The Miraculous Hemp Plant: History, Uses, and Benefits

Hemp farmers

The hemp plant may be one of the world’s most misunderstood plants, but thankfully times are changing. While many people still associate hemp with dreadlocks, joints, and a relaxed lifestyle, the myriad applications that this plant can be used for are changing people’s impressions. From food to shoes and clothing, beauty products, building materials, and paper, the hemp plant has an almost unlimited potential for uses and applications.

Despites its versatility, the hemp plant still has a negative reputation in some circles because of its association with marijuana. This association and consequent regulation, caused farmers to ignore hemp for decades in favor of less controversial agricultural goods. But in recent years, hemp has come into its own, as humanity rediscovers and explores the full scope of its uses and benefits.

Today, there are four main categories for hemp usage:

  1. Food and nutritional products
  2. Textiles
  3. Beauty and self-care products
  4. Building materials

Yes, this could just be the tip of the iceberg, as research on the hemp plant’s potential is still ongoing.

Before we go into details about how the hemp plant is used, let’s cover some basic questions that are often asked.

What is the hemp plant?

Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that can be grown for commercial purposes. Specifically, hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa, the same plant that is used to grow marijuana. Yet, there is a significant difference between the two.

Is hemp the same as marijuana?

Cannabis plant
Cannabis plant.

While hemp and marijuana are derived from the same plant, there’s a difference in the chemical composition of each strain of the plant. It’s not unlike the difference between, say, a mandarin orange and a navel orange. They resemble each other, they’re essentially the same plant, but there are differences in their seeds and they’re growing a bit differently.

On a more scientific level, the chemical composition difference between a plant grown for hemp and one grown for marijuana is that the hemp plant contains tiny amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) compared to the marijuana plant.

THC is the psychoactive agent in the cannabis plant. In the medical and recreational marijuana industry, a higher THC content is sought because of what the plant is used for. With hemp plants uses, THC is not needed.

Is hemp illegal?

For decades in the U.S. it was illegal to grow hemp for commercial purposes. I’ll explain that in more detail in the next section on the history of the hemp plant. Today, because the hemp plant is not bred for high THC content, it is legal to grow it in 46 U.S. States. However, it’s heavily regulated.

In the U.S., industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent THC, a low enough percentage to prevent anyone who consumers it from having any sort of psychoactive impact.

History of the Hemp Plant

A $1 "marihuana" revenue stamp from 1937
A $1 “marihuana” revenue stamp from 1937. Image: U.S. Government, Dept. of Internal Revenue, Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

When the U.S. was a new country, it was legal to grow hemp here. In fact, several U.S. Presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson, all grew hemp as an industrial crop.

Farmers continued to grow hemp until the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed. The act was the result of an increase in marijuana usage that begin when it started to be used for medical purposes around 1906. The heavy tax and increasing restrictions on all forms of the cannabis plant crippled the hemp industry.

During World War II, the act was temporarily suspended because the military needed hemp for cloth, rope, and other uses. After the war, the tax was put back in place, crippling the industry yet again.

Although the law was eventually overturned, the hemp plant’s reputation had been damaged. And hemp didn’t get much of a chance to flourish because it was impacted by even more legislation.

Hemp and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970

The second law that had a heavy impact on the industrial hemp industry was The Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This law made the production of any hemp or marijuana product illegal – despite the differences in the plants.

Hemp remained a controlled substance until an amendment was made to the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018. This Act removed hemp from the list, opening the path to commercial hemp production in the U.S.

How is the hemp plant grown?

The hemp plant is an extremely hardy plant that is drought tolerant and can be grown in a variety of soils. It’s also a sustainable plant that can be grown organically. Because hemp is naturally anti-microbial, it can be easily grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides.

When a farmer decides to grow hemp, as with other crops, careful attention needs to be paid to seed selection. When a farmer purchases hemp seeds and grows the plant, they need to ensure that the THC level in the plant never exceeds a level of 0.3 percent THC.

Today, in the U.S. at least, the hemp plant is legal to grow in 46 states. At the time of this writing, it is still illegal in Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Dakota.

What is CBD?

Hemp seeds and CBD oil
Hemp seeds and CBD oil.

In addition to THC, CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound that’s found in both hemp and marijuana. Today, CBD that’s derived from hemp plants is legal at the federal level because it can be extracted from the plant without THC.

CBD is known for its versatile medicinal uses. For one, it reduces inflammation in the body, which has both health and pain-relief benefits. And scientists are seeing more evidence of the effectiveness of CBD for treating illnesses, including arthritis and seizures. Further research is being done to understand the full spectrum of benefits that CBD can offer patients in terms of pain management, anxiety, and other disorders.

Hemp Plant Uses

The loosening of regulations for growing hemp has opened the door to new and improved uses of hemp. The potential for uses seems unlimited when it comes to creating products that are not only effective and durable, but eco-friendly as well.

The Hemp Plant as Food: A Nutritional Powerhouse

Fruit bowl with hemp seeds
Fruit bowl with hemp seeds.

In recent years, hemp use as a nutritional food source is growing in popularity. While the plant’s leaves can be eaten as greens, the most nutrition and flavor are found in the seeds. In fact, hemp seeds are considered a “superfood” on par with flax and chia seeds.

Hemp Seeds

Hemps seeds contain all nine essential amino acids, meaning they can provide a complete protein, which is especially beneficial for vegetarians and vegans. Hemp seeds are also protein dense, containing almost 10 grams of protein in just three tablespoons.

Containing an ideal blend of omega-3 and omega-6 oils, hemp seeds also help to balance cholesterol and ensure proper immune system functioning.

