The cannabis plant produces a plethora of interesting and useful compounds, from CBD and THC to the various terpenes. Why does it do this? What is in it for the plant?
These are excellent questions, any while there are many theories, most are speculative. Let’s do some speculating ourselves, and try to come up with some plausible answers.
The cannabis plant has flourished during most of human history. Records of its use go back thousands of years. Prehistoric humans discovered its many wonderful effects, and was probably used for ritual purposes. It took one person to throw a cannabis bush into the fire, and the intoxicating smoke was born.
Over the generations, cannabis and hemp became important cash crops, and our ancestors undertook selective breeding (forced evolution) to improve the quality of the plant and increase the cannabinoid content. These efforts lead to the 20th century version of cannabis, with THC levels in the 5 to 10% range. Other plants were bred for CBD content, while still others were transformed into a high fiber version with little THC or CBD.
Then came the 21st century and modern breading practices. Farmers raced to make the most potent, most terpene filled flowers possible. This led to the super-strain hybrids with a THC content in the high twenties.
Think about it: the flower is almost a third cannabinoid, not to mention the terpenes. The plant has to work very hard to achieve this, and this is why high-end cannabis grows require such tender loving care.
So, the plant makes a ton of chemicals mainly because we engineered it to so over the millennia, with many more rapid advances in modern times. Modern cannabis is man-made.
But why, tens of thousands of years ago (before humans were around), did the plant start producing cannabinoids? Several factors could have come into play. We know that the plant probably originated in southeast Asia. The flower doesn’t aim to attract pollinators, since the plant air-pollinates. So perhaps the sticky cannabinoid trichomes repelled insects and grazing predators. Plus, the strong terpene odor could have discouraged grazing animals for entering the cannabis patch.
Another thought is that the cannabinoids act as a sunscreen to protect the flower and pollen. This is supported by the fact that the concentration of cannabinoids decrease as one moves lower in the plant.
So that’s my perspective as a non-grower. It is a plant that has kept humans company just like dogs over the millennia.
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