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Nature's Notes: Ditch weed may be illegal, but it is common

Marion Patterson

Cannabis sativa, or marijuana, is a common weed in Iowa and many other places in the United States and throughout the world.
Marion Patterson Cannabis sativa, or marijuana, is a common weed in Iowa and many other places in the United States and throughout the world.

Banning a plant doesn’t make it go away. Illegal marijuana is a common weed in Iowa and many other places in the United States and throughout the world. It is correctly called Cannabis sativa.

Native to Central Asia cannabis was domesticated about 12,000 years ago and is one of humanity’s oldest crops. Although of the same species the plant has two distinct forms due to a genetic shift. One, called marijuana, has a high THC content. This is the chemical that creates medicinal and psychoactive impact. The other form is usually called hemp. It lacks much THC but can grow to 16 feet tall with a stalk that contains long amazingly strong fibers. Both types look the same.

Throughout history cannabis has been used medicinally, and the plant’s valuable fibers were crafted into rope, bowstrings, and cloth. People carried seeds with them when they migrated to a new area and eventually it reached South and Central America.

Marijuana was little known in the United States until relatively recent times. Mexican immigrants may have brought it to the United States in the early 1900s. It escaped from cultivation and became a wild plant.

Cannabis is a hardy annual that loves growing in hot sunny places, often in poor soil. It is sometimes abundant along roads, railroad embankments, and even in big cities. Cannabis is as comfortable growing along an Iowa road as it is in Brooklyn, New York’s, pavement cracks. It might appear in anyone’s garden.

Most wild cannabis is of the hemp strain and has little hallucinogenic or medicinal value. Iowans often call it ditch weed. Patches make outstanding winter habitat for pheasants and other wildlife and the plant’s roots hold the soil and reduce erosion.

After being banned for nearly a century several states have recently permitted the medical and recreational use of Cannabis, although it remains Federally banned.

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• Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood Community College. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. They blog at windingpathways.com.

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