Last updated: March 27, 2020
Cannabis is what is known as dioecious, meaning it reproduces via a male and a female plant, and though they’re technically the same plant, the genders of cannabis are actually quite different from one another.
Female cannabis flower by producing buds, which are highly sought after for their high THC and CBD content. Males do not, they produce pollen.
Growers tend to keep the two plants away from each other because an accidental pollination causes the females to produce seeds, which are disastrous to the point of dramatically reducing the yield and especially the quality of a crop.
It’s important, then, to know the difference between these two plants before the males have a chance to pollinate the female plant, which may not be obvious without an understanding of the differences between the two.
The sex of a plant becomes more apparent as they mature, but it is technically possible to identify it at just about any age. The method of sexual identification varies depending on which growth stage the plant is in.
For most growers, it is a lost cause to attempt to identify a plant during this early stage of life as there’s no visual clue to give them a heads up.
However, chemical testing is possible and is becoming more popular for large, artisan grow operations where knowing what each plant will do later on can help with planning out the highest yield once they reach maturity.
These tests are fairly expensive and really don’t need to be considered for smaller grows. They can technically be done as early as 1 week, but for the most accuracy, 3 weeks is recommended.
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During the vegetative growth of the plant, reproductive parts begin to develop between the stalk and the branches, also called the “node” of the plant.
The clearest indication of the plant’s sex occurs here. For males, pollen sacs, which look like small round balls, begin to develop along the nodes. Females develop stigma which look more like wispy hairs in this region. These are known as pre-flowers and they begin to develop as early as about 4 weeks into the plant’s growth, but possibly as late as 6 weeks.
When they first begin to show up, these pre-flowers can be very difficult to identify. Special equipment such as a magnifying glass should be used to help see the pre-flowers and identify the sexes early on to ensure zero pollination and the best possible results.
The vast majority of growers use this as their “tell” to determine the sexes of their plants and begin to separate them at this point.
Not too long ago, when cannabis growing was less about quality, this was the stage in which growers figured out the plant’s sex. Here, it becomes incredibly obvious which ones are the males and which ones are the females.
The females will begin to grow buds at the tips of their branches and at the top of its stalk. If the female has been pollinated, then these buds will be filled with seeds, which makes using them less than ideal.
Males do not grow these buds, but the pollen sacs begin spewing out their seed here.
If the plants are not separated by this point, then reproduction is inevitable.
Females are, by and large, what growers are aiming for when they begin a cannabis crop. They’re the biggest producers of therapeutic chemicals such as CBD and THC, which come mostly from the resin and flower buds the plants produce during their final stage.
A fertilized female plant also produces a lot of seeds, which can be harvested and pressed into therapeutic oils or used as a health food.
They also tend to have a larger base than the male plants, which allows for the stalks to be processed into hemp more efficiently than growing males for this purpose as well.
Caring for solely female plants is ideal in almost all ways, except for the high-maintenance involved with avoiding male plants ruining the yield of a crop and the ever-present danger of spontaneous hermaphroditism.
Males are seen as a bit of a nuisance for growers, but they do have a special role when it comes to crossbreeding genetics to create custom strains.
When females are pollinated by a male, the genders of the seeds are split almost perfectly even. By pollinating an ideal female plant with the male offspring of a different female, it combines the genetics of both of these plants, allowing for the best aspects of each plant to be expressed in the new generation.
Harvested males also produce cannabinoids, similar to females, but in much lower quantities. They are also a perfectly valid source of hemp.
When left alone to grow in an outdoor environment, males and females work just fine and still produce plenty of product, if slightly lower quality.
There is something to be said about the low-maintenance of just letting plants grow naturally, though the males will always be sapping some of the possible yield away from the female plants.
So, males are far from useless, but really shouldn’t be aimed for regularly when a grower only wishes to produce a lot of high-yielding plants. Females are just that much more efficient.
Hermaphrodites refer to female plants that begin to produce pollen in a couple of different ways, either from sacs or “bananas”.
Sacs are just like with the male plants, they need to burst before pollination can occur. They can be easily stopped by removing the plant as quickly as possible.
Interestingly, bananas are unique to hermaphrodites. These are bunches that grow in the nodal region of the plant that resemble bananas. They immediately begin producing pollen in an attempt to pollinate nearby plants and themselves.
The plant should be harvested quickly if these begin to appear, as there is no way to stop this once it begins to occur.
These need to be watched out for as they are capable of pollinating the entire crop and themselves with the same efficiency as a male plant.
Hermaphroditism in cannabis is a form of lineage preservation. It only occurs when the plant feels it is in danger as a response to stressors.
Stressors include, but are not limited to:
Most of these can be easily avoided by an experienced grower, and it generally requires prolonged exposure to one of these stressors for the plant to experience a hermaphroditic transformation.
However, plants with a genetic predisposition to hermaphroditism are much harder to control. Seeds that are produced by a hermaphroditic plant, become much more likely to go through that change themselves. This is another reason to remove these plants from the growing area as soon as possible.
Since female plants are the obvious choice for growers looking to produce a fair amount of cannabis bud, plant scientists found a way to produce cannabis seeds that produce only females, or at least a 99% likelihood.
Though crossbreeding and reproduction become impossible, outside of the rare hermaphrodite, these are an excellent idea for growers looking to produce a one-off batch without having to worry and maintain throughout the plants’ vegetative phase.
It also allows the grower to give its attention to plants they know are going to be females, instead of spending a lot of time with a plant that only has a 50% chance of being useful.
There are two main techniques used for making a feminized seed.
The older and more “natural” is to stress out a plant that has just begun to flower by interrupting its light cycle. The seeds this plant will produce become more likely to be female, as the female plant is more genetically useful in propagating the species. This is not entirely effective, but it’s an old trick used to increase the likelihood.
The more common and most effective method is to spray a mother plant with a solution of colloidal silver and water. This causes that plant to stop producing a substance known as “ethylene”, which ends up causing the plant to develop male pollen sacs with female genetics.
This does not really damage the plant, even though it is suppressing a hormone, and does nothing dangerous to the crop.
When that mother plant eventually pollinates another female, the resulting seeds are almost guaranteed to be female as well.
This is generally done by growers to maintain a genetic lineage fairly statically, and many also offer the seeds for sale.
The biggest takeaway is remember to remove male plants—by checking for pollen sacs during the vegetative phase—to ensure the female plants have the highest yield possible.
That said, male plants are not useless or a nuisance by any means; they just have to be used properly. Instead of throwing them out, extracting what resins are in the plant is perfectly viable.
Still, at the end of the day, growers want to aim for female plants.
Featured Image Credit: Pxfuel
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