Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 3, 2023

When it comes to the cannabis plant, the buds always take the spotlight, and understandably so. However, the leaves of the plant are another important part of its anatomy that should be talked about more often. There are many variations in the leaves of the cannabis plant that can tell you what strain it belongs to, especially if it’s a hybrid.

If you’re a novice grower who’s learning the ropes, or are just curious, keep reading because in today’s article we’ll talk about cannabis leaves and how you can tell them apart by the number of finger leaves.

Why Leaves Are Important to the Life Cycle of Marijuana Plants 

Leaves have a primary role in the health of your plants because they’re an important part of the plant’s life support system. 

First of all, they help the plant breathe. There are numerous stomata on the underside of the leaves, which are tiny microscopic holes that open and close. Through them, the leaves take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen and water into the atmosphere, a process also known as photosynthesis.

This process would be impossible without chlorophyll, a green pigment necessary for the absorption of light and turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, nutrients, and starches. Leaves have an abundance of chlorophyll that helps them synthesize energy reserves.

When we talk about leaves, it’s usually the fan leaves that most people refer to because of their abundance. However, there are two more types of leaves that are also an important part of the marijuana plant’s anatomy.

Cotyledon Leaves

The cotyledon leaves are the first leaves to show up once your plant has started sprouting. They appear in pairs and are very small and fragile. Cotyledon leaves are the first sign that the germination process was successful and that the plant has started to grow and become stronger.

​Fan Leaves

The fan leaves are the large and most noticeable structures on the cannabis plant. The fan leaves start developing and growing very fast after the seeds germinate and start sprouting. Aside from being eye-catching, the fan leaves are actually very important for the plant’s survival. 

Their primary role is photosynthesis where they convert light and carbon dioxide into nutrient and energy reserves that the plant uses up in case the plant suffers some damage, like overwatering or problems with the roots. Some growers remove part of the fan leaves once their plants enter the flowering stage because they think this will provide more airflow for the buds. However, this isn’t a very good idea as you’re removing valuable energy reserves. 

Fan leaves can also give you a lot of information about the health of your plants. Any nutrient deficiencies or pest infestations will immediately show up on the fan leaves. You may notice all kinds of symptoms, like yellowing, brown spots, leaves looking dry or droopy, etc. That’s why it’s important to observe the leaves during the vegetative growth stage.

Unlike the flowers, fan leaves contain low levels of cannabinoids, with the THC and CBD concentrations at less than 1%.

Sugar Leaves

Sugar leaves are small and frosty-looking leaves that are found nestled within and around the buds of the female plants. They are covered with trichomes, just like the buds, which gives them a frosty appearance, hence the name. 

The primary role of sugar leaves is to provide the buds with stability and structure. They have a harsh flavor when smoked, which is why they’re usually trimmed off once the buds are harvested. Even though sugar leaves are covered in trichomes, their CBD and THC content isn’t as high as the buds, but it’s much higher than the fan leaves

Growers usually save the sugar leaves to use for making hash or edibles like cannabutter and cannabis tea.

How Many Finger Leaves Does the Cannabis Plant Have?

When we talk about leaves, it’s usually the fan leaves that most people refer to because of their abundance. By structure, the fan leaves are compound and are made up of multiple smaller leaflets, commonly called finger leaves or just fingers. They have serrated edges and have a generally jagged appearance. How many finger leaves a fan leaf will have depends entirely on the cannabis strain. 

  • Cannabis Sativa plants have narrow and slender leaves with pronounced serrations on the fingers. Sativa leaves have a lighter green shade and can develop up to 13 fingers, although 9 seems to be the most common number;
  • Cannabis Indica plants are the opposite of Sativas because their leaves are a deeper shade of green and are smaller and thicker. The serrations aren’t as pronounced and they have fewer fingers – about 7 to 9;
  • Cannabis Ruderalis strains are autoflowering strains and their leaves are slender and long, but they’re not very big and only have up to 5 fingers;
  • Hybrid Strains have leaves that are in between Indicas and Sativas (and sometimes Ruderalis), so knowing how to differentiate between Indica and Sativa leaves will make it easier to recognize a hybrid.

Additionally, there is no difference between the leaves of the male plants, female plants, and hermaphrodites, no matter the strain. What makes them different are only their sex organs – pollen sacs, pistils, and calyxes.

What Do Cannabis Leaves Need During Different Stages of Their Life Cycle?

Besides water and nutrients, which are necessary for each stage of the life cycle of cannabis plants, the leaves need a lot of hours of light during the vegetative stage. Since cannabis is a photoperiod plant and its entire life cycle depends on the light cycle (whether you grow inside or outside), providing the leaves with enough light during this stage is essential. This helps them to grow strong and thrive, and to synthesize enough nutrients for the whole plant. 

While the vegetative stage is all about the fan leaves and their growing progress, the flowering stage is all about the flowers, however, this doesn’t mean that the leaves are less important. During the flowering stage, the leaves don’t need as much light because by then they will have grown strong already (and won’t require as much attention as the flowers). That being said, the leaves will be content with enough water and nutrients.

What To Do With All Those Cannabis Leaves You’re Left With?

A lot of growers throw away the trim because they either don’t know what to do with it or don’t have any use for it. While you can’t really get that high on fan leaves, you can use them in different ways because they still contain nutrients. 

Fresh cannabis leaves have high levels of CBDA and THCA, the precursors (inactive forms) of THC and CBD which are believed to have anti-inflammatory and calming properties. You can use fresh leaves for juicing or in salads, or you can make edibles and beverages like cannabutter or cannabis tea. Alternatively, you can dry them and ground them to use as a spice.

Bottom Line – The Number of Finger Leaves Can Give You a Lot of Clues

All types of leaves are important for the plant’s well-being. The number of fingers on the fan leaves can immediately tell you which strain you’re dealing with, especially if it’s a hybrid. Sativas and Indicas have clear differences, while Ruderalis is mostly used for creating hybrids due to its autoflowering properties. You don’t have to throw all the leaves after harvest, but you can use them in many creative ways.

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


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