For those new to the cannabis industry, there are three distinct groups of cannabis:  indica, sativa, and hybrid.  All of the different types of strains are considered marijuana but classifying them into the three groups helps to determine the types of effects, smells, and flavors that should be expected from a particular strain. 

 

A History of Cannabis

Just as trees have evolved to suit their climate, so have indica and sativa strains.  For example, indica strains are thought to have originated near Central Asia.  From there it spread to India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, and Turkey.  These strains adapted to local growing conditions and were generally found between 30° and 50° latitude.  Names such as Afghani Kush, Hindu Kush, and Mazar I Sharif have been given to the plants that thrived in this region.

In comparison, sativa grows in warmer weather near or on the equator.  Countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, and Southeast Asia, where there are humid and tropical climates have seen sativa bloom into strains called Durban Poison, Panama Red, and Acapulco Gold.  There are many regions today where sativa still grows wild.

Both of these naturally-growing landraces have formed the backbone, genetically speaking, for modern cannabis cultivars.  Crossbreeding of particular landraces, as well as strains produced, have given the marijuana industry the wide variety of cannabis strains now available, each with its own distinct characteristics.

 

Growth Characteristics

It is possible to identify whether a plant is indica or sativa by looking at how the plant grows.  Indica grows short and bushy and is usually under 6 feet tall.  Sativa can reach upwards of 20 feet when grown outdoors.  The branches of the sativa plant spread outwards and upwards with long, narrow leaves, while the leaves of the indica plant are much thicker and broader.

Since indica plants grow smaller, many prefer them for indoor cultivation.  These plants typically produce less of a yield than their taller counterparts, but there is a shorter growing cycle which offsets the lower yield.

Sativa plants can take anywhere from 10 to 16 weeks to mature during their flowering period, much longer than indica.  However, the longer maturation time results in a much higher yield.

 

Chemical Characteristics and Composition

On a molecular level, sativa and indica strains differ in the make-up of the cannabinoid content, terpenes, and other compounds.

Terpenes give the cannabis plant and flowers a diversity in aroma and flavor.  These essential oils are secreted into the flower’s resin glands.  Terpenes, in addition to providing a flower with its distinct aroma, also provide therapeutic abilities.  Flavor profiles in indica strains can range from sweet must  to rich earth to dark fruit, while sativa strains often evoke a citrus, pine, or even tropical profile.

With over 100 cannabinoids identified in the cannabis plan, the two most well-known are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). 

Pure sativa strains are high in THC and low in CBD content, while indica strains tend to have a higher CBD content and lower THC.  When crossbred, growers are able to have both indica and sativa strains with varying ratios of THC:CBD cannabinoid concentrations.

THC and CBD work together inside the cannabis plant.  TCH is the most prevalent cannabinoid with CBD coming in second.  THC’s interaction and effect with the body is controlled by CBD and pay modulate the high a strain produces. 

 

The Effects of Cannabis

A strain can have a personality that will manifest itself with each cannabis strain having different nuances that effect the body and mind.  Traditionally, indica affects the body and sativa affects the mind.  Through the hundreds of different hybrids available, the effects from these two strains can differ widely in their exact effects on the body and mind.

Typically, indica strains cause changes to the body, including feelings of:

  • Calming
  • Relaxing
  • Sedating
  • Soothing

Used by many after strenuous activity to manage recovery time, chronic issues where a calm or relaxing state should be achieved, or even relaxing at home before bedtime, indica-dominant strains provide a mellow high.

In contrast, sativa strains give a more cerebral high and tend to manifest their effects in the mind.  The effects can be:

  • Uplifting
  • Energetic
  • Motivating
  • Creative

Sativa strains can enhance creativity, allow for deep conversation, and are suited for daytime use or social situation.  Many users struggling with mood issues turn to the sativa strains of medical marijuana.

 

Hybrids of Sativa and Indica

Through hybridization, there are many different strains of sativa and indica.  By combining the effects of the parent genetics into a single strain, botanists have produced a wide variety of sub-strains.  From these sub-strains, many of the genetic pieces have been pulled and combined with parent genetics to form new hybrid strains.

For example, Girl Scout Cookies is a very popular strain.  It pulls genetic pieces from the pure sativa Durban Poison along with the hybrid strain OG Kush.  Girl Scout Cookies, even as a product of crossbreeding, is itself used as a parent to create dozens of new strains now available on dispensary shelves.

 

The Cannabis Family Tree

Just as humans are able to trace their DNA back generations, hybrid strains can also be traced.  Tracing hybrid strains can become a confusing endeavor with over two thousand different strains named, each claiming a unique genetic family tree.

Taking on the parent strains characteristics, including scent and flavor profiles, the ability to combine breed strains together gives breeders an almost endless way to combine cannabinoid and terpene compositions.  The effects will manifest as sativa-dominant, indica-dominant, or a hybrid balance of the two.  Knowing the parent genetics of a strain and the ratio of dominance, either indica or sativa, users are better able to find the strain that fits their individual needs.

 

Genotype VS Phenotype

The DNA of a plan, a strain’s genetics, is the genotype.  A plants observable characteristic is its phenotype.  Genetics and environmental influences determine a plants phenotype.  Variations may occur within a particular strain when grown.  Therefore, due to phenotype and environmental factors, buyers may experience a slightly different taste or smell or even stronger indica or sativa effect than expected.