What Is Hemp Used For? A Look at Hemp's Uses Throughout History

With an extensive range of uses, a rich history, and environmental benefits, it's safe to say that hemp is a truly amazing plant. 

Hemp, derived from the cannabis plant species Cannabis Sativa has served as a versatile resource for numerous commercial and industrial uses over the centuries. Products made from hemp are nothing new, but modern technology and recent legal changes have brought about a hemp innovation boom. Today you can find hemp used to make clothing, energy, cosmetics, medicines, food, paper, plastic alternatives, and so much more! 

You likely encounter hemp products multiple times a day whether you know it or not. 

How Is Hemp Used?

Every part of the plant is usable. From the lowest, smallest wisp of root to the tippy-topmost leaf, here’s how it lends itself to a variety of industries.

Hemp fiber and yarn

Hemp Fiber

Hemp fiber, primarily derived from the plant's stalk, is harvested when the plant reaches maturity, typically around 70-90 days after planting.(1) The stalks are cut and left in the field to ret (a process where natural elements break down the pectin holding the fibers together), then dried and processed to extract the fibers.

These strong, durable fibers are used in textiles, paper, rope, and even biodegradable plastics, showcasing hemp's versatility and sustainability.

Hemp Stem

The stem of the hemp plant, often overshadowed by its more famous fibers, is harvested simultaneously with the fibers. After the initial processing to separate the fibers, the remaining woody core, known as hurds or shivs, is utilized. Hemp stems are increasingly being used in construction and building materials like hempcrete, animal bedding, and as a sustainable source for biofuels.(2)

Hemp stalks being harvested and tied into bundles.

Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds are harvested when they reach full maturity and begin to harden, typically around 100-120 days after planting.(3) Special machinery shakes the seeds free from the plant without damaging them. Rich in protein, omega fatty acids, and essential nutrients, hemp seeds are consumed as a health food. 

Hemp seeds are used in cooking oils, sprinkled in soups, salads, and yogurt, or processed into hemp protein powder. Additionally, they are a valuable source for producing hemp seed oil, used in skincare products and industrial applications.

Hemp Roots

Hemp has deep roots and the ability ability to draw up harmful compounds such as heavy metals while absorbing carbon, making it a soil-building sustainability superstar. After working their magic, the above-ground parts of the plant can be harvested and cleaned.

Traditionally valued in herbal medicine, hemp roots contain therapeutic compounds that are used in teas, tinctures, and balms. These compounds are known for their potential anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties.(4)

Close up of hemp roots
Hemp leaves and flowers against a blue sky with clouds.

Hemp Leaves & Flowers

Hemp leaves and flowers are carefully harvested during the plant's flowering stage, which is crucial for maximizing the concentration of beneficial compounds. The flowers, rich in cannabinoids such as CBD, and the leaves are typically air-dried and processed for extraction. 

Leaves and flowers are used to produce a wide range of products, including CBD oils, tinctures, edibles, and topicals, capitalizing on their therapeutic properties for pain relief, anxiety reduction, and overall wellness.(5, 6) The raw leaves are also sometimes used in smoothies and salads, while leaves and flowers can be steeped to make herbal tea.

What Is Hemp Used For?

Hemp has been used for thousands of years, with historical examples including its use in ancient China for making paper and in 16th-century Europe for crafting durable sails and ropes for ships. Its strong fibers and versatile applications made hemp a crucial resource in early civilizations and maritime industries, and it's just as valuable today. 

Now that industrial hemp (hemp with virtually no THC) can be grown legally in the United States, businesses and individuals aren’t being shy about making use of it.

Below is a round-up of confirmed ways hemp has been used throughout history and modern examples of products made from hemp.

Stack of folded hemp clothing and hemp leaves

Hemp Textiles

The first remnants of hemp cloth date back more than 10,000 years.(2) Hemp is ideal for textiles due to its natural fibrous nature and makes fabrics that are exceptionally strong and resilient. Textile uses for hemp include:

  • Clothing and apparel
  • Bags and sacks
  • Jewelry
  • Shoes
  • Hats
  • Rope, twine, and cording
  • Ships’ sails
  • Netting
  • Canvases for painting
  • Pet collars and bedding
  • Home goods
  • Upholstery fabric

Hemp in Food & Beverage

Technically, any part of the hemp plant is edible, though the seeds are most commonly used to make food and beverages. 

