The Marijuana Leaf: How a Symbol Became a Cultural Icon

Sophia Delphi May 13, 2022 - 7 min read
Fact Checked
Image of Weed Leaf

Graphics and design are a $13 billion industry in America, and $3 billion of that money is spent on logo design and branding. It’s not always money well-spent. [1]

In 1976, NBC reportedly spent a million dollars (a big investment at the time) for a new logo to replace its iconic peacock. The contemporary “N” design only lasted three years before NBC brought the peacock back, and it cost them nearly another million dollars to settle a trademark infringement suit over the “N.”

By comparison, the marijuana leaf design didn’t cost anyone anything. It’s used by countless businesses and product designers around the world, and its message is instantly identifiable.

Where did its use originate? Is it an “authentic” representation of a weed leaf?

And has it outlived its usefulness as a symbol for cannabis and cannabis culture?

Let’s explore.

The Humble Marijuana Leaf

If you’ve spent any time looking at a weed plant, you know that all marijuana leaves don’t look the same. More specifically for our discussion, they don’t all look like the seven-pointed cannabis leaf that’s the universal symbol for pot.

Types of Marijuana Leaves

There are two distinct types of leaves on weed plants.

Sugar Leaves

A plant that’s in the flowering stage, which is when buds emerge and mature, will grow single-pointed leaves known as sugar leaves. They help hold the buds together.

They don’t look anything like the seven-pointed logos on t-shirts. They have just one point, and they’re usually hidden by the plant’s flowers. You may only see their tips peeking through the colas. Some strains, though, may grow larger and more visible sugar leaves.

Why are they called “sugar” leaves? It’s because they’re ideally covered in sticky white trichomes near the end of the plant’s growing cycle, although far fewer trichomes than you’ll find on the buds.

Because of their trichomes, sugar leaves can be smoked. However, they’ll be harsher and less potent, and they’re likely to taste like the chlorophyll they contain. These leaves are better used to make cannabutter or tinctures, or for harvesting their kief.

Fan Leaves

The broad, serrated leaves that we all identify as being “marijuana leaves” are called fan leaves.

These are the plant’s primary leaves. They’re responsible for collecting energy from the sun to be used in photosynthesis, and they’re important for the plant’s respiration (absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen).

When a plant sprouts, its fan leaves don’t look like that drawing on t-shirts. They initially have two small serrated leaves with just one point (or “lobe”). The next set of leaves that emerges will usually have three points, and the set that follows will normally have five. After that, most of the plant’s healthy fan leaves will have the “normal” number of lobes.

But what’s normal?

How Many Lobes on a Weed Leaf?

The seven points you see on “pot logos” are the most common. However, sativa plants’ fan leaves often have nine lobes and can have as many as 13 points. They’re also longer and thinner than wide indica leaves, which are most likely to have seven lobes but may have nine.

The fan leaves on rarer ruderalis cannabis plants, which grow in the wild and are only used for breeding, usually have five points. If you grow weed and your mature plants have just three or five lobes on their fan leaves, it could be a sign that they’re suffering from stress or are re-vegetating.

Fan leaves don’t contain high levels of cannabinoids, but they’re sometimes used to infuse the oil for topical products, brew weed tea, or make smoothies.

Who Started Using The Marijuana Leaf As a Symbol?

The first time a company registered a pot leaf trademark was in 2004, and the logo analytics company Emblemetric reports that by 2015, one in every 500 cannabis logos featured the iconic weed leaf. Even more, use it today.

The Emblematic study found that 44% of marijuana logos trademarked in the U.S. include the leaf as a prominent element. And when Snoop first launched his line of cannabis products, the logo was only a simple marijuana leaf.

Readers who came of age before legalization began in the late 1990s certainly remember seeing the leaf adorning t-shirts, sweats, purses, and other items well before then.

But even the 1960s flower power and hippie marijuana leaf symbols were late to the game. [2]

For example, a Japanese cave painting that dates back 12,000 years depicted the seven-lobed weed leaf. The ancient Egyptian goddess Seshat was often shown with a pot leaf in a circle over her head. Marijuana plants — and their leaves — were commonly pictured in medical and botanical textbooks as far back as the 13th century.

Certainly back then, and even a decade or two ago, it was noteworthy to see the marijuana leaf displayed just about anywhere. Today, most of us probably don’t even notice it unless we’re on the lookout for like-minded friends.

What does that say about the use of the weed leaf as a symbol for cannabis products or dispensaries? For that matter, is wearing a shirt emblazoned with a marijuana leaf passé?

Not all industry experts believe that the ubiquitous weed leaf makes much sense as a logo or symbol going forward.

The cannabis entrepreneur Brendan Kennedy told Fortune back in the mid-2010s that he thought the logo had played itself out as a corporate branding vehicle: “Everything is named ‘canna-something’ or ‘mari-something’ with a green and black logo and pot leaves.”

Kennedy argued at that point that the industry needed to focus more on corporate branding and less on simply shouting very loudly that they sold weed.

The analysts at Emblematic agree. They believe that the marijuana leaf has become so common that it simply identifies a company as being in a “general category” of business, and says nothing about its brand. They’ve found that only veterinarians using animals in logos, and basketball teams using basketballs, are more predictable in their use of symbols.

Companies have begun taking that advice to heart.

For example, Snoop’s latest line of weed products, “Leafs by Snoop,” now uses a stylized gold weed leaf just as a background, with the company name featured much more prominently. Marley Natural abandoned its leaf logo completely. And many more cannabis companies have rebranded without using the marijuana leaf.

Don’t worry, though. For many years to come, you’ll certainly be able to find an enormous selection of clothing and accessories with the iconic marijuana leaf front and center.

The Marijuana Leaf: FAQ

Q: Aren’t there some marijuana leaves that don’t look like traditional pot leaves?
A: Several have emerged over the years because cannabis is a plant that can mutate over time. As you probably know, weed leaves usually grow singly, on alternate sides of the plant’s stem. You may occasionally see plants with so-called whorled leaves, a mutation that sees three or more leaves all growing from the same node. Another mutation is called “Australian Bastard,” with the plant featuring very short leaves with five points. And “ducksfoot” cannabis has its leaves connected in a way similar to webbed feet.

Q: Can you still register the marijuana leaf design as a trademark? Or is it completely taken?
A: The leaf itself isn’t trademarked, so it’s still possible to register a logo that includes the marijuana leaf as part of its design. What’s more problematic is that weed is still illegal under federal law; for a U.S. trademark to be issued, the mark has to be used in legal commerce. So the trademarks that have been approved so far have all been state trademarks, issued in states where cannabis use is legal.