The pot leaf, with its iconic odd-numbered spears, is probably the most widely recognized botanical image in the world. It owes this visual fame partly to the rise of stoner culture over the last half-century, but the plant is also indebted to countless ancient and Medieval artists who were inspired to depict it in religious and scientific illustrations.
Much like their modern 420-friendly brethren, these ancestral ents were fascinated by the simple beauty of the cannabis leaf. It's difficult to definitively trace their visual tributes all the way back to the earliest example, however, mostly because cannabis use predates written culture.
Cannabis sativa has been farmed by humans for 12,000 years as hemp, and archeological evidence suggests the recreational, medicinal, and psychoactive properties of marijuana have been understood for around half that time. (Reminder: Hemp and pot are different strains of Cannabis sativa; the former is generally industrial while the latter has higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and is generally medicinal or recreational.)
The Chinese radical character for the word hemp—Má—dates back thousands of years, and represents two plants hanging to dry under the roof of a shelter.
According to some sources, including Michael Backes' book Cannabis Pharmacy, this neolithic era (10,000-5,000 BC) cave painting found on the coast of Kyushu, Japan, is an illustration of cannabis, which would likely make it the earliest representation of a pot leaf known. However, whether or not this primitive artwork actually depicts the plant is purely speculative, though it's worth noting that hemp was cultivated in Japan during this period.
Likewise, there have been some fringe debates about whether the Egyptian goddess Seshat was an early patron of pot, given that she is frequently depicted with a seven-pointed leaf above her head.
Given that Seshat is the patron deity of wisdom, knowledge, and scribes, it's tempting to assume she derived her powers from getting so blazed that a pot leaf materializes over her head, like some stoner riff on a light bulb. But her trademark hieroglyph could also be a representation of a star, or another type of plant, so it's better not to get carried away until Seshat herself clarifies the meaning of the symbol.
The Asian goddess Magu, also known as the Hemp Maiden, has also long been associated with cannabis. She is often depicted overladen with botanical samples, as in this painting entitled "Portrait of the Immortal Magu," which dates to the 12th century Song dynasty.
The earliest scientific illustrations of cannabis began widely circulating among naturalists of the Byzantine Empire. Hemp was depicted in the luxury scientific manuscript The Vienna Dioscurides, crafted around 515 AD as a gift to an imperial princess, identified both by a Greek heading and Arabic margin notes.
The 13th century Persian polymath Zakarya Qazvini also included hemp in illustrated botanical summaries (cannabis is depicted in the top panel, with cauliflower and southernwood beneath it).
The inclusion of illustrated male and female versions of Cannabis sativa in Les Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne, an influential devotional text created for Anne of Brittany in the early 1500s, further cemented the herb's reputation as both an industrial crop and a medicinal herb.
Cannabis began to routinely crop up in illustrated botanical compendiums, such as physician Leonhard Fuchs' 1542 tome De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants).
Botanical artists of the Enlightenment era, like German engraver Jacob Sturm, produced even more sophisticated versions of the plant that separately label its constituent parts. This is a page from Sturm's 1795 manuscript Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen (German Flora in Pictures), written with his father, the natural historian Johann Georg Sturm.
In Edward Hamilton's 1852 book The Flora Homoeopathica (Homeopathic Plants), the medicinal qualities of Cannabis sativa are specifically noted.
This 1885 illustration produced by German professor Otto Wilhelm Thomé is a good example of a growing realist trend in botanical artwork at the turn of the 20th century.
Likewise, this colorful page from Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (Köhler's Medicinal Plants), an illustrated medical series produced from 1883 to 1914, more closely resembles the popular global image of the pot leaf.
It's interesting to experience the evolution of cannabis through the lens of artists who visually represented it, in order to share the plant's many wonders with future generations.
It goes to show that in the background of history, behind epic wars and doomed empires, stoners have been mellowly wandering the planet in search of enlightenment, adventure, and munchie-quenching snacks.