In this exclusive preview from a new, scholarly look at the flora of Middle Earth, botanist Walter Judd gives fans some insight into the role hemp played in the lives of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and all of the friends and foes met along their adventues.
Just how versatile is hemp? Well, besides all those many uses your hippie art teacher used to tell you about in high school, fantasy legend J.R.R. Tolkien found it to be an incredibly useful plant in the world of Lord of the Rings:
HEMP, GALLOW-GRASS (CANNABIS SATIVA)
(Hemp or Hackberry family [Cannabaceae].) ￼
[A]nd leaping Beleg with his sword severed on wrist and arm so strong that whetting; entangled still the searing bonds like ropes of hemp in stupor lying lay Turin moveless. (Lays I: lines 1231–1235)
Some have connected Cannabis sativa (hemp, marijuana) with pipe-weed, but such a linkage is contradicted by a clear reading of prologue Concerning Pipe-weed, where the plant is stated to be “a variety probably of Nicotiana” (i.e., tobacco). Hemp, in contrast, is actually an important fiber plant, and, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s legendarium, it is much more logically linked with rope-making (Figure 7.35). In the initial quote (see also SILM 21) from The Lay of the Children of Húrin, we have a clear reference to hemp as a source of a strong and durable fiber used in making ropes. In this dramatic scene, we see the rescue of Túrin who had been captured by orcs and bound with strong cords. Beleg cut the fetters binding Túrin’s wrists and arms using his sword Anglachel, but as he cut the ropes around his Túrin’s feet, working quickly and in total darkness, he pricked Turin’s foot, causing him to awake in fear and acci- dently kill his best friend. Cannabis may also be referenced in the name gallows- weed, which occurs in the eerie poem, The Mewlips, in which those searching for the mewlips must travel through “the wood of hanging trees and the gallows-weed” (TATB 9). Gallow-grass is an obsolete name for Cannabis, applied because of the importance of hemp in rope-making. The similarity of gallow-grass and gallows- weed is close, and Cannabis is often called both “grass” and “weed.” The reference to “hanging trees” in this verse is also significant, making it likely that gallow-grass is the source of rope fiber—the two essential components of execution by hanging being a tree and a rope.
Etymology: The English word “hemp” is derived from Old English hænep (hemp), from Proto-Germanic *hanapiz, which was probably a very early borrowing of a Scythian word, which also passed into Greek as kannabis. The scientific name, Cannabis, is Latin and also comes from the Greek kannabis.
Distribution and Ecology: Hemp (fiber plants) and the closely related marijuana (drug plants) both belong to the variable species Cannabis sativa, the only species of the genus, which is native to Asia but has been widely naturalized in Europe and east- ern North America. Weedy populations exist (in which the achenes have a basal con- striction, and thus easily disarticulate and disperse), as well as cultivars, selected either for fiber production (hemp) or drug/medicinal usage (marijuana); both sets of culti- vars have nonabscising achenes. The inconspicuous flowers are wind-pollinated, and the achenes are dispersed by wind, water, or can be eaten by birds (and germinate after passing through their digestive track).
Economic Uses: The fiber cultivars (i.e., hemp; often treated as C. sativa subsp. sativa) have strong and elongate fibers, and their stems are used in making rope, paper, canvas, fish nets, and textiles. Some cultivars have been selected for their seeds, which are the source of nutritious oil; the seeds are also used birdseed mixes. The oil, how- ever, is also used in lacquers, paints, soaps, and as a fuel. Those cultivars that are high in cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are drug plants (marijuana; often considered as C. sativa subsp. indica); the THC produced in their glandular hairs affect brain function (binding to CB1 receptors), and some of these cultivars are also used medicinally (e.g., relief from multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, glaucoma, nausea, convulsions).
Description: Annual herbs, with a taproot, with simple, nonglandular and gland- headed hairs; stems erect, simple to well branched. Leaves opposite and decussate below, becoming alternate above, borne along the stem, with cystoliths (microscopic concretions composed of calcium carbonate) at the base of some hairs, palmately com- pound (and venation also palmate), with 3–9 leaflets, each leaflet ovate to elliptic, often narrowly so, with pinnate venation, the apex acuminate, the base cuneate, the mar- gin serrate, the leaves petiolate; stipules present. Inflorescences axillary, the cymose floral clusters concentrated toward the tips of the shoots; the flowers unisexual, with staminate and carpellate flowers usually on different plants, and radially symmetrical, the staminate flowers with five greenish tepals and five stamens, these opposite the tepals; the carpellate flowers each surrounded by a small bract that is covered with gland-headed hairs, with reduced perianth, appressed to base of ovary, with two fused carpels; the ovary superior, with two elongate stigmas. Fruit an achene, ovoid, more or less enclosed by the perianth (Figure 7.35).
You can see a number of images from Flora of Middle Earth in the attached image gallery, along with numerous illustrations from Graham Judd.
The official description for the book can be found below. You can order Flora of Middle Earth here.
In Flora of Middle Earth: Plants of Tolkien's Legendarium (Oxford, August 15 2017), botanist Walter Judd gives a detailed species account of every plant found in Tolkien's universe, complete with the etymology of the plant's name, a discussion of its significance within Tolkien's work, a description of the plant's distribution and ecology, and an original hand-drawn illustration by artist Graham Judd in the style of a woodcut print.
Among the over three-thousand vascular plants Tolkien would have seen in the British Isles, the authors show why Tolkien may have selected certain plants for inclusion in his universe over others, in terms of their botanic properties and traditional uses. The clear, comprehensive alphabetical listing of each species, along with the visual identification key of the plant drawings, adds to the reader's understanding and appreciation of the Tolkien canon.