Recently, I was walking with a friend along a busy street in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, when she stopped suddenly outside a medical office and pointed to the bottom of a hedge. “Do you see that?” my friend asked, as a bus drove by.
In truth, I saw only the hedge, along with a dandelion rosette and a few short weeds growing amid some crushed tissues and candy wrappers. My friend has been foraging for decades and is sort of a mentor — years ago she taught me how to differentiate Queen Anne’s lace, or wild carrots, from poison hemlock — so I just assumed this was some choice edible that I had somehow overlooked in my foraging education.
She muttered something in Latin about a sprout near my foot. It was about midcalf high, with palmate leaves (like the fingers on a hand). She snapped off a leaflet and crushed it between her fingers. “Oh, yes,” she said, shoving it under my nose.
One whiff of the distinctive sweet, heavy odor, and suddenly I was transported to the last outdoor concert I’d attended — some long-weekend affair in New Jersey where I was surrounded by marijuana smoke and slow talkers.
How I could have missed this fine young cannabis plant is beyond me. It was so pretty, with those deeply grooved, perfectly pointed serrated leaves, that an artist could have used it as a model for a hemp flag.
Native to Central Asia, Cannabis sativa is an annual with a central stalk and multiple, serrated leaflets (five here, with smaller stipules hanging like an old-fashioned mustache). It can tolerate everything: poor soil, drought, high or low acidity or alkalinity, fungus, and the advances of more aggressive weeds. It has flourished so well in the United States that it is listed as a noxious weed in Illinois, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Cultivated for more than 4,500 years in Asia, and then spreading through Europe and Africa, cannabis has historically been used for fiber (rope, clothing, etc.), oil, and as a medicinal and recreational drug. It was prescribed by doctors for years as a painkiller, and even Queen Victoria took it as an analgesic. As a narcotic, it has many names, including marijuana, pot, weed, grass, hash, ganja, hemp, dope, spliff, reefer, blunt, chronic and, my favorite, Mary Jane. It is illegal in much of the world — to consume and to grow.
My friend and I tossed around the idea that this healthy Cannabis sativa could be cultivated medical marijuana — it was, after all, growing outside a doctor’s office. But green-thumbed doctors harvesting an illegal substance right in front of their building? Not likely. A quick scan of the other side of the hedge revealed only numerous non-weed weeds proliferating under the hot sun.
“Someone probably just tossed a bud into the hedges and the seed took,” my friend said.
Since marijuana is mostly seeds, buds and flowers, we probably should not have been surprised that this plant appeared streetside in Ditmas Park. And knowing how tenacious Cannabis sativa is, we’re likely to encounter more of it in the future.