Nature proves time and time again that everything in the natural world is connected by an elaborate web of life.
This complex network makes it difficult to classify the entire plant world into an organized system. Plant taxonomy has changed over time as DNA science has advanced and plants are understood in new ways.
Currently, we catalog plants under the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) which follows a Linnean classification system (pictured to the right). Focusing mostly on Northwest plant species, ITIS is a collaboration of U.S., Canadian, and Mexican agencies that form the backbone the Encyclopedia of Life is built on.
If we trace marijuana through this classification, this is what we find:
Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, Cannabis ruderalis
In some cases, these are all viewed as simply “Cannabis sativa”
According to ITIS, cannabis is a member of the small Cannabaceae plant family which is a member of the rose order (Rosales). This means, if we expand cannabis’ relatives out one classification further to its Order, our favorite herb would be related to strawberries, blackberries, apples, pears, plums, peaches, almonds, figs, mulberries, and of course, roses. All of these fruits and botanical species fall under the umbrella of the rose family, making them distant cousins of the cannabis plant.
Today, however, we’re going to focus on the direct relatives of cannabis — those included in the Cannabaceae family.
The Cannabaceae family is considered small for the plant world with a total of 11 genera (plural of genus). But these 11 genera are home to hundreds of subspecies. The genera classified under the Cannabaceae family are Aphananthe, Celtis, Trema, Cannabis, Gironniera, Humulus, Parasponia, and Pteroceltis.
Here is a visual aid of the entire Rose Order, focusing on the Cannabaceae family:
The cannabis plant has a long, intertwined history with humans; it was one of the most valuable plant resources for the endeavor of industrialization, providing medicine, clothing, industrial ropes, food, and more. In fact, most members of the Cannabaceae family provide reliable, industrial services as you will discover throughout this article.
To state the obvious, hemp is cannabis’ closest relative. They are both subspecies of the Cannabis L. genus. One provides industrial benefits (hemp), while the other provides medicinal benefits (cannabis). The hemp plant develops much thicker fibers throughout its stalk which can be processed into a wide variety of resources including but not limited to textiles, rope, paper, concrete, fuel, and food. Hemp also acts as a very powerful bioremediator, sucking up CO2 from the air and toxins from the ground.
The hop plant, Humulus lupulus, is a member of the Cannabaceae family under the Humulus genus. If hemp is cannabis’ sister, the hop plant would be its cousin. Hops have earned the hearts of humans all over the world because of their ability to brew a mean beverage, and yes, I’m talking about beer. But hops actually have a ton of other medicinal benefits such as easing digestive issues, anxiety, and inflammation. By examining the leaves and the structure of the hops flowers, you can see that cannabis and hops come from the same family. Both plants also contain healing terpenoids and flavonoids. One primary difference between the two is that the hop plant is bine (a climbing plant), whereas cannabis is herbaceous (a botanical herb). The hop plant is one of the only other plants in the Cannabaceae family with any significant economic value.
While not actually a berry, the hackberry is a type of deciduous tree that is classified with the genus Celtis under the Cannabaceae family. While hackberry is also a cousin of cannabis, this genus has remarkably dissimilar characteristics from the cannabis and humulus genera. However, its resourcefulness is what ties it into the family. The wood of a hackberry tree is sturdy yet flexible so it is often used to make inexpensive furniture and fencing. It is a tropical tree that is often planted along streets in areas like Serbia, Bratislava, and Slovakia because of its substantial size. Driving down a street lined with hackberries, you would never guess they are actually the cousin of our beloved cannabis plant!
Trema, a genus of about 15 species of evergreen trees, is another member of the Cannabaceae family. Trema orientalis, one of the 15 species, is a small tree that is also called the Indian charcoal tree. Depending on the environment, this species of trema can be an evergreen or a deciduous shrub. Similar to cannabis, trema orientalis originated in the Asian and South African regions. This tree develops small flowers that turn into edible black fruits, in fact, the leaves of this plant are also edible. Similar to hemp, trema species are often used to stabilize poor soils.
A member of the Pteroceltis genus, the Blue Sandalwood tree is another relative of cannabis within the Cannabaceae family. Officially pteroceltis tatarinowii, Blue Sandalwood is a tree indigenous to China that is also known as Tara wingceltis or Qing Tan. This unique tree is another incredibly resourceful plant and shares similar qualities with the cannabis hemp species. Its wood is often used for fine timber, its bark fiber is combined with hemp to make Xuan (calligraphy) paper, and oil is extracted from its seeds for use as a cold and flu antidote.
While cannabis doesn’t have any close relatives that provide the same euphoria or medicinal value, it’s definitely interesting to learn about our favorite plant’s extended family. Hops and Cannabis are clearly deeply intertwined with human history (See: How Beer Saved the World). It’s intriguing to ponder upon the idea that humans would not likely be where we are today if it wasn’t for our embracement of the valuable members of the Cannabaceae family.