Cannabis sativa


Family: Cannabaceae
Common names:
marijuana (Eng.); dagga (Afr.); Umya (Xhosa); Matekwane/Patse (Northern Sotho); Nsangu (Zulu)
Current legislation prohibits the cultivation, possession and trade in cannabis in South Africa. This page is being posted for information purposes only and is not to be interpreted as support on the part of the National Botanical Institute for amendment to the legislation.

Young Cannabis plant

You may call it a 'zol, grass, skyf, kaartjie, pill, sense of knowledge and Kentucky laughing grass' and nobody will understand you, but call it dagga in South Africa and suddenly you are understood.

FlowersDagga is a native of Asia but is now cultivated in many countries and is naturalized in southern Africa. It is an erect, annual herb of up to four meters in height. Stems minutely hairy, green and ribbed with hollow internodes. Leaves alternate and palmately compound. Leaflets sessile, three to eleven with toothed margins. Leaf stalk up to 50 mm long. The male and the female flowers are tiny, greenish yellow and borne on different plants. Seeds are spotted, 4 mm in diameter, smooth with netted veins.

There are three varieties recognized; var. sativa, var. indica, and var. spontanea. The var. sativa is tall and loosely branched with large leaves. It is grown for fibre and seed oil. Leaflets are five to seven and narrowly tapering to each end. This variety commonly referred to as hemp has very low yields of intoxicating cannabinoids.

The var. indica is shorter, harder with crowded branches. It is used as medicine and mood-altering drugs. Leaflets usually many, tapering towards the base and relatively weaker. Fruits large. The var. spontanea is small with small leaves. Leaflets small and much longer than broad with regular rounded ends. Fruits small.

Cannabis is widely distributed in southern Africa, var. sativa occurring in Botswana, Limpopo, North-West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, Western and Eastern Cape; var. indica in Mpumalanga; and var. spontanea only in Northern Cape.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Cannabis is said to come from the Greek word, kannabis, the Arabic word, kannabi, or the Persian word, kannab. The word dagga is a Dutch pronunciation of the Hottentot word, dachah. This vernacular name indicates the long use of this plant in southern Africa.

Marijuana seed is dispersed by wind and water. It is adapted to different habitats. Deer, birds, beetles, leaf-eating larvae and slugs feed on the plant.

Uses and cultural aspects
It is used as a remedy for asthma, bronchitis, headache, flu, epilepsy, cough and pains. In modern medicine the crude drug and some pure chemical derivatives are used for treating migraine, epilepsy, malaria, glaucoma, nausea from chemotherapy, for improving appetite in patients with cancer, AIDS, and anorexia nervosa, and for suppressing muscular spasms in multiple sclerosis (B.E. van Wyk 2000).

The fibre (often referred to as hemp) is used to make serviceable textiles and cordage and is grown as a crop in some countries for this purpose. Clothes made of it are longer lasting than those made of cotton and linen. The fibre is more rigid than glass fibre and is used instead to reinforce the plastic component in vehicles. It does not cause environmental problems on disposal.

Most people smoke dagga for pleasure since it induces hallucination. Prolonged smoking of dagga causes pulmonary ailments, affects the central nervous system and can result in permanent mental disorders.

Growing Cannabis sativa

It is cultivated from seeds. As its cultivation is illegal, it is usually secretly grown in impenetrable bush with no accessible footpaths in mountainous areas. It grows easily in fertile, warm spots if it receives adequate water. Dagga is regarded as a self-seeding weed, as its seedlings are often found in smoking areas, kraal sites and gardens.

The cultivation of this plant is illegal and severe penalties including imprisonment may be imposed.

References and further reading

  • Henderson, M., Fourie, D.M.C. & Wells, M.J. 1987. Declared weeds and alien invader plants in South Africa. Department of Agriculture & Water Supply. Pretoria.
  • Kirby, R.H. 1963. Vegetable fibres. Interscience Publishers, New York.
  • Van Wyk, B-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Van Wyk, B-E., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwiyk, M.G. 1962. Medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. Livingstone, Edinburgh and London.


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National Herbarium (Pretoria)
August 2004


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