growers will transplant with the crown buried well below the surface, which encourages adventitious roots to sprout from the buried section of stem. It’s good way to deal with those leggy seedlings that stretched to get to the light and ended up too tall.
Stem and nodes
The stem of the cannabis plant is the part responsible for keeping the plant upright and for supporting the weight of the plant. It contains the vascular system which works to carry moisture and nutrients from the roots to the leaves via xylem cells, and to transport the sugars and starches produced via photosynthesis around the plant for use or storage via the phloem cells. Phloem is otherwise known as bast, the part of the cannabis or hemp plant that is traditionally harvested for fibre to make rope, canvas etc.
Cross section of stem showing a node
The stem, which can sometimes be hollow, is divided by nodes where the lateral branches begin, with the space between them being known as the internode. Seedlings will begin by growing opposite pairs of nodes and leaves but as time passes the nodes will start to grow alternately, sign the plant is mature and ready to flower.
Taller, stretchier Sativa plants will have a larger internode spacing than squat, compact Indica varieties, although environmental factors can also influence internode space. The nodes are where the first flowers appear (pre-flowers), so it’s the first place growers look when trying to determine the sex of plants grown from regular seeds. The small, narrow spear-like leaf growing at each node is called the stipule, and shouldn’t be confused with pre-flowers.
Nodes are one of the parts of the cannabis plant where most growth happens and most hormones are produced, for this reason we always cut clones with at least one node to be planted below ground in the substrate, so it can produce auxins (rooting hormones) to begin root development in the undifferentiated meristem cells of the node.
Leaves and petioles
Cannabis leaves are palmately compound (shaped like the open hand, with multiple parts), with anything from 3 to 13 veined, serrated leaflets or fingers. Indica varieties will generally have wider and shorter leaflets of a lush dark green colour, but fewer in number, while Sativas will have longer, narrower leaflets and can be of a lighter green shade. Of course, cannabis is a hugely diverse genus and there are exceptions to this rule, most notably the Ducksfoot variety, with its webbed leaves. Autoflowering varieties will tend to have smaller leaves, with the shape depending on the individual genetics, but as a general rule leaning more to the Indica side.
Leaf and structure comparison of the different cannabis species
A cannabis plant will have large and small fan-type leaves, which we remove and dispose of at harvest time, and also sugar leaves, which are the small, resin-covered leaves that protrude from the bud. These will either be trimmed away and kept aside for resin extraction, or simply left on the bud and smoked with the flowers.
Leaves from two different hybrids
As a seedling grows, each set of leaves has an increasing, odd number of leaflets, so the first set of leaves above the cotyledons will almost always have a single leaflet, the second pair will have three, the third will have five and the fourth will have seven leaflets, and so on until the plant reaches the usual number as dictated by its genetics.
The leaflets join at the point known as the rachis, from where they attach to the stem or branch by a leaf-stem known as the petiole. Petioles can be of varying length depending on the variety and can naturally vary in colour from green to dark purple, although in normally green plants a purple petiole can often be a sign of a phosphorous deficiency.
The fan leaves function both as solar panels and air conditioning for the plants, with the darker green upper side of the leaf producing energy via photosynthesis and the underside regulating internal processes via stomata, tiny pores that absorb the CO2 needed for photosynthesis and at the same time release water and oxygen. The stomata will close at night to conserve moisture and during the day will respond to heat and humidity levels, opening and closing to constantly balance internal moisture levels with external environmental conditions and keep metabolic functions working.
Cannabis is dioecious, meaning the male and female reproductive organs are on different plants. Unless we’re planning on doing some home breeding and making seeds, we won’t be growing any male plants to full maturity, but it’s important to be able to identify them, even if we’re growing exclusively from feminised seeds, just in case.
Female pre-flowers on the left, male flower cluster on the right
The male, staminate flowers effectively resemble green balls on sticks, composed of five petals which open to reveal five pollen-producing stamens. They grow in long, loose bud clusters from internodes on the branch and once pollen is released the male plants will soon die off. Male flowers contain low levels of cannabinoids and terpenes.
Female pistillate flowers are formed of tight clusters of bracts, the small, teardrop-shaped green petals that we growers refer to as calyxes. Each bract or calyx contains the ovary and the pistillate hair or stigma, which is what growers call the pistil and is the part of the flower that catches airborne pollen. Once pollen lands on the stigma, it is transported down the pollen tube to the ovary where fecundation takes place and the seed is formed, filling and swelling the bract as it grows. The thick, white pistil or hair will shrivel and turn a brown or red colour one it has served its purpose. The seeds are usually mature after a further 4-6 weeks time.
Both cannabis flowers and leaves develop beautiful colours
After pollination, female plants will devote their energies towards seed production, at the expense of resin. This means that seeded buds will have lower levels of cannabinoids and terpenes, and is one of the main reasons we strive so hard to grow sinsemilla (seedless) flowers, quite apart from the awful taste of smoking a seed in a joint!
