This article on boutique marijuana incorrectly said that Virginia has no medical marijuana law. A law on the books allows the use of marijuana in the treatment of cancer and glaucoma, but because of conflicting laws the state is not considered to be among those that have approved medical use of the drug.
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Boutique buds: What underground mom-and-pop growers did while we debated legalization
To meet such a cultivator, I drive north of Oakland into Sonoma County to see an Anglo named George van Patten, who is better known to his avid readers as his Latino alter ego, Jorge Cervantes.
In the 1980s, he ran a hydroponics store in Portland, Ore., and published one of the first books on how to grow marijuana: self-written, -illustrated, -printed and -bound because no publisher would dare touch it. The book became the foundation for more editions, fresh volumes and translations into Spanish, German, French and Italian. His latest book is about the basics of marijuana cultivation and is aimed at novices.
Approaching Sonoma, I see roadside fields of vines heavy with purple-black grapes, and through the town squat palms line the streets like upended joints, cartoonish and mocking. The sky is blue and cloudless, the sun impossibly bright. There is none of the fungal-inducing humidity of Washington or the wretched night heat that weighs so heavily on our garden plants. You could grow anything here, I'm thinking, if you had the water.
Cervantes had sent me publicity pictures of himself in a hammock, holding his pet dachshund and surrounded by a forest of container-grown cannabis. His black hair fell to his shoulders.
When I pull into his street, I wonder whether I have take a wrong turn: The gabled homes are tidy and uniform, and the neighborhood exudes an air of suburban rectitude. Cervantes is outside to greet me, but he is older and smaller than he appeared in the photos, his flowing hair now grayish blond. We enter his home, past a neat front lawn framed by white roses and purple agapanthus. The back garden has all the signs of a formerly basic landscape under fresh assault by an incurable gardener.
A new redwood privacy fence wraps around a large but unplanted garden bed. Since December, Cervantes has excavated five cubic yards of rock and sticky clay soil, and added 100 yards of enriched, amended soil. The side garden is dominated by three raised beds, two of which house ripening tomatoes, peppers and other summer vegetables. The third bed holds six marijuana plants, heavily branched, lush and green. Clearly, they have received loving care -- good soil, ample moisture and, as it turns out, pricey bat guano at $70 a box. They are growing under shade cloth in a raised bed enriched with bark chips, sand, chicken manure, compost and sterilized bone meal. Now, in late August, they are three feet across and at least as high.
Cannabis is a botanical loner, its sole relative the hopvine used to flavor beer. It also is an annual, but unlike other annuals, its plants are single sex. A male blooms with pollen, a female plant has clusters of ovaries, which produce seeds, but only if fertilized with pollen.
The inferior dope produced by criminal organizations typically contains stems, leaves and seedy buds and the rankest herb is combined with filler and pressed into bricks. But a hobby grower such as Cervantes knows that the highest quality and most potent marijuana is made primarily from the unpollinated female flower buds, of choice strains. Where once the wild article was scrawny and grudging -- ditch weed -- these modern cultivated varieties are bushy and packed with plump, resinous buds. This choice, seed-free herb is known as sinsemilla (Spanish for "without seed").
Marijuana, like chrysanthemums and poinsettias, is spurred to flower by the shorter days of late summer. But its bloom has none of the innate beauty of, say, a daisy or a rose. Pollinated by the wind, the blossoms have no need to pretty themselves for bees or butterflies. Each flower is wrapped tightly in a drab sheath, from which it sends up a pair of hair-like tubes, pistils in search of the pollen that the artful gardener denies them.
Cervantes removes the shade cloth so I can get a good look at these baby flowers. Weeks away from harvest, they are the size of a pea and just beginning to show their short blond hairs. Half of the varieties are of Bubba Kush, the other Purple Kush, a favored medical strain for treating both pain and depression.
Over the next few weeks, the plants' maiden blossoms will proliferate and form clusters, most noticeably at the branch tips. Lacking pollination, the plants will produce increasing numbers of individual flowers in a vain effort to attract a mate. The cluster at the top of the main stem will become so congested that it may stretch 18 inches or more and contain hundreds of engorged flowers. Among growers, the ugliness of the individual flower is more than surpassed by the spectacle of the huge bud spike.