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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Discovery of Pot

Sirius J



Before prohibition, before many people even knew cannabis existed, scientists had to classify and categorize it botanically. Descriptions and samples from this time period generally go unnoticed by the public; so check out these old samples and descriptions of our favorite plant collected by courageous explorers who made sure they withstood the sands of time.

Likely the first botanical description of the plant now known as cannabis turned up in a book called Hortus Malabaricus. This massive compilation first came out in 1678 in Amsterdam and provides descriptions and drawing of 780 medicinal plants from Dutch Malabar, a territory that was then governed by the Dutch East India Company.



Most famous for its detailed illustrations, Hortus Malabaricus doesn’t disappoint with its drawings of Kalengi-Cansjava (top) and Tsjeru-cansjava (bottom), but it’s a shame the artist didn’t get capture the plant during full flowering. The text, written in Latin, describes the plant’s anatomical makeup, its use for fiber and seed, its use as a drug and even referenced smoking it. The name originates from the native Malayalam language of the Malabar region in India, now known as Kerala.

Later on Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, published descriptions with the plant’s current name, cannabis sativa. “Cannabis” comes from the Greek word Kannabis and “sativa” is a botanical adjective meaning cultivated. He used wild specimens of cannabis from his native Sweden, two of which are preserved at the Linnean Herbarium:

And another two, the most important ones, are preserved at the George Clifford Herbarium:

The specimen on the right has the status of lectotype, meaning it in particular is the definitive example for the species of Cannabis sativa L. Carl Linnaeus wrote the following in his book Species Plantarum:

You can see at the bottom Linnaeus wrote “Habitat in India.” The illustration of cannabis in Hortus Malabaricus made him believe the genus originated from the Far East.

Although he listed a lot of different names for the plant, Linnaeus designated that the genus cannabis consists of only one species: cannabis sativa. Other botanists and scholars through the ages have considered the genus to have more than one species, but the single species definition Linnaeus wrote hasn’t ever been officially changed; different types of cannabis are technically subspecies of cannabis sativa L. Read this essay by Richard Evans Schultes for a more in depth description of the issue.

Jean-Babtiste Lamarck first separated cannabis into two species in his Encyclopédie méthodique: botanique published in 1783. The entry in his book for Cannabis starts off with a general description of the entire genus but then separates it into two species: “Chanvre cultivé, Cannabis Sativa,” and “Chanvre des Indes, Cannabis Indica.”

Lamarck described cannabis sativa as “extremely interesting plant because of its usefulness, it is abundantly cultivated in Europe and widely used for the fiber of its stems, and for its seed” but also said it was narcotic and odorous.

Basing his data off samples collected by Pierre Sonnerat in India, he described cannabis indica as very different from sativa. Apart from growing short and stocky, Lamarck described a major additional use that set Indian pot apart from the European cannabis sativa.

“The principal virtue of this plant consists of it going to one’s head, of addling the brain, to make one feel intoxicated enough to forget one’s worries, and to give one a feeling of gaiety," he wrote. "To attain this feeling of gaiety, the Indians express the leaves and seeds, and make a drink that greatly affects the senses. When they want to add to the strength of the drink to ensure intoxication, they smoke the dried leaves [of the plant] with tobacco, or they may even smoke it in a pipe.”

Three of the specimens Sonnerat brought back have been digitized in the French National Museum of Natural History.

But where are the buds? Sadly, the specimen Lamarck used to describe cannabis indica hasn’t been digitized, but it has been caught on camera by French news outlet Le Point.

This specimen is clearly covered in buds—perhaps not the most mature buds telling by the size, but with pistils all over the place.

The old records and monographs aren’t completely lacking in big buds, check out this sample of Cannabis sativa L. collected in Rio de Janeiro by French botanist Auguste François Marie Glaziou.

These buds are big, collected perhaps right at their prime. We can only wonder what happened to the rest of the plant. Having relocated to Brazil at the age of 25 in 1858, it’s not completely inconceivable to think that Glaziou may have smoked some of that very same plant still preserved in the French National Museum of Natural History.