A comparison of two very different points in the cannabis spectrum
With a plant as versatile as cannabis, there are seemingly no limits to the diversity of forms it can produce. Sometimes the differences between types are visible only to the experienced eye; sometimes, they are so pronounced that the uninitiated would think that they were looking at two completely different and unrelated species. For millennia, the evolution and adaptation of cannabis was caused by its gradual spread across the globe, with the specimens that survived in colder or warmer regions becoming the dominant phenotype until eventually they were identified by early botanists as separate branches of the same family tree.
What’s in a name?
In the most recent definitive work on the natural history of cannabis, ‘Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany’, authors Robert Connell Clarke and Mike D. Merlin have redefined much of what we thought we knew about the taxonomy of the plant. Rather than continuing to classify the two main types as indica and sativa, they postulate that Broad-leaf Hemp (BHL) and Narrow-leaf Hemp (NLH) are more accurate descriptors for industrial hemp, and Broad-leaf Drug (BLD) and Narrow-leaf Drug (NLD) for psychoactive cannabis. Within the two very different expressions of genetic potential that we are most familiar with as either industrial hemp, or psychoactive sativa, indica or hybrid, these classifications refer to the scientific names Cannabis indica subspecies chinensis, Cannabis sativa subspecies sativa, Cannabis indica subspecies afghanica and Cannabis indica subspecies indica respectively. The most revolutionary result of this research is that all the NLD varieties, which have been referred to as sativas since cannabis taxonomy began, are actually indica subspecies of the main indica type! If nothing else, this new information may make the Cannabis Cup even more confusing as all categories suddenly become Best Indica.
The origins of genetic engineering can be traced back to hemp cultivation.
Diversity of purpose is the other major factor that leads to diversity of type. From the earliest beginnings of farming, humankind has chosen the best specimens for their specific needs and bred them together with an increasing degree of accuracy and effectiveness. This was the birth of genetic engineering (a very different process to genetic modification, where genes from one species are unnaturally introduced to the genes of another, although currently the two terms are often confused and even used interchangeably). For hundreds of years this was a gradual process that, aided by natural selection, continued slowly yet surely. It suffered a major setback at the beginning of the last century when marijuana, and therefore hemp, became both illegal and for the most part replaced by other materials such as cotton, plastics and synthetic fibers. However, some fifty years later the advances in indoor growing under lights propelled psychedelic cannabis breeding into a new dimension of possibilities; another couple of decades after that, the realization of what we were doing to our planet by insatiably consuming its finite resources sparked a new interest in that most sustainable of crops: hemp.
In the present day we are lucky enough to be able to explore the full potential of both ends of the cannabis spectrum. It is interesting to compare the life cycles of two excellent examples from the far ends – Big Bud from Sensi Seeds, cultivated indoors, and the more scientifically named USO-31, the industrial hemp strain grown by HempFlax. Not only are they radically different, but the same Dutchman, cannabis business pioneer Ben Dronkers, is behind both companies. Here is an overview of a year in the life of two contrasting, yet closely related, types of cannabis.
Of course, one of the benefits of indoor growing is the freedom to start your crop whenever you like; for the sake of this comparison, however, we shall assume our (hypothetical) Big Bud grower is carefully germinating her seeds in March. A relatively simple process which takes up little space, time or energy, provided the seeds are frequently checked for signs of drying out and this is remedied immediately. As soon as the tiny sprout that will eventually become the main taproot is a few millimeters long, the seeds are planted in their first growing medium; great care is taken not to damage the germinated seeds and each one receives close individual attention. Already the contrast between the processes is huge; at HempFlax, millions of seeds are being tilled into the massive fields by multiple machines – and then simply left to get on with it!
As spring begins to give way to summer, the HempFlax fields turn from brown to green as a carpet of seedlings appears, so quickly that the young plants outpace weeds which would otherwise have made them compete for sunlight and space. In the Big Bud growroom, the seedlings are large enough to be temporarily tricked into flowering in order to reveal their sex; once ascertained, the males are mercilessly eliminated and the females are returned to their vegetative cycle in order to develop further. They can now make use of the space previously occupied by their male siblings, and are re-potted to take full advantage of this. They may require some extra nutrition, whereas at HempFlax, the young plants are fuelled by sun, air, and soil enriched by the composted root matter of the previous harvest.
In early summer the vegetation period is in full swing for both Big Bud and USO-31. The sun beats down on the fields and the lights shine for 18 hours per day in the growroom. The industrial crop has by now developed root systems that can have taproots up to two meters long, holding them firm in high winds and ensuring a sufficient supply of water. Thanks to her Afghani heritage, Bug Bud is also quite capable of forming the kind of root system that kept her ancestors anchored securely on windblown mountainsides – although if this is a requirement for plant survival in a growroom, you’re probably using too many fans. As the Summer Solstice heralds the return of lengthening nights outside, a final re-potting gives Big Bud the best possible chance of maximum development, as some growth will continue during the flowering period.
