Rediscover This Long-Forgotten Part of the Cannabis Plant

By David Jenison on September 15, 2017

In modern times, cannabis aficionados utilize the flower, seeds, stalks, leaves and resin glands for smoke, food, fiber, fuel and medicine. What few people use are the roots despite their long history of medical use dating back thousands of years. A trio of researchers (including Dr. Ethan Russo) explored traditional and modern applications in a new study for the Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research journal. 

Pliny the Elder, the first-century Roman naturalist (and the name inspiration for a kick-ass double IPA), suggested a liquid root concentrate in Natural Histories for treating gout, joint stiffness and other conditions. In the 16th century, physicians like Germany's Leonhart Fuchs and France's François Rabelais also used the root to treat gout, as did British botanist John Parkinson in 1640, while 17th-century Polish botanist Szymon Syrenski made the curious claim that hemp roots help with “curved and shrunken body parts.” Hundreds of years earlier, 12th-century Persian philosopher Ibn Sina suggested the roots help "decrease fever," a recommendation also found in Argentina, while the ancient Chinese pharmacopoeia Pen Ts’ao Ching said cannabis-root juice could help with postpartum hemorrhage. 

By the late 1600s, physicians and botanists around the world applied cannabis roots to a wide range of conditions that also included arthritis, skin burns, gastrointestinal issues, infection, "tumors" (i.e., abscess, sores, ulcers) and even sexually transmitted disease. (For those who must know, a 17th-century German botanist in what is now Indonesia prepared an edible root formula for gonorrhea.) 

Now before shoving cannabis roots down your cheatin' boyfriend's throat, many of these claims are unproven, but one early application in particular—treating inflammation—is likely legit. Dr. Nicholas Culpeper wrote “the decoction of the root allays inflammations of the head or any other parts" in 1653's Culpeper's Complete Herbal. Several other physicians made similar claims, from Brits like John Parkinson to Persians like M. Husain Khan. As noted by the authors of the Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research study, "There are several compounds in cannabis root with potential anti-inflammatory activity."

Per the research, cannabis roots contain friedelin, epifriedelanol, triterpenoids, cannabisativine, anhydrocannabisativine, carvone, dihydrocarvone, sitosterol, campesterol, stigmasterol, N-(p-hydroxy-β-phenylethyl)-p-hydroxy-trans-cinnamamide and a bunch of other stuff that would screw up a spelling bee contestant. Noticeably missing from the roots, however, are cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Limited modern research exists for cannabis roots, but studies are available for many of the individual components found in them. 

Referencing several other studies, the authors listed potential medical applications for the root components that include anti-inflammatory, fever-reducing, pain-relieving, antioxidant and analgesic effects. This led them to conclude, "The current available data on the pharmacology of cannabis root components provide significant support to the historical and ethnobotanical claims of clinical efficacy. This suggests the need for reexamination of whole root preparations on inflammatory and malignant conditions employing modern scientific techniques."

Dr. Russo and company then listed several traditional ways that physicians and botanists applied the roots in centuries past. They included extracting the juice, boiling the roots in water, mixing the ground root juice into oil or butter and applying the root juice topically. One account even described "mixing pulverized cannabis root with wine." More research might be necessary, but for now, we'll test the theory out with lots of cannabis root sangria!

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