Trichomes clustered on a bud
Botanists are still unsure as to exactly why cannabis plants produce such a large quantity of trichomes, but most agree that they most likely have the function of protecting the flowers and developing seeds, whether from harsh UV light, insects, grazing animals or extremes of temperature.
Trichomes have two different basic types: Glandular and non-glandular, with the principal difference being that non-glandular trichomes grow without a trichome head or gland, having the appearance of small hairs and mainly developing on stems, leaves, petioles and to a lesser extent on the flowers themselves, while glandular trichomes are found mainly on the flowers and sugar leaves, and possess the resinous gland where the cannabinoids and terpenes are secreted.
Glandular trichomes under the microscope
Glandular trichomes are themselves divided into three main kinds, which are: bulbous, the smallest and least numerous; capitate-sessile, which are larger and grow low, close to the leaf surface; and finally capitate-stalked, which are the largest, most numerous trichomes, found in highest concentration on the flowers and those with the greatest cannabinoid content, appearing somewhat like a tall mushroom, with a long stem and a large, rounded head – the iconic image of a trichome.
As the flowers mature, the trichomes will change colour, starting out transparent, passing through a milky-white stage nearing maturity and going on to become amber coloured when fully mature. Different growers will harvest their flowers depending on personal taste and the effect they’re looking for, but on our blog you can read a useful guide to harvesting according to trichome ripeness, which will help you to bring your crop down at the optimum moment.
Hopefully after reading this you’re now a bit more familiar with the anatomy of the cannabis plant and will become a better grower as a result. Knowledge is power!
The articles published by Alchimiaweb, S.L. are reserved for adult clients only. We would like to remind our customers that cannabis seeds are not listed in the European Community catalogue. They are products intended for genetic conservation and collecting, in no case for cultivation. In some countries it is strictly forbidden to germinate cannabis seeds, other than those authorised by the European Union. We recommend our customers not to infringe the law in any way, we are not responsible for their use.
Cannabis seeds are ready to plant and grow once they successfully germinate or once the root has broken through the protective outer shell of the seed. Cannabis seeds are available in regular, feminized, and auto-flowering forms. Home growers of cannabis often choose feminized seeds to ensure that the adult plant will be a flowering female.
Cannabis seeds are brown and about the size of a peppercorn. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
More about marijuana seeds
As with all angiosperms, or flowering plants, cannabis produces seeds that contain all of the genetic information needed for growth and reproduction. When a seed is planted, the translation of this genetic material dictates each unique physical characteristic the mature plant will have. If these are desirable traits, like potency, smell, vigor, etc., a breeder can select for these through a long process of genetic stabilization through generations, which eventually leads to the creation of a cultivar, or strain.
Anatomy of a cannabis seed
Cannabis seeds are about the size of a peppercorn, ovular in form, and pointed on each end with a ridge that transverses longitudinally on only one side from tip to tip. It is this ridge that opens up during germination. The opposite side is rounded. The body of the seed is brown, but underdeveloped and unfertilized seeds can have an off-white color and are typically smaller in size.
Photo by: Illustration by Weedmaps
The body of a marijuana seed is spotted or striped, most commonly with light brown specks, but some varieties of cannabis can have red or yellow markings. Plant embryos are contained within seeds and house all cells that will eventually differentiate into leaves, roots, and stems. Embryos, found within the reproductive organs, are protected by an outer envelope called the pericarp. Crucial components of the plant embryo are the cotyledons, the first leaves to appear from the seed, and the radicle, which develops into the primary root. Once the seed germinates and begins its growth into a mature plant, special structures called root caps protect the growing tips of the plant.
Today’s commercially cultivated cannabis does not contain seeds. The cultivation practices that have made this widespread are rooted in fundamental biological concepts. Cannabis is a dioecious plant, meaning it has separate male and female organisms, just like humans. If a female plant matures in the presence of a male plant, pollen from the male will fertilize the female, and its bracts will contain seeds at the end of the flowering cycle. Seedless cannabis is commonplace even when it originates from mass-produced outdoor cultivation, but not too long ago, this was not the case.
Around the middle of the 20th century, growers discovered that culling male plants as soon as they display their sexed traits would result in a crop containing exclusively unfertilized females, yielding cannabis flowers higher in THC that don’t require the removal of seeds before smoking. This seedless cannabis was from then on dubbed sinsemilla, which translates to “without seed” in Spanish. It is also commonly spelled sensimilla.
How cannabis seeds are produced
Commercial growers who produce cannabis flower desire seedless plants but there are also cultivators interested in selling seed to the growing home-cultivation market. Cannabis seed production begins with the pollen grain of a male plant. From this grain, a pollen tube grows, producing male generative cells that disperse in the form of pollen. The migration of pollen into a female plant ovule triggers pistils to fall off and seed production to begin. The bracts, which contain the ovule, will then fill with seeds. Since seeded plants are a natural outcome of pollen fertilizing eggs, producing cannabis seeds is a matter of letting nature take its course.
What’s the difference between feminized, regular, and autoflower seeds?
There are a few differences to note between these cannabis seed types.