Additionally, hemp seeds are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including iron, B vitamins, Vitamin E, manganese, magnesium, and zinc.

Hemp Seeds in Recipes

Hemp seeds are a versatile food source that can be pressed to make oil, shelled for their hearts, ground into flour, and added to smoothies and cereal. In addition, because of its high protein content, hemp makes a great protein powder as well as a plantbased milk.
Essentially, the nutritional density of hemp seed makes it ideal for augmenting the nutrition in a variety of other foods.

Rope, Sails, Clothing, Shoes, and Accessories: Hemp in Textiles

Hemp rope

Hemp has been used as a textile for thousands of years. In fact, anthropologists believe it was one of the first cultivated plants. Archaeologists discovered a remnant of hemp cloth in ancient Mesopotamia (currently Iran and Iraq) that dates back to 8000 BC.

In ancient Greece, hemp was used for rope and sailcloth. The word “canvas” is believed to be a derivative of “cannabis,” which is the Latin name for hemp plants.

In addition to the seeds being used for food, hemp stalks have multiple uses. The hemp plant’s long fibrous strands are incredibly strong, thus they’re well-suited for cloth fiber and other textiles. In both ancient cultures and today, hemp is used to make sails, rope, clothing, shoes, and even paper.

The Benefits of Hemp Cloth

The inner layer of the hemp stalk is soft, making it suitable for clothing, while the tougher outer can be used for construction materials. Hemp cloth is super durable, yet comfortable to wear.

Hemp backpacks
Hemp backpacks by Dime Bags.

Hemp cloth gets softer with age, but will remain strong like a pair of blue jeans. It also has some other key benefits that make it great for clothing, shoes, and accessories:

  • Hemp cloth lets your skin breath like cotton does, and it wicks moisture from your skin.
  • It’s estimated to be three-times stronger than cotton cloth, and it doesn’t shrink when washed.
  • Hemp cloth gets softer with wear, while maintaining its shape and strength.
  • It’s naturally antimicrobial, so it doesn’t hold on to odors.
  • Hemp fiber filters out ultraviolet rays, making it an ideal material for hats and clothing that protect your skin from the sun’s rays.
  • It’s eco-friendly and sustainable: It can be grown easily without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and it doesn’t require much water.

As growing restrictions have been eased on the hemp plant, more companies have started to utilize hemp in their clothing, shoes, sandals, accessories, and even home goods, and it’s easy to see why. Hemp is simply a better performer than many other natural and synthetic fabrics, and it’s eco-friendly.

Hemp Paper

Manuscript written on hemp paper
An Indian manuscript written on hemp paper. Photo: Moefuzz.

Throughout history, hemp was also used to make paper. In fact, some historians believe the original Gutenberg Bibles were printed on hemp paper. In addition, rumors have persisted that the original U.S. Constitution was written on hemp paper. (But despite the fact that the Founding Fathers grew hemp, and an early draft of the document may have been written on hemp paper, the actual Constitution is written on parchment.)

By the 1900s, paper made from wood started to displace hemp paper because it was cheaper to produce. Today, making paper from hemp is still more expensive than paper made from wood. However, if you factor in the environmental costs of paper made from trees, hemp paper makes more sense.

The reason is that growing hemp requires less water than growing trees. In addition, the hemp plant grows faster and contains more cellulose (the main ingredient in paper) than wood does. Furthermore, paper made from hemp can be recycled more times and with fewer chemicals than paper made from trees.

Today, hemp paper is used more commonly in specialty products, such as notebooks, greeting cards, and cigarette papers.

Construction Uses: Hemp Building Materials

Home made with hempcrete
A home under construction in Bellingham, Washington that is made with hempcrete – hemp-based concrete. Photo: Tommy Gibbons.

One of the more surprising uses of hemp is in the building industry. This can take several forms, although one of the most interesting uses is hempcrete, which is like concrete that’s made from hemp. The strong substance can be molded into bricks or poured into areas for walkways and more.

Hempcrete is a superstar sustainable material for a number of reasons:

  • It’s super strong and durable.
  • It uses less water than traditional concrete to produce.
  • It’s carbon negative, meaning it actually helps to remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere when it’s used.
  • It’s fire-resistant.
  • It’s mold-resistant.
  • It’s light-weight.
  • It insulates.
  • It’s non-toxic and safe for workers.

Because of its wide range of applications and benefits in the construction industry, hemp promises to offer far-reaching environmental benefits as legal restrictions loosen up globally on growing it.

Keeping It Fresh and Clean: Hemp Self-Care and Beauty Products

Hemp beauty products

Hemp is increasingly being used in beauty products as well. Today, you don’t have to look far to find an array of natural cleansers, moisturizers, and even makeup that contain hemp as well as CBD oil.

Rich with omega-3s and 6s, hemp seeds make effective moisturizers that also have healing benefits. They can help to mitigate acne, psoriasis, and eczema. And some lotions and creams may be specifically formulated with higher levels of CBD to provide pain relief for achy muscles.

While this is exciting, it’s important to keep in mind that the CBD market is still not fully regulated. Not all product claims should be believed, and research is ongoing in terms of the risks and benefits of CBD in beauty and self-care products. Looking for reputable, known brands is always preferable to trying one you’ve never heard of.

The Future of the Hemp Plant

With the wide array of uses that the hemp plants offers, we can only hope that more farmers will start growing it, and more designers and product developers will innovate on ways to use it. Clearly, the consumer interest is already there. In addition, as hemp plant processing becomes more refined, variety in materials will expand. After all, when this superstar sustainable plant is used more to feed, clothe, and house people, the rest of the planet will benefit as well.

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