Hemp seeds come with or without the hull and can be used as-is or sprouted. Hulled hemp seeds (also known as hemp hearts) are soft and ready to eat, while the unhulled variety should be sprouted before eating. If you’re looking for a tasty way to get some of your daily load of omega 3s and 6s, protein, fiber, and more, look no further!

The FDA has given hemp seeds the stamp of safety approval, classifying them as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). To be clear, hemp seeds won’t get you high or deliver CBD-like results — they don’t contain enough cannabinoids to do so unlike hemp’s flower

Hulled hemp seeds are used to make yummy and nutritious foods such as:

  • Hemp seed oil
  • Hemp protein powder
  • Hemp flour and meal
  • Hemp milk
  • Hemp seed butter

Hemp seeds are also used in some animal feed, alcoholic beverages, and dietary supplements. You’ll often find hemp added to candies, baked goods, granola, and other processed foods. 

Hemp in Medicines & Personal Care

Hemp and its byproducts — like CBD oil and hemp oil — have been leveraged as health and wellness aids since before formal medicine was a thing.(7)

Some of the earliest indications of this are in Chinese medical texts from about 1500 BCE. In the Chinese pharmacopeia, it mentions the “yin and yang” of cannabis — perhaps an allusion to the properties of both CBD and THC?

In the 1500s and 1600s, Western medicine started taking notice of hemp (specifically, the flower with cannabinoids). Various publications touted hemp’s medicinal uses, going so far as to say hemp is essential to the herbalist’s kit.

Research catapulted forward starting in the late 1800s when scientists first identified cannabinoids. The ensuing decades saw the discovery, isolation, and synthesization of specific cannabinoids — including THC and CBD. More recently, the endocannabinoid system was discovered. Investigation into all aspects of cannabis and the ECS continues.

Here are some personal-care products that may be made from or with hemp components:

  • CBD drops, skincare, and other products
  • Supplements
  • Skin and hair care products
  • Cosmetics
  • Beauty care products
  • Nail polish
  • Massage oils
  • Soaps, cleansers, and body wash
  • Perfume
  • Sunscreen
  • Pet care products
Hemp lotion

Hemp Consumer Goods

This is sort of a catchall category — but still fascinating! Other products made from hemp include:

  • Sustainable bioplastics
  • Wax
  • Wicks
  • Paper products
  • Automotive supplies and parts
  • Solvents, pesticides, and other ecochemicals
  • Biocomposites
  • Furniture
  • Diapers

Hemp in Craft & Construction

One of the oldest examples of hemp used in construction hails from India. Hemp-infused plaster lining the Ellora Caves prevented decay for over a millennium and a half.(8) Currently, hemp is finding its place in a wide array of building materials, such as:

  • Insulation
  • Carpeting
  • Varnishes, oil, and sealants
  • Concrete (aka hempcrete)  and drywall
  • Plaster
  • Hemp “wood”
  • Fiberboard
  • Acoustic ceiling tiles

Using hemp in these materials is a real win. Hemp is cheaper, more renewable, easier to procure, and healthier to work with than many alternatives. Plus, it has properties that make it: sun-proof, moisture-resistant, fire-retardant, pest-resistant, and anti-mold. It’s strong, lightweight, and breathable. If that’s not enough, incorporating hemp into building materials could cut energy consumption and pollution and sequester CO2 from the air!(9) Phew — hemp’s a power plant!

Dan Herer, founder of the Herer Group describes the potential of hemp and its many uses while cannabis advocate Richard Eastman holds a block of Hempcrete, concrete made from hemp.

Hemp-Based Energy

Before petrofuels, there was biofuel. These are fuels made from vegetation. They’ve come back into vogue in recent years — everything old is new again, right?

Biofuels are another area where hemp shines. Hemp seeds and stalks can be turned into biodiesel, alcohol fuel (e.g., ethanol), and biogas.

Hemp-derived fuels are a game-changer. A more planet-friendly source than petroleum, hemp is more renewable and less harmful to the environment. These fuels are safer to handle and store, less flammable, and biodegradable.