- Feminized seeds: The key difference between feminized cannabis seeds and regular cannabis seeds is that feminized seeds have been engineered to produce exclusively female plants. This matters for cultivation since smokable flowers are produced only by female plants. A male plant can potentially ruin a harvest if it pollinates nearby female plants, causing them to produce flowers full of seeds.
- Autoflowering seeds: Autoflowering seeds have been carefully bred to begin and complete the flowering process based on the plant’s maturity rather than how much light the plant receives each day. Autoflowering seeds tend to be simpler to grow and don’t require as much light, making them perfect for places where the growing season is short or for indoor grows.
Is it illegal to buy marijuana seeds?
Marijuana seeds are a cannabis product, so if you live in a place where cannabis is illegal, then seeds are also illegal. However, some people who live in places where weed is not yet legal purchase marijuana seeds from marijuana seed banks as a “souvenir.” Either way, if you want to buy marijuana seeds and cannabis is illegal where you live, then you face some degree of risk. On the other hand, if you live in a state where cannabis is legal, especially one where home cultivation is allowed, then you should be able to purchase seeds legally. Remember, even in states where cannabis is legal, it’s still illegal nationally in the US. To cut your risk as much as possible, purchase cannabis seeds from in-state or local providers so they don’t have to cross state lines or be transported by mail.
Where to buy marijuana seeds
Seeds are sold in brick-and-mortar locations legally in many countries across Europe and are often traded online. As cannabis legalization expands in North America, more retail locations are carrying seeds as well. Feminized seeds are the most popular, but providers likely have access to many strains of mixed male and female seeds. Carefully sifting through cannabis flower before using the grinder will usually turn up a few seeds, too. Professionally sourced seeds assure quality genetics and viability, but saved seeds can be a cheap source of cannabis genetics for the hobbyist grower.
Do dispensaries sell seeds?
If you live in a state or country where cannabis is legal, and where individuals are allowed to grow their own plants at home, then you should be able to buy seeds at most legal dispensaries. This might not be the case if you’re in a location that does not allow home growing. The best thing to do is simply check your local laws and ask your local budtender.
How much do marijuana seeds cost?
A pack of marijuana seeds—typically containing around ten or so seeds—will run you anywhere from around $40 on the low end and as much as $400 or $500 on the upper end. The price of marijuana seeds depends on a number of variables including:
- Quality of genetics
- The reputation of the breeder who produced the seeds
- How rare or potent the strain is
- Whether they’re regular, feminized, or autoflowering (feminized and autoflowering marijuana seeds tend to cost more)
How many seeds should I buy?
If you’re trying to grow just a handful of plants for your own private consumption, then you can get away with purchasing one or two packs at a time. Since most commercially sold marijuana seeds come in packages of 10 or so seeds, 10 to 20 seeds should be enough to ensure a good harvest even if a few seeds fail. This is a baseline for a small, private crop andany larger operations should scale up accordingly.
How to store cannabis seeds
Seed providers sometimes vacuum-seal and freeze seeds for long-term storage, but commercially-available seeds in Dutch headshops are sold in small, plastic vials at room temperature and low humidity (6-12%).
Humidity and light is the main enemy of seed storage. Beyond that, seeds can remain viable for up to two years when stored in even the most haphazard conditions. Marijuana seeds swept up off the floor or found in the bottom of a drawer have been known to grow into vigorous young plants.
Germinating cannabis seeds
Germination is the process of beginning the vegetative growth of the new cannabis plant. Sometimes referred to colloquially as “popping,” this process starts when the seed is exposed to water and light. The seed abandons its state of dormancy, or quiescence, and resumes essential metabolic processes that feed on energy stores to delicately rupture open the shell and grow its first root. This root will elongate until it has taken hold of the medium, after which it will pull two small embryonic leaves (cotyledons) from the seed shell. Cotyledons are in the seed before germination and are not considered “true” leaves. The cotyledons will grow until they are about one centimeter long, and once the stem below this is around five centimeters tall, another set up true leaves will grow out of the top and the stem between the true leaves and cotyledons will continue to elongate.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
Generally speaking, cannabis is a hardy plant that will grow and even thrive in a diversity of environments. However, to assure germination, several steps can be taken. One method calls for a moist paper towel inserted into a plastic bag. Once the first root appears, the seedling must be carefully transferred to some soil before the root takes hold to the paper towel.
Cannabis seeds can also be germinated in a peat pellet. Plant the seed only just below the surface. Once the seedling has taken hold in the pellet, directly transfer it to a pot; the roots will grow right through the soft fabric that encases the peat, at which point the pellet can be directly placed into soil. Whichever method is used, keep the temperature between 70 -90 degrees Fahrenheit (21-32 degrees Celsius), ideally at 78 degrees Fahrenheit (about 26 degrees Celsius), keeping seedlings covered to maintain humidity. Seedlings and young cuttings require photosynthetically active radiation that is more heavily weighted in the blue portion spectrum; a common fluorescent desk lamp will suffice until they are about 5 inches, or about 13 centimeters, tall.