As summer draws to a close and the hemp, by now a few meters tall, ripens in the fields, the pre-flowering period gives way to full flowering and both male and female flowers start to form around the widely-spaced internodes of their tall waving stems. Indoors, the Big Bud undergoes a quite dramatic change in appearance as all of her many internodes suddenly display slow-motion explosions of flower clusters that will inevitably, gorgeously, swell into the huge buds that have gained this strain multiple prizes and the love of commercial growers everywhere.
Our two crops are nearing the end of the flowering period and our gardeners are starting to plan for harvest time. Big Bud is developing gigantic colas; the virgin flowers carefully kept free from pollen are, by now, usually in need of extra support in the form of pea-sticks from below or string from above. Sometimes both are needed, especially if the plants have been topped and thus developed into the fantastical green candelabra shapes that make those cultivating for both bulk and quality so very happy. The HempFlax fields have become a great forest of meters-tall hemp plants that display a huge, glorious silvery ripple when the wind moves across them. Each of them is tall and slim rather than bushy, with a supple slenderness that belies their strength thanks to the long fibers that make them such an invaluable crop. The other most radical difference between the two varieties at this stage is the millions of seeds that populate every bud on the HempFlax hectares. Obviously the last thing our Big Bud cultivator wants, at HempFlax the seeds are an absolutely essential part of the harvest.
The harvesting process is only the same insofar as the plants are cut down. HempFlax brings out its cutting-edge (pardon the pun) harvesting machinery to roam up and down each hectare. These machines are one of HempFlax’s greatest innovations as they utilize ‘double-cut’ technology which cuts the seed-filled tops from the stems moments before the stems are severed at the bottom. The seeds and stalks are immediately separated as the machine moves through the field, collecting the seeds and slicing down the countless hemp plants to leave them lying in neat rows. As the days and nights grow cooler and damper, rain and dew ret the hemp. This part of hemp farming has remained completely unchanged for millennia, as it is so simple, effective and free that there is no real need nor reason to try to improve upon it. Retting naturally causes the bast fibers to begin detaching from the inner woody core of the hemp stalks in preparation for further processing. Once the hemp has had some time to ret, it is gathered and baled by more of HempFlax’s own custom-built machinery and the bales are removed to the factory floor.
Harvesting Big Bud also begins with simply chopping down the plants, which are then hung upside down in a dark, well-ventilated room rather than being left to ret, which would pretty much destroy your harvest of buds. When to remove fan leaves is a point that has been debated amongst cannabis growers probably since humankind began cultivating it for psychoactive purposes, and which shows no sign of concluding any time soon, but it is certain our grower will remove them that at some point. When the buds are visibly dried, but well before the point when they become crunchy and brittle, the buds are carefully trimmed from the plant. This is something of an understatement for Big Bud, since the colas are so enormously sized that they are basically branches in their own right! Although an incredible sight in one piece, there is wisdom in making these masses of dense flowers into smaller chunks to reduce the risk of both bud-rot and drying time.
The carefully manicured buds of Big Bud are now curing in mason jars, opened conscientiously once a week to enable the air to circulate. In honesty, this is also to allow the buds to be lovingly admired, smelled and even gently squeezed; there are very few growers who can resist fawning over the fruits of their labor, whether those are literal fruits or prizewinning cannabis buds. By Winter Solstice, they should be ready to be consumed; whether the grower has managed to wait that long is another matter!
At HempFlax, though the fields are now bare and often the ground is frozen, the work of processing their harvest (which grows larger by the year as the company quite literally gains new ground) continues apace. The Decorticator is as impressive as its name, a custom-built cannabis-stripping behemoth, the machine that those little automatic cannabis manicuring devices dream of growing up into. In the great factory halls of HempFlax, two processing lines of over 70 meters each turn the bales into their component parts.
Another difference between the psychoactive and the industrial grades of cannabis is that in industrial farming almost the entire plant is used. Fibers are combed and carded into two different grades; seeds are pressed for oil, milled for feed, and cleaned for nutrition, with some reserved for planting the following spring; the woody shives have a variety of uses from stable bedding to hemp plastic and construction components. Big Bud is grown for a single end product, the trichome-and turpene-bearing flowers. However this is also a product with varied potential applications, more of which become apparent every day as science and medicine make increasingly exciting discoveries about the biology and chemistry of cannabis.
The future looks bright green
It has been famously said by the late, great Jack Herer that hemp can save the world. Although this optimistic statement is not technically true, the spirit behind it is quite well demonstrated by the comparison of Big Bud and USO-31 and their radically different yet equally valuable uses. If we as a species, in all our fabulous and creative diversity, can continue to explore and exploit the similarly fabulous diversity of cannabis, whether it be the NLD, BLD, NLH or BLH varieties, there is no telling what problems could be solved and what suffering could be alleviated.
Originally Published in Weed World Magazine Issue 112