Wild-type: Cannabis is an ancient domesticate. Because the species has been spread and modified by humans for millennia, it’s unlikely there are any pristine populations of true wild Cannabis. As Ernest Small writes, “wild-growing plants of Cannabis sativa L., insofar as has been determined, are either escapes from domesticated forms or the results of thousands of years of widespread genetic exchange with domesticated plants.”
However, Nikolai Vavilov believed wild-type Cannabis has diversified naturally into distinct ‘races’. He also posited distinct Central Asian and South Asian ‘Centres of Diversity’ in which the genus was domesticated independently. After extensive study of herbarium specimens, McPartland and Small have concluded that there is indeed a pattern of variation in subsp. indica that has been created by natural selection, not humans. In line with Vavilov, they have identified two main wild-type populations, namely South Asian (var. himalayensis) and Central Asian (var. asperrima). These intersect around northern Pakistan and correspond, respectively, to the two main types of domesticate, namely var. indica (Sativas) and var. afghanica (Indicas).
Our wild-type accessions from northern Pakistan appear to belong to var. himalayensis. By contrast, because of the extensive introduction of various types of non-native cultigens to Kazakhstan, formally classifying the accessions named ‘Kazakh’ and ‘Siberian’ is challenging. Similarly, the history of Cannabis in Crimea is complex. If you’re wondering how all this relates to so-called Ruderalis, see this paper on the vernacular taxonomy and the new study on endangered indigenous populations by Small and McPartland.
Wild-type Cannabis is a crucial resource for crop breeders. These populations are highly biodiverse and are likely to have developed numerous adaptations to disease, pests, adverse conditions, and extremes of climate. They’re also a potential source from which to recreate now-extinct domesticates (landraces). As yet, no significant efforts have been made by public or private gene banks to create adequate long-term stores of subsp. indica domesticates, let alone of their wild-type relatives.
Seeds of wild-type Cannabis exhibit slow and staggered germination. Where cultivation is legal, see this ‘Note on germinating wild Cannabis seeds’.
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