Cannabis Chemistry: The Most Complex Plant in the World?

Plants are chemical factories. That’s their job; to make the chemicals they need to survive and reproduce. Sometimes the chemicals can have effects on humans as well. Our favorite plant is just one example of a plant that makes compounds that benefit it and us. Some cannabis chemistry is for the plant. Some of the chemistry is for us. It’s beginning to become clear that cannabis chemistry is a hugely complex subject and we are at the very beginning of understanding it.

Plants can be more or less complex. Typical cannabis plants have over 500 chemical compounds when the trichomes are ripe. That’s what has been identified…so far. By contrast, grapes have less than 300, although when they are made into wine,  hundreds more compounds are created. Some grapes have more compounds than others. The number of compounds in a plant can vary because of growing conditions, species, and a host of other factors. Note that the number of compounds are a rough approximation. No one giant study has ever been done on the numbers of compounds in various plants.

What Do We Know About Cannabis Chemistry?

There is surprisingly little research about the overall complexity of the chemical factory called cannabis. Plant chemistry has not been a large topic of research. The article posted by NIH tells an incomplete story. Not all the compounds in a cannabis plant are psychotropic or support the psychotropic properties of a given strain, but they are important to the plant itself. Additional cannabis compounds are found seemingly on a daily basis. Currently there are over 50 different compounds of THC and there are probably more to be found. Terpenes? Many. Maybe over 100, but not all in the same plant or strain.

What Makes Cannabis Chemistry Complex?

There are several ways to look at plant complexity. One measure is how long does the plant live? The champion here for non-tree plants is probably

Welwitschia mirabilis

Welwitschia Mirabilis, which also happens to be the national plant of Namibia. This plant has only 2 leaves, which grow very long. The picture looks like it has four leaves, but botanically, it’s two leaves. Go figure. Welwitschia has been documented to live longer than 700 years, and some plants around Namibia are thought to be older than 2000 years. There are some trees that are documented as living longer, but we’re not describing trees here. We’re talking about plants; both annual and perennial.

By the longest living plant standard, cannabis is certainly not in that category. It’s an annual. Its life span is only a few months…perhaps as long as six months, but that’s it. The plant is designed to make seeds and die. It’s not cultivated that way though. These days, cannabis for consumption is grown to be seedless.

The Measure of Complexity

The way to measure plant complexity is the structure of the plant’s phytochemicals. The plant with the most complex phytochemical structure is probably the Ficus, which includes figs. It’s more of a tree, but I’m not going to quibble. It’s subject to some debate, but many botanists believe this is a hugely complex plant.

Here are some of the most chemically complex plants:

    1. Cannabis sativa (marijuana): It has been reported to contain over 500 different compounds, including cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.
    2. Salvia miltiorrhiza (red sage): It has been reported to contain over 70 different compounds, including tanshinones and salvianolic acids
    3. Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng): It has been reported to contain over 40 different ginsenosides, as well as polysaccharides and flavonoids.
    4. Ginkgo biloba (ginkgo): It has been reported to contain over 60 different compounds, including flavonoids, terpenoids, and ginkgolides.
    5. Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s wort): It has been reported to contain over 20 different compounds, including hypericin and hyperforin.

It’s worth noting that the actual number of chemical compounds in any given plant is likely much higher than what has been reported, as new compounds are constantly being discovered through scientific research.

A Comparison

Wine made from grapes typically has between 300 and 700 compounds in it including many ethyl alcohols, and all the flavor and aroma molecules, which are terpenes, esters, pyrazines and polyphenols among other organic compounds that have sensory properties. but the grapes themselves don’t even have half that number of compounds. Wine fermentation and aging creates many more compounds in wine, but we don’t usually ferment cannabis…at least not on purpose.  We don’t know if the chemistry of cannabis changes as it’s dried and then cured. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that the chemistry changes somewhat, but we’re all clueless as to how or to what extent.

There it is. Is cannabis the most complex plant? We don’t know.  And would it matter if we did know? There is just not enough research. Many cannabis publications seem happy to proclaim the terpenes have an entourage effect on the THC compounds, which would explain why all the strains affect us differently. Maybe this is true. Maybe it’s not. I think there’s far more to it than that.

Lots more research is needed. and not just for cannabis. If any organic chemists or botanists out there read this, there could be some research money to be had to investigate cannabis chemistry.

Whatever else, cannabis is still our favorite plant. Maybe grapes too, but that’s a whole different story.


Cannabis sativa: The Plant of the Thousand and One Molecules

Cannabis, a complex plant: different compounds and different effects on individuals


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