Generalities about Cannabis sativa L.: Comparison
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Cannabis sativa L. is an herbaceous plant belonging to the Cannabaceae family. This plant species has many vernacular names and is known by many people as marijuana and hemp. Despite being native to Central Asia, this plant’s capacity of adaption to different climates lead to its spread all over the world. The Cannabis genus is composed of a single specie named “sativa”, which regroup several subspecies or varieties including Cannabis sativa ssp. sativa, Cannabis sativa ssp. indica, Cannabis sativa ssp. ruderalis and Cannabis sativa ssp. afghanica. However, there is still controversy among the scientific community about the sub-classification of Cannabis species and varieties. Cannabis sativa L. is one of the plants that have been used by humankind since antiquity, and many historians reported the different uses of this plant around the world. 

  • Cannabis sativa L.
  • species
  • genus
  • Molecular Docking, Biological activities, Chemical composition

1. Plant Nomenclature and Synonyms

Carolus Linnæus, also known as Carl von Linné (1707–1778), was the first person to frame principles for classification of living organisms into classes and sub-classes. His aim was to create a uniform international system for the identification of any living organism according to its morphological features. In this system, every organism is identified by his genera and specie names known as “binomial nomenclature”. In 1753, Carl von Linné mentioned the word Cannabis for the first time. This word comes from the Latin canna that means “reed” and bis that means “twice”, which means literally “reed with two sexes” [1][20]. Prior to the Linnæus nomenclature, Cannabis was widely used by different civilizations that gave it different names known as vernacular names [2][3][4][21,22,23]. At present, there are many local or vernacular names and various synonyms to name Cannabis. It is also known as hashish, marijuana, weed, Acapulco gold, ace, bat, bhang, log, hemp, Indian hemp, Colombian, doobie, dope (Cannabis), ganja, hydro, Jamaican, jive (sticks), joint, Maui wowie, Mexican, Panama gold, Panama red, pot, firecracker, ragweed, reefer, sativa, sinsemilla of California, spliff, Thai stick, etc. Those names and designations stay different depending on the region, country and culture. Cannabis sativa belongs to the Cannabaceae family, which includes 12 genera and 102 species, and with some species of economic importance, such as Humulus lupulus L. and Pteroceltis tatarinowii [5][24]. There are conflicting botanical classifications of Cannabis sativa, and the taxonomic classification of this plant has been the subject of divergences and debates. It is commonly accepted and recommended that Cannabis sativa is a single species [6][25], with four subspecies, namely indica, ruderalis, sativa and afghanica [7][8][9][10][2,3,4,26]. However, the classification criteria used for the differentiation of Cannabis sativa subspecies are often not very clear, since the chemical and morphological characteristics appear to vary according to the plant environment and pedology. In a study reported by Pacifico, et al. [11][27], the authors showed that the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of a Cannabis sativa single species depends on the growing climate of the plant. In most cases, it is recommended to apply the name Cannabis sativa to all Cannabis plants encountered, since they all belong to the same species, and there is no agreement on the plant taxonomy [6][25].

2. Description and Botanical Aspect

Cannabis sativa L. is an annual, usually dioecious plant belonging to the Cannabaceae family [12][28]. It is now considered as the only species of the botanical genus Cannabis but divided into several phenotypes that can be described as subspecies or varieties [13][29]. Cannabis sativa has the particularity of being a fast-growing plant with a fluted stem that can reach 1 to 4 m with a diameter ranging between 1 and 3 cm (Figure 1a) [14][30]. The variation of height and diameter depends on the sub-species, environment, soil and climatic conditions [15][16][31,32]. The seeds are smooth, greyish ovoid or spherical in shape, 2.5 to 3.5 mm long and 2.5 to 3 mm in diameter (Figure 1c). Each seed contains two cotyledons rich in reserves (protein and oil), with an albumen considered particularly small compared to other plant species [17][33].
Figure 1.
Cannabis sativa
L. General aspect (
); inflorescence (
); seed (
); leaf (
); stem (
This plant is also characterized by long, fine flowers (Figure 1b). It has glandular hairs that make it fragrant and sticky [18][19][34,35]. At post-germination, young male and female plants cannot be distinguished. It is only during the last phase of growth, when flowers start appearing, that sex determination becomes possible [5][20][24,36]. The female flowers have no petals and consist of two long white, yellow or pink stigmas. Their calyx (less than 3–6 mm) envelops the ovary containing a single ovule. The female flowers appear in pairs in the axils of small leaves named bracts, these bracts contain numerous glandular trichomes where cannabinoids, mainly THC, accumulate [18][21][22][34,37,38]. On the other hand, the male flowers have five sepals of approximately 5 mm length, with yellow, white or green color [17][23][33,39]. The male plants develop small pollen sacs that serve to fertilize the female plants with hairy, resinous stigmas [18][20][24][34,36,40]. The Cannabis leaves are stipulate and opposite, with palmate (five to seven unequal), elongated and spiny segments with toothed margins (Figure 1d). Towards the top of the axis, the leaves become alternate and are inserted on the stem in an opposite arrangement every 10–30 cm [23][39]. These plants have cystolithic, tectorial and resin-secreting hairs; the latter have a voluminous base ending in a cluster of several cells, with each one secreting resin [23][39]. The root is taproot with a length of up to 30 cm, but the lateral roots reach 20 to 100 cm. In addition, in peaty soils, the lateral roots are more strongly developed, and the main root grows to a depth of 10–20 cm [25][41]. The growth rate of the root system is quite slow in the initial stages of vegetation, in contrast to the aerial part of the Cannabis plant, which grows intensively and rapidly [25][41].

