Cannabis terminology can seem vast and confusing to novice users and seasoned smokers alike. Many times, botanical terms like bud and flower are used interchangeably with colloquial slang nicknames such as herb, weed, or pot. With the recent legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in certain states, “flower” is now commonly used in dispensaries to distinguish traditional weed from edibles, vape products, and other cannabis preparations.  Why are buds called flower and is this the proper use of the word?

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Why is Weed Called Flower? 

The dense collection of flowers at the top of the female cannabis plant is known as the cola. Growers have developed methods such as topping and low-stress training to grow multiple main colas within a single plant to increase their yield. The “flower” sold at your local dispensary refers to dried colas of unfertilized female flowers. Flowers develop in both male and female cannabis plants and each sex has distinctive characteristics. 

A single cannabis flower is made up of several elements:

  • A pistil, composed of two stigmas(pollen-catching, hair-like growths) attached to an ovule. If pollinated, the ovule is the part of the flower that produces a seed. 
  • The calyx is the translucent layer of cells that partially covers the ovule. In other plants, calyxes are more developed and pronounced. Many use this term incorrectly when referring to the cannabis plant’s bracts.
  • The teardrop-shaped leaves that encapsulate the ovules are known as bracts. Bracts contain the highest concentration of resin-producing trichomes.
  • Trichomes produce the resin responsible for the cannabinoids and terpenes that give cannabis its psychoactive and medicinal properties.

Male cannabis flowers contain pollen. When pollen from the male plant fertilizes the female reproductive organs, the female flower will produce a seed. Seeds are desirable when breeding new strains, but not desirable for smokable flower. For this reason, growers remove male plants as soon as the begin to reveal their sex traits in the pre-flowering stage. Male preflowers display “staminate primordia” which look like clusters of grapes or bananas. It’s important to remove male plants before they mature and release pollen.

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Marijuana flower or bud is technically a dried and cured cluster, or cola, of several unfertilized female flowers. While it’s easy to get hung up on botanical terminology, it’s safe to say that flower is an appropriate term for the green stuff in your bong. 

What is a Flower?

According to Merriam-Webster, a flower is defined in four main ways:

  1. “the specialized part of an angiospermous plant that occurs singly or in clusters, possesses whorls of often colorful petals or sepals, and bears the reproductive structures (such as stamens or pistils) involved in the development of seeds and fruit.”
  2. “a cluster of small flowers growing closely together that resembles and is often viewed as a single flower.”
  3. “a plant grown or valued for its flowers.”
  4. “a cut stem of a plant with its flower.”

The cannabis plant is a dioecious flowering annual whose resinous clusters are harvested and trimmed at peak floral stage and thus neatly fits the definition of a flower. 

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Definition of Marijuana

“Marijuana” is a non-scientific term that refers to the dried plant matter, also known as nugs or buds, of psychoactive strains of the cannabis family. It’s important to remember that colloquial slang terms don’t always line up with horticultural definitions.

Botanists classify a bud as a “newly emerging plant part, appearing as no more than a nub or protuberance, whether it will become a branch, flower or leaf.” This is one of the main contradictions in cannabis terminology. Using the botanical definition, “bud” would refer to immature outgrowths from any part of the cannabis plant, while marijuana “buds” are allowed to flower for 6-12 weeks before they are ready to harvest.

In a book titled Marijuana Horticulture Fundamentals, cannabis cultivator Mel Frank explains this discrepancy:

"in marijuana culture, bud refers to a distinct cluster of female cannabis flowers...typical, female flowers grow tightly together, forming solid ovoid, pyramidal or teardrop-shaped clusters, usually about 1 to 3 inches long, and generally consisting of 30 to 150 densely packed individual flowers.”

Marijuana “bud” is therefore a misnomer, and not really a bud at all. Rather, the cannabis most users smoke are dried clusters of several unpollinated female flowering parts of the plant. Using these definitions together, it’s clear that marijuana can be correctly classified as a flower.

You may be wondering why cannabis flowers aren’t as colorful or sweetly fragrant as the flowers that you’ll find in a standard bouquet, like roses or daisies. Many flowers with brilliant colors and pleasant scents require insects such as honey bees to carry pollen from one flower to another in order to reproduce. They evolved these traits to attract pollinators.

In the wild, cannabis plants are wind-pollinated. While they are flowering species, they don’t require pollinating insects, and therefore do not need to waste nutrients and energy on showy floral displays—just a stiff breeze will do the trick.

Cannabis plants may have evolved their trichomes, which produce the plant’s pungent terpenes and psychoactive cannabinoids, to deter herbivores and insects from eating them. The sticky trichomes and skunky aroma that cannabis users know and love may actually be the plant’s protective evolutionary trait.

More research is needed to determine whether cannabis plants evolved to be attractive to humankind for their reproductive benefit as well. Our fanaticism for cannabis has lead to widespread cultivation and crossbreeding to bring about stable and high-yielding crops. If the continuation of the species is the cannabis plant’s ultimate goal, you can be sure that humans are more than willing to lend a helping hand.