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Anatomy of the Cannabis Plant

By Janelle Lassalle


Cannabis is a plant native to central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Native cannabis plant strains are called landraces, and we’ve been cultivating them for thousands of years now. A few famous landraces include Durban Poison, Afghan Kush and Acapulco Gold. 


We’ve learned an awful lot about cannabis plants since then. We know, for instance, that cannabis has several subspecies. Most of us probably know these include indica and sativa. The factors that determine the plant’s categorization as indica or sativa, however, are based on the shape and anatomy of the plant.

As the terms ‘sativa’ and ‘indica’ are used so loosely nowadays one of the most reliable ways to predict how a particular strain will affect you is to understand its anatomy. A true sativa, for instance, will appear longer and taller than an indica which is short and squat in stature. 

Curious? We provided everything you need to know about the anatomy of a cannabis plant below. 


Males vs. Females

The first thing to note about cannabis’ anatomy is whether or not the plant is male or female. 

Cannabis plants flower annually. They’re also dioecious, which means that they primarily come in female or male forms. Some rare varieties can even be hermaphroditic and have characteristics of both, allowing it to self-pollinate. This trait is largely thought to be the result of increased stress on the plant.

Female plants produce the characteristic resinous buds that we consume. These buds are produced by seedless female plants called sinsemilla. Female cannabis may also produce seeds.

Male plants, on the other hand, do not produce flowers but rather produce the pollen needed to pollinate females. This pollen collects in small sacs by the base of the leaves. Inseminating the female plant with pollen triggers seed production.

Indica vs. Sativa & Other Subspecies

As noted earlier cannabis has three subspecies. These are sativa, indica and ruderalis.

Cannabis sativa is characterized by its tall, lanky stems with skinny leaves and as light green color. Buds may be elongated with thin red or orange “hairs”. These characteristics allow the plant to capture the most sunlight possible. They compliment the plant’s environment as landrace sativas tend to be located near the equator.

Cannabis indica, on the other hand, originates in Asia or the Indian subcontinent and is much shorter than the sativa varietal. The leaves are wider and darker in color with tightly packed buds and a thick stem. These buds tend to be darker colored, usually a deep green or purple. An indica variety will tend to grow outward rather than upward as the plant direct its energy to growing reproductive parts.

Finally we have cannabis ruderalis, a subspecies that was once considered a “wild breed”. Fittingly enough the ‘ruderalis’ classification refers to a type of plant that grows despite harsh environmental conditions. The ruderalis subspecies is thought to be native to Asia and areas in central Europe. Leafly describes its anatomy as short and stocky with an erratic growth pattern and small, chunky buds.

The ruderalis variety of cannabis is especially interesting as it tends to be an autoflowering plant. This means that it’s flowering cycle is self-induced rather than by a male plant. 

Anatomy breakdown

Cannabis can be broken down into several distinct components. These include:




You can think of a seed as a tiny plant embryo tucked away inside a protective hard shell. When environmental conditions are right, the seed will split open into two halves known as the hull or pericarp. This is when germination of the seed occurs. 


Also within the seed is the radicle, an elementary “root” as well as two cotyledons. Cotyledons are the first set of leaves to emerge from the plant. These leaves are very nutrient rich and contain the plant’s early food reserves. Cannabis is a dicotyledon plant, meaning it contains two cotyledons. Some abnormal varieties may even have up to four cotyledons. 

The point that will continue to grow once germinated is known as the apical tip. This can be found between the two cotyledons.


The roots of the cannabis plant help it absorb water and other essential nutrients from soil. Once a cannabis plant begins to sprout it’ll begin as a formation known as a tap root. This singular tap root will eventually develop into many other lateral secondary roots. 

The vascular network of roots also contains the plant’s xylem, complex tissue that composes the plant’s vascular system. Xylem is responsible for pumping water and minerals from the roots to the rest of the plant in a process known as transpiration. 

Healthy roots are fibrous with white hairs. Browning or breaking can indicate disease in the plant or a lack of nutrients in the soil. 

Main stem/stalk

As the plant continues to climb upward its main stem will emerge. The stem can be thought of as a support system for the plant. It’s also a main part of the plant’s vascular network that allows it to pump nutrients and water throughout the rest of the plant. 

Healthy stems are sturdy enough to support the weight of the plant. Indicas and ruderalis varieties tend to have thicker stems as the buds from these varieties tend to be heavier.

The stem will eventually begin to split laterally. Places on the stem where new leaf branches form is referred to as a leaf node. Branching occurs at the leaf node on both sides of the stem, with the distance between nodes referred to as internode spacing. Indica varieties tend to have shorter spaces between nodes compared to sativa types. 


Leaves of the cannabis plant can vary in structure depending on its variety. 

Two types of leaves can be found in cannabis. The first are the typical “fan leaves” you frequently see in pop culture images; these grow symmetrically in pairs on the stem. Cannabis fan leaves are long and serrated, with anywhere from three to nine “fingers” each. The fan leaf consists of several elements including the stalk (petiole) and the main flesh of the leaf (mesophyll). Sativas tend to have more of these fan leaves.

The leaves also contain “veins” that act as a vascular network to deliver nutrients. Within the veins are additional components such as phloem, a group of cells that transport sugars made through photosynthesis from fan leaves to the rest of the plant. 

The second type of leaf are sugar leaves. These are much smaller leaves found near the pistils and calyx that have a shimmering appearance thanks to the presence of trichomes. 


At the very top of a female flowering plant is a singular, large terminal bud known as a cola. This cola contains the plant’s resinous flowering buds. 

Bract & Calyx

A common misconception in cannabis anatomy is improper use of ‘calyx’ vs bract.

A female cannabis plant’s flowers contain calyx cells. These cells are part of a veil of tissue known as the perianth that helps protect the ovule. This lone ovule, in turn, is then further protected by bracts, small leaves covered in resin glands.



The most beloved part of the cannabis plant are the resinous flower buds produced by female plants. These dried flowers are often called “buds” and are composed of calyxes, pistils, trichomes and sugar leaves.

Pistil & Stigma

Pistils are only found on female plants and compose the female’s reproductive system. Protruding from the pistil are two stigmas, commonly referred to as “hairs”. Stigmas are designed to capture pollen from male plants. Pistils begin as white before developing into other colors such as red, orange and brown as the plant grows.

Stamen & Anther

The stamen and anther make up the male plant’s reproductive system. A stamen is a tube-like stalk (sometimes called a filament). The stamen is connected to anthers (pollen sacs) where pollen is produced and released when the plant reaches maturity. 


Trichomes (“kief” when dry) are small, bulbous glands that coat leaves. They can appear “shiny” due to their crystal-like structure. Trichomes are the home of terpene and cannabinoid production, and as such are responsible for determining the strain’s unique effects.


Understanding the anatomy of a cannabis plant can help you determine how it will affect you. Cannabis comes in three varieties: indica, sativa and ruderalis. Indica plants are native to Asia and are short, stocky plants that tend to be deep green or purple in hue. Sativa plants are found closer to the equator, and as such are leaner and taller than indica plants. 

Cannabis plants can be broken down into several different components. Each element has its own distinct function. These include the seed, roots, stem, nodes, leaves, the cola and trichomes. Flowers produced by female plants are covered in trichomes that produce valuable cannabinoids and terpenes.

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