Cannabis botany

Though it’s still taboo to talk about cannabis in some countries, it also has one of the most interesting botanical profiles of all plants. On top of that, it’s also an herbal medicine. That’s to say that this plant has a special application, and makes it worthy of intrigue and research in the eyes of botanists.

Cannabis contains a lot more than just cannabinoids — experts theorize that the therapeutic characteristics of cannabis are due to the combined activity of over 400 chemical entities present in cannabis. These include cannabinoids, terpenoids, and flavonoids. Today, we’re going to have a brief look at some of these secondary metabolites of cannabis and how they are biosynthesized in the plant.


Cannabinoids are the most sought after compounds of the cannabis plant. Like the secondary metabolites of most plants, cannabinoids are produced by cannabis to protect the plant from predators and climate. Their psychoactive effects and unusual aroma are a way for the plant to naturally deter pests.

Though there are many different cannabinoids in cannabis, they resemble each other greatly in structure. However, they have very different pharmacological applications and have different effects on the user.


Cannabis-derived terpenoids have only come under scrutiny recently as cannabis research has begun to expand. These are the compounds in cannabis that give the plant its characteristic smell. You could say that it’s cannabis’ very own aromatherapy.

Terpenes are also secondary metabolites of cannabis, and are also produced mainly as the plant’s defense mechanism. The strong aroma deters many predators, although in the case of humans, it is a very important reason to grow the plant. In fact, the smell of cannabis is one of its unusual characteristics.

Terpenoids are thought to complement cannabinoids and their therapeutic value. This is called the entourage effect. The combined activity of terpenoids and cannabinoids is thought to produce the overall effect of cannabis. And interestingly, the presence of different terpenoids may contribute to the different effects felt by using different varieties of cannabis.


Finally, flavonoids are the least studied and most poorly understood of all compounds in cannabis. They are not unique to cannabis, and like terpenoids, are present in almost all plants. Flavonoids might also have a role to play in the variance between different strains of cannabis.

On top of this, flavonoids contribute to the color of plants. Purple plants such as beetroot and berries are rich with a flavonoid called anthocyanins. These are the same flavonoids present in purple cannabis, and as well as contributing to the color, also play a role in the effect.

Tying it all together

Even between terpenoids, cannabinoids, and flavonoids, there’s still more in cannabis! It is arguably one of the most complex plants on the planet, and especially so because of its relationship with the human race. Together, terpenoids, flavonoids, and cannabinoids make up what we call “medical marijuana”. They work collectively to give different effects to the user and different therapeutic applications.

At the root of herbal medicine is the concept of synergy. Cannabis illustrates this perfectly with the synergy between its different compounds, highlighting the need for “whole plant medicine”. It is also one of the few plants that has been studied for the synergy between its compounds, though this clearly shows the complexity of herbal medicine and the holism in its application.

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