A field of hemp plants.

Hemp in Land Management

Hemp’s not just good for us, it can give planet Earth some much-needed TLC, too. Agriculturalists, conservationists, and environmental restoration workers all make use of hemp’s wonderous abilities to protect and revitalize the air, soil, and water.

Superfund and disaster sites — like Chornobyl — use hemp in a process called bioremediation.(10) Bioremediation is the use of plants to remove contaminants. The plants draw the toxins — chemicals, radioactive waste, sewage, etc. — out of the environment. The bad stuff is stored in the plant and the once-contaminated area is purified.

Hemp can also be used to manage healthy land.

  • As a densely-growing crop, farmers can install a thicket of hemp plants to crowd out or “shade out” invasive plants and weeds. Hemp is also naturally pest-resistant. This can reduce the need for chemical weed killers.
  • Hemp can help prevent soil erosion and compaction and restore nutrients to the soil, both of which can spur better growth in years to come.
  • Hemp straw, used in storm drainage systems, can help capture and release flood waters in a controlled manner. This protects the surrounding land from being devasted by floods. (11)

Hemp — Been There, Done That

There doesn’t seem to be one corner of home or industry untouched by hemp. This versatile, adaptable, durable plant has so many applications. It’s busy improving:

  • Building and construction
  • Consumer goods
  • Energy production
  • Food and nutrition
  • Medicine and personal care
  • Textiles
  • The environment, including the very ground it grows in!

So, hemp, hemp hooray! Show this mighty plant its due respect — and go enjoy its countless uses.

Hemp Use FAQs

What is the main use of hemp?

Hemp is used to create a wide range of commercial and industrial products, such as textiles, clothing, paper, biofuel, plastic alternatives, building insulation, and nutrition and health.

What is the most common use for hemp?

Hemp is most commonly used for its fiber, which is extensively utilized in the production of textiles, ropes, and paper. Hemp fiber's strength and durability make it a preferred material for sustainable and eco-friendly products in the textile industry. 

What was hemp originally used for?

Archaeological findings indicate that hemp was first used in textiles at least 12,000 years ago. Historical research suggests that hemp was originally used as food and medicine, as well as a material for textile, crafting, and building material. Overall hemp’s versatility made it an essential resource for ancient civilizations, serving multiple purposes that contributed to their daily lives and development.

References

  1. Arnall, B, et al. (2019). Agronomic Considerations for Industrial Hemp Production. OSU Extension. 
  2. (2015). Hemp 101: What Is Hemp, What’s It Used for, and Why Is It Illegal? Leafly. 
  3. How Long Does it Take to Grow Hemp? Dosatron. 
  4. Huang, S, et al. (2023) Chemical constituents of industrial hemp roots and their anti-inflammatory activities. Journal of Cannabis Research. 
  5. Malesu, V. (2023) News Medical Life Sciences. Study investigates the antioxidant activity of hemp leaves. 
  6. Isles, C. (2021). JWU. 7 Potential Health Benefits of Cannabis. 
  7. (2022). Historical Timeline - Medical Marijuana. ProCon.org. 
  8. Rizwanullah, S. (2016). Hemp shielding Ellora caves from decay for 1,500 years: Study. Times Of India. 
  9. Kaur, G, et al. (2023) The Sustainability of Industrial Hemp: A Literature Review of Its Economic, Environmental, and Social Sustainability. Sustainability. MDPI. 
  10. Placido, DF, et al. (2022). Potential of Industrial Hemp for Phytoremediation of Heavy Metals. Plants. 
  11. (2017). Hemp Helps Prevent Floods. Oldman Watershed Council. 
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About the Author

Green Bee Life founder Maria Calabrese author photo

Maria Calabrese, JD, MS

As the founder of Green Bee Life, Maria Calabrese is dedicated to raising consumer awareness within the cannabis industry, filling informational gaps, and fostering consumer confidence. Her work focuses on empowering consumers with the knowledge needed to make informed decisions, ensuring they find the most suitable cannabis solutions for their wellness needs. Maria's expertise helps bridge the connection between consumers and innovative cannabis insights, advocating for informed choices in the evolving landscape of cannabis as a wellness solution.

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