Plant Profile: Cannabis

It has been cultivated by humans for at least 5,000 years—used to make rope, oil, paper, medicine, and more. Today, Cannabis is making a comeback of sorts. The plant is at the center of an ongoing and growing cultural and political debate about its medicinal and recreational uses. We’re not here to sway your opinion on the subject. We just love plants and love telling people about them.

What is Cannabis?

Cannabis is a genus of annual herbs (non-woody plants) in the Cannabaceae family, which also includes hops (Humulus lupulus). It is believed to have originated in central Asia, but today can be found growing across the globe. The plant can reach anywhere from 3 to 20 feet in height. Its leaves are palmate, often with seven leaflets with serrated edges. The unique leaf shape is perhaps the most visible symbol used in marijuana culture. It’s like, septifoliolate, dude.

Wild Cannabis 1986 MO
Cannabis growing in the wild.

Cannabis is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers form on separate plants. The flowers consumed for medical and recreational use all come from female plants. The plant contains dozens of unique chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Some of these compounds, like cannabidiol (CBD), are non-psychoactive and used for medicinal purposes such as treating pain or anxiety. The main psychoactive compound in Cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Some Cannabis sold today contains up to 20% THC.

Before it became the cultural flashpoint it is today, Cannabis was long considered an important industrial crop. Cultivars low in THC, often referred to as hemp, were used to make things like rope and fabric. Even George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon, a practice recently revived at the historic estate.

Cannabis fibers
Cannabis fibers

What’s in a name?

Cannabis goes by many names—marijuana, weed, and pot are some of the most common. Specific hybridized strains make it even more interesting with names like Grape Ape, Pineapple Express, and Northern Lights. Fans of the 1996 movie BioDome may know it as Purple Sticky Punch. Its true botanical name was coined more than 250 years ago, but even today is a sticky subject among botanists.

Carl Linneaus published the name Cannabis sativa in Species Plantarum. This work, published in 1753, is considered the starting point for modern botanical names. Then in 1785, botanist Jean Baptiste Lamarck published the name Cannabis indica, referring to a plant found in India. Others argue there may even be a third species, Cannabis ruderalis.

Whether C. indica is indeed its own species, or a subspecies or variety of C. sativa, is still unsettled today. Scientists have studied the plant’s morphology and chemical profile without reaching a widely accepted conclusion. The plant’s long history in cultivation is one of the major barriers to solving this dispute. Those who conclude that there is only one variable species point out that the variation is continuous, differences are only maintained through ongoing natural and artificial selection, and there are no genetic barriers to the frequent interbreeding between wild and domesticated plants.

Making things more complicated, “indica” and “sativa” are also used commercially to refer to something entirely different. “Indica” is marketed as a strain that produces a body high, while “sativa” is considered a more cerebral drug. In states where cannabis sales are legal, stores often organize strains in a linear scale from “indica” to “sativa” with hybrids of the two in between.

Assorted cannabis bud strains and glass jars - medical marijuana
Assorted Cannabis flower buds. The labels on the jars indicate “indica” or “sativa” strains.

Cannabis in our collections


For obvious legal reasons, the Garden does not grow Cannabis today. But that wasn’t always the case.

The earliest reference to Cannabis sativa is an 1894 table of phenological observations at the Garden. It was also listed among the plants in the Medicinal section of the Economic Garden in 1918.

A 1922 listing of Garden medicinal plants offered this summary, “Hemp, when fresh, acts as a powerful narcotic, but this property is considerably diminished if the plant is dried or kept long. It has none of the unpleasant after-effects of opium, for which it is often used as a substitute to relieve pain, allay spasm, and produce sleep.”

Archives Cannabis
A photo of Cannabis taken by former Garden director George T. Moore in 1904. From Missouri Botanical Garden Archives.

Although Cannabis is not part of our living collection today, we do grow several of its botanical cousins. These include hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) and sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) trees. And varieties of hops (Humulus lupulus) can often be found in the Herb Garden. Cannabis is, however, well-represented in a number of our research collections.


Our biocultural collection, housed in the William L. Brown Center, highlights the connection between plants and people. And Cannabis is no exception. Among the Cannabis-derived artifacts in this collection are a hemp rope, hemp soap, and hemp lip balm. There is also a small package of hemp paper, about the size of an unrolled cigarette. The cover features a Cannabis leaf, and an inscription inside reads “Made with Pure Hemp Fiber from Marijuana Stalks. All proceeds go to Legalization.” That particular artifact was collected in 1972.


The Garden’s Peter H. Raven Library contains more than 70 books on Cannabis. The collection includes books on the plant’s biology, history, chemistry, taxonomy and more. There’s even a book on paper making that includes hemp paper. Most of these titles are in the general collection, available for use by Garden staff and visiting researchers. Books on one particular topic, however, are kept a little more closely guarded. That would be cultivation.

There are a series of short cultivation books written between 1969 and 1972 under the pseudonym of Mary Jane Superweed. The political tinge of the counterculture era is evident—one book includes the inscription “Dedicated to our beloved leader MR. R. N. NIXON, without whose Mexican-American policy this book might not have been necessary.” Other books by this author touch on legal narcotics, aphrodisiacs, and how to grow peyote and magic mushrooms.

Books like these aren’t especially rare or valuable. A quick Google search would likely turn up the same, if not better, information on the plant and its uses. But the cultural value of these books means they have the potential to disappear from library shelves, hence the inclusion in the Rare Book collection. Why keep them anyway? They are, after all, books about plants. And our library is a world-class resource of plant knowledge and information, albeit with a few interesting surprises.

Also contained in the Rare Book collection are several 19th-century prints and hand-colored Cannabis illustrations. These were included in works about medicinal plants from England, Germany and France. These works have been digitized by the Garden, and the images made available publicly through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Bonus: Download this Cannabis coloring sheet

Regardless of your feelings on the politics of pot, Cannabis certainly has an interesting botanical backstory.

Cassidy Moody – Digital Media Specialist

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