Helichrysum umbraculigerum, or the woolly umbrella plant, is a velvety yellow perennial herb native to South Africa, and Israeli researchers recently discovered that the plant, which is definitively not a part of the cannabis family, happens to produce a number of cannabinoids that, until now, were believed to belong exclusively to the cannabis and hemp plants.
The recent discovery could open new avenues for cannabinoid medicines and treatments. The study, titled “Turning a new leaf on cannabinoids,” was conducted by researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science and published in the journal Nature Plants earlier this month.
Cannabis and the Woolly Umbrella Plant
Researchers have studied cannabinoids and their potential uses for decades. The most well-known cannabinoid tends to be THC, though there are plenty of others that have gained prominence over the years, have little-to-no psychoactive effects and could assist in treating a variety of symptoms and conditions.
While cannabis is known to produce more than 100 different cannabinoids, the research team identified more than 40 cannabinoids found in the woolly umbrella. They also shared the biochemical steps the plant takes as it produces these compounds and how these steps can be reproduced in a laboratory, to synthesize existing cannabinoids or potentially engineer new ones that don’t exist in nature.
“We have found a major new source of cannabinoids and developed tools for their sustained production, which can help explore their enormous therapeutic potential,” said study leader Dr. Shirley Berman of the Weizmann Institute of Science.
The woolly umbrella plant is a relative of daisies, lettuce and sunflowers. It can reach up to one meter in height and is often used to make garden borders. It’s also been known to be burned in folk rituals to release intoxicating fumes, which hints that there might be more under the surface.
More than four decades ago, German scientists also found evidence that the woolly umbrella contains cannabinoids, though modern studies have failed to reproduce those findings until now. In fact, the research team launched the study of the woolly umbrella specifically to revisit its relationship to cannabinoids and larger potential as a medical aid.
A New Frontier for Cannabinoids?
The research team used state-of-the-art technology to confirm those early reports. Specifically, they sequenced the entire woolly umbrella genome and used advanced analytical chemistry to identify the cannabinoids it contains. Researchers were also able to reveal the precise structure of more than a dozen of the observed cannabinoids, along with other related metabolites.
They found that the woolly umbrella primarily manufactures cannabis in its leaves, which could be a benefit compared to cannabis, which makes cannabinoids in the shorter-lived, sometimes challenging-to-harvest flower clusters. Regardless, researchers found many commonalities between the two plants; particularly, the enzymes used in each step of cannabinoid production belong to the same families.
Researchers found that six cannabinoids found in the woolly umbrella are identical to those in cannabis. THC and CBD were not among them, though CBG, or cannabigerol, was. CBG has increasingly grown in popularity, as research has continued to reveal its potential therapeutic benefits. Similar to CBD, the cannabinoid also lacks the mood-altering effects that create a “high.”
With cannabis plants specifically, CBG is considered the main precursor to many popular cannabinoids. Namely, THCA, CBDA and CBCA all start as CBG’s acidic form, CBGA, which often leaves little CBG for harvest among mature plants. Growers have explored workarounds to maximize CBG production, but the woolly umbrella could pave the way to another solution.
A Promising Finding for Future Exploration
Additionally, researchers noted that there is an ecological point of view to further examine. Scientists still don’t fully understand why plants produce cannabinoids, though some evidence suggests it may help to deter predators or offer protection from ultraviolet rays.
“The fact that in the course of evolution two genetically unrelated plants independently developed the ability to make cannabinoids suggests that these compounds perform important ecological functions,” said Professor Asaph Aharoni, whose lab was used for the study. “More research is needed to determine what these functions are.”
Moving forward, the study findings may allow scientists to engineer cannabinoids that don’t exist in nature, allowing for better binding to human cannabinoid receptors or even specific therapeutic effects. The cannabinoids specific to the woolly umbrella plant could also hold untapped potential.
“The next exciting step would be to determine the properties of the more than 30 new cannabinoids we’ve discovered, and then to see what therapeutic uses they might have,” Berman said.