3. Geographic Distribution and History

In nature, Cannabis is an annual flowering plant. This means that it completes its life cycle, from germination to seed production, in one year [26][42]. Cannabis can grow in a vast majority of climates (Figure 2). From its region of origin, it appreciates calcareous and nitrogenous soils with a neutral or slightly acidic pH [27][28][43,44].
Figure 2.
Geographic distribution of
Cannabis sativa
This species originates from equatorial and subtropical regions, mainly from central Asia [29][1], where two places seem to be its cradle: the foothills of the Himalayas and the plains of the Pamir (a high mountain range centered in eastern Tajikistan with extensions into Afghanistan, the Republic of China and Kyrgyzstan) [30][45]. However, this plant has a wide geographical distribution growing up in Canada, United States of America, Europe and Africa. Cannabis is an ancient plant but the craze it has generated over (at least) the last century has greatly changed its face and even the face of the world. It is probably the first plant domesticated by humankind [31][46]. Many historical reports prove that this plant had been cultivated worldwide for thousands of years. The oldest documented evidence of Cannabis cultivation is a 26,900 B.C. hemp rope found in the Czech Republic [32][47]. Some of the earliest known prolific uses of Cannabis began in China around 10,000 B.C., where Cannabis was used to make clothing, rope and paper [33][48]. Further traces were reportedly found at the Neolithic site of Xianrendong on Chinese ceramics dating back to 8000 B.C. and decorated with hemp braided fibers. Between 8000 and 300 B.C., Cannabis was also cultivated in Japan and employed to make cloth fiber and paper [34][35][49,50]. However, the earliest reference of Cannabis psychotropic use goes back to 2700 B.C. It has been mentioned in the Chinese pharmacopoeia of the Emperor Chen Nong, where it is recommended as a sedative and remedy for insanity. Cannabis was also mentioned on the Ebers Papyrus of pharaonic Egypt back to 1550 B.C. as remedy for vaginal inflammations [36][51]. Yet, it was mentioned in Greek medicine, in the writings of Dioscorides, who underlines the psychotropic properties of the plant and already Galen fears that “it hurts the brain when we take too much” [37][38][52,53]. In India, it was one of the five magical plants used in religious rituals in the form of fumigation. In fact, around 1300 B.C., the stimulating and euphoric powers of bhanga (hemp in Sanskrit) were praised by the Indo-Aryans in one of the four holy books, the Atharva Veda [39][54]. Back to the European Continent, and around 700 B.C. in Marseille (France), Cannabis was used for rope manufacturing. The name Cannebiere (important avenue of the city) testifies of the importance of Cannabis at that time [19][35]. Jamestown settlers introduced Cannabis to colonial America in the early 1600s for the manufacture of rope, paper and other fiber products. This plant was so important that American presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew Cannabis [22][38]. The question of when and how Cannabis originated in the new world is still very controversial indeed. Cannabis was discovered in native American civilizations prior to Columbus’ arrival [40][55]. William Henry Holmes’ 1896 report “prehistoric textile art of the Eastern United States” indicated that Cannabis originated with native American tribes of the Great Lakes and Mississippi valley [41][56]. Cannabis products from pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations have also been found in Virginia [42][57]. Cannabis was an important crop in the United States until 1937, when the Marihuana Tax Act all but wiped out the American hemp industry. During World War II, Cannabis experienced a resurgence in the United States of America, as it was widely used to manufacture military items ranging from uniforms to canvas and rope [42][57]. At present, the most notable development in Cannabis production around the world is the rise of indoor cultivation, particularly in Europe, Australia and North America. This type of cultivation gives rise to a very lucrative trade, which is increasingly a source of profit for local organized crime groups [43][58].
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