Current State of Cannabis Classification

Botanists have struggled to agree and consistently categorize the taxonomy of cannabis. Without definitive taxonomy, the debate over sativa and indica continue to this day. Whether cannabis is a single polymorphic species or is separated into multiple true species, is still undecided.

Indica and sativa are the two main cannabis subtypes in question, with ruderalis and afghanica being significantly less important global players. In the last 15 years, researchers have found evidence that suggests sativa and indica have been separate subspecies since before human cultivation.

When indica and sativa are discussed below, the assumption is based on a pure strain that has experienced very little cross-breeding. Later, you’ll learn more about why hybrid combinations, while often marketed as a specific type, are more complicated and won’t always follow the expected characteristics of indica and sativa.

One thing that is certain, cannabis originated from either Central Asia or the Himalayan foothills before being spread around by humans. Archaeological excavations have found no evidence of cannabis in the Western hemisphere before the 16th century. Meaning the Europeans brought the plant over during early colonization.

The Indica Experience

Indica strains are favored by those looking to relax, especially before bedtime. After a long-day, indica can provide a full-bodied high and the infamous couch-lock. Many users report feeling locked to their seat, because the high level of relaxation makes them feel too comfortable or sedated to get up. It’s great to smoke as you settle down to watch a movie with your favorite snacks. Indica produces these calming effects, as well as a great stoney high because of high amounts of THC and CBD. Because of this, indica strains are more commonly selected for medical cannabis patients.

Indica was first described by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, in 1785. The specimen was collected in India, where the plant had long been cultivated to make hashish. Lamarck was a prominent French naturalist and early supporter of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

His specimen from India was very different from the available cannabis plants in Europe. The psychoactive effects in this specimen he named indica, due to a different cannabinoid profile and terpene profile, were incredible compared to European cannabis. Europeans used their cannabis plants, which were essentially hemp, to make textiles like rope and ship sails. There were little to no psychoactive effects from smoking this cannabis because of such low THC concentrations.

Interestingly, Lamarck did not have access to actual sativa when he made the decision to classify the India specimen as a new species. Some researchers argue that if he’d been able to appropriately compare the two subtypes, he wouldn’t have categorized indica as a different species.

The Sativa Experience

Some users don’t like the heavy high of indica, and opt for the more energizing high found in sativa strains. While indica produces a body high, sativa produces a pleasant uplifting head high. Sativa can enhance your mental focus and improve your mood. Because sativa is linked to creativity and better focus, many opt to consume sativa strains during the productive hours of the day. Wake and bake is especially popular with sativa.

Cannabis was first classified in 1753, by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist. Linnaeus is known as the ‘father of modern taxonomy’ because he developed the binomial nomenclature, still in use today to describe species with a genus and specific species name. For example, Cannabis is the genus and sativa is the species name.

Indica vs. Sativa

Physical Characteristics

When comparing the physical characteristics of indica vs. sativa, there are some clear differences. Indica plants are usually short and bushy at adulthood, reaching 3-6 ft tall.  Indica cannabis plants produce deep-green leaves and thick stems. This deeper green is due to a higher concentration of chlorophyll. Indica strains also have wider leaves.

Sativa plants are typically tall, with widely spaced branches. Most sativa-dominant strains are roughly 10 ft at full-growth, but can reach up to 20 ft tall. Sativa cannabis plants will have narrower leaves with a light-green color. Their buds are lighter and longer than those seen on indica cannabis plants.

These morphological differences have played a major part in sustaining the belief that these two cannabis subtypes are completely separate.

Growth Patterns and Best Climates

Indica strains are very popular for indoor growing and have high success rates. Indica strains have a shorter flowering cycle, usually producing its first flower 7 to 9 weeks after planting. The plants don’t grow as large which is useful in indoor environments with less space available. Because maturation is quicker, growers can have more growing cycles per year with indica. Indica also produces a higher yield per plant. This makes indica strains much more lucrative for growers.

Indica strains have this shorter flowering cycle because of their traditional growing regions, such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, Morocco, and Afghanistan. These regions experience shorter and colder growing seasons. Over time the cannabis plant adapted to produce their flowers

Sativa has a much longer time to maturity. The vegatiative cycle is shorter but the flower cycle is significantly slower. Sativa-dominant strains typically begin flowering between 10 and 16 weeks after planting. The purer the strain, the longer to harvest. Growers face space challenges when growing sativa strains inside, but if adequate space is provided the plant will continue to grow!

Sativa strains prefer warmer climates with longer growing seasons when planted outside. Regions like SE Asia, Thailand, Mexico, and Columbia are excellent for growing sativa plants. Sativa responds well to heat and significant light levels, but any form of cold snap can severely stress the plant. Sativa strains are also more likely to experience nutrient burn or nitrogen toxicity. The plants prefer nutrient levels much lower than you’d expect.

The growing patterns and climate preferences of indica vs. sativa, are products of both natural evolution and human intervention. It’s possible 50 years from now, both of these could change as humans continue to alter the cannabis plant’s genetics.

Cannabinoid Profile

Indica strains are known for a balanced cannabinoid profile. Indica strains have high concentrations of both THC and CBD. Most indica-dominant strains will have THC concentrations between 18 – 22% and CBD concentrations falling around 0.2 – 0.5%. The relatively high concentration of CBD contributes to the calming and relaxing effects found in indica strains. This makes indica extremely popular for medical use, to treat depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.

