What Is the Cannabis Sativa Plant?

Just what exactly is the Cannabis sativa plant? Is it weed? Is it hemp? Well, technically speaking, it’s both. Cannabis sativa is a herbaceous plant in the Cannabaceae family (flowering plants). The two main cannabinoids of the cannabis plant are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the compound in cannabis that causes the psychoactive effects. CBD has no psychoactive effects, but it’s been suggested that it has medicinal qualities. The plant was classified by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753.



There are several subspecies of the sativa plant, the two most known being Cannabis sativa and Cannabis sativa L. Cannabis sativa is the plant that has psychoactive effects (THC), otherwise known as marijuana, weed, ganja, Mary Jane, reefer, etc. Cannabis sativa L., on the other hand, has no psychoactive effects and is otherwise known as hemp.

The History of Cannabis

It is believed that the cannabis plant originated in China more than 10,000 years ago, owing to a hemp cord that was found in pottery from an ancient village in modern-day Taiwan. Both cannabis sativa and cannabis sativa L. were utilized in China. The first documented use of the cannabis sativa plant was by Emperor Shen Neng in 2737 B.C.

Hemp was essential to survival in ancient China, and large amounts of land were designated solely to growing hemp. The ancient Chinese used almost every part of the cannabis plant, including the root, stalk, leaves, and seeds. They used the plant for medicine, textiles, rope, paper, oil, food, clothing, pottery, and even war. They made paper by grinding hemp fibers and mulberry bark into a pulp and mixing it with water. It was then dried and used to write on. They also used hemp to make bowstrings for bamboo arrows, which allowed them to fly further than their enemy’s arrows. Chinese surgeon Hua T’o began to use cannabis as anesthesia during surgery by combining the resin from cannabis with wine around 200 A.D.

Around 2000 B.C., cannabis started to show up in Hindu texts as a sacred plant. They used the dried leaves, stems, and seeds and combined them with spices, nuts, poppy seeds, and milk to make a drink called bhang. It was after cannabis came to India that it became widely used as an intoxicant. Even Hindu monks used it to meditate. As cannabis spread throughout Europe, it was used by Germans and Vikings during childbirth and for toothaches.

George Washington Had Hemp Farms

George Washington Statue in Budapest
Photo by: Meryll/Shutterstock
Did you know that George Washington grew hemp? By the 1700s, hemp was widely used for industrial purposes worldwide. It was grown in New England by most colonial farmers as an export to the British before the Revolutionary War. Some of the crops were used domestically since farmers were growing hemp partly because they could use it to pay their taxes. George Washington cultivated hemp on all five of his farms because it was so valuable. He also grew it for use on his plantation, Mount Vernon, to make rope, thread, sewing sacks, and canvas, according to the Mount Vernon website.

The site goes out of its way to report that George Washington only grew the non-psychoactive hemp. However, his own diary and letters about sowing Indian hemp for personal uses suggest that ol’ George was hitting the peace pipe. It’s not surprising that the site would downplay this because it sugarcoats the fact that George Washington owned human beings. Perhaps he used weed to alleviate his guilt for being a slave owner, but I digress.

So, Where Do Indicas Fit In?

Cannabis sativa is the plant with psychoactive effects (marijuana), and there are two main phenotypes, indica and sativa.

Indica is derived from the cannabis sativa plant and has a high THC content. People sometimes refer to it as a nighttime medication because of consumers report sometimes feeling heavy, calming effects.

Sativa has a lower THC content than indica strains. Because of its energetic qualities, it is often called a daytime medication. Consumers report using the medication for motivation and focus on completing daily tasks, being creative, and socializing.

The cannabis sativa plant has many uses including making industrial hemp for clothing and paper, to being used in cooking.