Sativa strains have cannabinoid profiles that are skewed towards THC. Despite this, sativa-dominant strains have an average THC level that is lower than strains of indica. The cannabinoid profile is typically between 16 – 19% THC and 0.1 – 0.3% CBD. The lower overall percentages are less likely to produce a high that is heavy and intense. This may explain the euphoric and energizing feeling described when consuming sativa. Levels of THC in excess of 18% more reliably produce heavy body highs. Sativa is often used by CBD manufacturers because of the lower THC concentrations, found in the stem and roots.

The cannabinoid profile in cannabis combines with the terpene profile to produce a specific high. This biochemical profile then has to combine with each user’s personal anatomy and sensitivities. Each strain of indica or sativa can produce different psychoactive effects depending on the specific cannabinoid and terpene profile.

Terpene Profile

Cannabis plants have high concentrations of terpenes, more so than most other plants. Plants have terpenes to repel predators and attract pollinators. This is because terpenes put off very distinct tastes and scents. When you smell a strain of cannabis, that smell is due to the specific terpene profile of that strain. There are over 100 terpene compounds that have been found within cannabis plants.

The terpene profile of each cannabis strain is related to the kind of high and intensity of high experienced by users. The most common terpenes found in cannabis in order from calming to energizing with their associated flavors and scents are:

  • Myrcene – Herbal
  • Pinene – Pine
  • Caryophyllene – Peppery
  • Limonene – Citrus
  • Terpinolene – Fruity

Indica strains will have a terpene profile with higher concentrations of myrcene, pinene, and caryophyllene. This produces indica dominant strains that are very high notes of herbal or pine flavors. Using these flavor profiles can help determine the predominant terpene profile in a strain, providing information on what kind of high a user can expect.

Sativa strains have a terpene profile with higher concentrations of terpinolene, limonene, and caryophyllene. Sativa-dominant strains will smell and taste more fruity and citrusy. Although it’s important to remember that the terpene profile doesn’t directly correlate with the experienced high and the cannabinoid profile also plays a major part.

While humans have been cultivating cannabis for hundreds if not thousands of years, it’s ramped up dramatically in the last 100 years. Cultivators are especially versed in the different physical and morphological characteristics between indica vs. sativa. These characteristics are used to make decisions during the breeding phase of cannabis cultivation.

If a cultivator wants to purify a strain, two plants of known parentage (and the same) will be bred. If a cultivator wants to create a hybrid, two plants of different parentages will be bred. A male of one strain will pollinate a female of a different strain. The female will start producing seeds containing genes from both the male and female. When these seeds are harvested and grown, this new plant is a hybrid!

When cultivators are producing sativa-dominant strains, they are going to be focused on purifying. They will try to breed for characteristics that produce the energizing high and better focus.

1. Green Crack

This sativa-dominant hybrid is believed to be a cross between a Skunk #1 (1989 Sativa) and Afghani Iandrace. Snoop Dog renamed the strain Green Crack after experiencing wonderful sativa effects. The strain has a potent skunky flavor, with hints of citrus and mango. Users report feeling happy, energized, and uplifted after consuming Green Crack.

2. Super Silver Haze

Super Silver Haze is a highly potent sativa-dominant strain best used for waking and baking. Super Silver Haze is a cross between the sativa strain Silver Haze and the indica strain Northern Lights #5. The strain has a peppery, even chemical taste. Users report a strong euphoric and energetic feel, quickly after consuming. The cannabinoid profile is mostly THC, at 19.11%, with CBD and CBN testing at less than 1%.

3. Sour Diesel

This popular sativa-dominant hybrid was the result of an accidental crossing between Super Skunk and Chemdawg. Sour Diesel is legendary, in producing relaxed and uplifted feelings with less energizing notes. The strain was named for its pungent diesel flavor and it’s souring of relationships between growers during its early distribution.

Cultivators growing indica strains are going to follow the same process for purifying through the use of breeding that was explained above for sativa. Indica strains can be easier to find because they are easier for basement and attic hobbyist growers to produce.

1. Hindu Kush

Hindu Kush is truly infamous. This highly potent almost pure indica strain is named because it comes from the Hindu Kush mountain range. This mountain range is situated between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The cannabinoid profile of Hindu Kush The main flavor reported by users is pine, while the high produces an intense cerebral and relaxing high. Consuming Hindu Kush provides a long-lasting high.

2. Grandaddy Purple

Granddaddy Purple is one of the most recent strains to become so universally popular among users. Granddaddy purple was first grown in 2003 after crossing the strains Purple Urkle and Big Bud. As expected, the flower is a beautiful purple color that translates to grape and earthy flavors. Granddaddy Purple leaves consumers feeling euphoric, sleepy, and well-relaxed.

3. Bubba Kush

Bubba Kush is another great indica-dominant strain that results from an accidental crossing of a new Kush hybrid with Northern Lights. Celebrities like Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre have become great fans of Bubba Kush. Users report a woody, earthy, and spicy flavor profile when consuming Bubba Kush. This strain creates a strong happy and relaxed feeling in users.

The Truth For Consumers

Psychopharmacology research, Dr. Ethan Russo, maintains that no single consumer should rely on the classification of indica vs. sativa to expect a certain experience. According to Russo, without a complete biochemical assy into the cannabinoid and terpene content, the biochemical content of cannabis cannot be assumed by physical features. Pure indica and sativa strains do have different physical and biochemical characteristics, but the majority of modern strains are hybrid combinations of both. A hybrid strain with indica physical characteristics and growth patterns, may have the cannabinoid and terpene makeup of sativa.

For consumers, it’s important to understand that human cultivation and manipulation of cannabis, has altered the biochemical makeup of stains significantly. Anytime you buy a strain that is listed as indica vs. sativa, realize that you may get a very different kind of high than you expect. The true biochemical makeup and your own personal physiology play into your experience.

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