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Cannabis Species Classification: Indicas Versus Sativas

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Indicas and sativas are the two most recognizable types of cannabis species. But what is the real difference when it comes to indicas versus sativas? Some cannabis users can feel a distinct difference between the two. Others do not seem to be able to distinguish between indicas versus sativas. Aside from recreation, cannabis has many recognized health benefits. To name a few:

Indica is said to be sedative and calming, while sativa is thought to have a more energizing and uplifting effect. In reality, there are definitely sativa strains that are relaxing and even sedative, and there are indica strains that are not as sedating.

This is because most modern “indices” and “sativas” are hybrids and not truly indica or sativa. Understanding the difference between cannabis species is important in finding the right strain for medical and recreational use.

Table of Contents

Cannabis Species and Strains- Indicas Versus Sativas

Taxonomy is the scientific system used for naming species, including cannabis species. It is not an absolute science, as cannabis demonstrates. Cannabis was originally thought to be a highly variable single species, and some still hold this to be true. More commonly, cannabis is thought of as three species- Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis.

Introducing the Cannabis Species Family

All cannabis species, including hemp and marijuana, belong to the Cannabaceae family. The only other notable member of this family is hops (Humulus lupulus) – one of the main ingredients in beer [Russo]. Within the Cannabaceae family, there are three main species of Cannabis sativa L. to be aware of, each with its own growth characteristics.

Cannabis sativa (C. sativa)

The most common species of cannabis is Cannabis sativa. There are hundreds of different strains of this species, some with a high THC (marijuana) content, others with a very low THC (hemp) content. This species is thought to be native to Southeast Asia, where the humidity is much higher and the growing season longer. That origin may explain why its flowering period is the longest of all cannabis species and that it grows higher.

Cannabis indica (C. indica)

Cannabis indica is native to northern and cooler climates. It, therefore, has a higher tolerance for cold and a much shorter flowering period to adapt to the shorter growing seasons. It is only in recent history that this cannabis species has become popular with growers of psychoactive products due to the reduced size of its plants and the large size of its flowers.

Indica is ideal for those who grow plants indoors under artificial light because they are shorter. Large sativa strains can grow too tall to thrive when grown indoors (unless there is a specific adaptation of the growing space).

There are no strains of Cannabis indica currently classified in the Hep category. All varieties of this species are classified as marijuana.

Cannabis ruderalis (C. ruderalis)

Cannabis ruderalis is the species of cannabis less known. It is a small plant with very low yields and does not contain useful fibers. What makes this variety unique is its ability to produce flowers unrelated to the length of the day (autoflowering) while Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa are both strongly influenced by the length of the day (a shorter day leads to flowering).

Cannabis Species Versus Strains

The three cannabis species do a good job of describing general differences in plant growth appearance, general origin, and flowering systems. They do not do a very good job of describing the effects of a type of cannabis. Most of the cannabis around today is hybrid, but native landrace strains do exist.

Environmental factors, in concert with a plant’s genotype or set of genes, more or less determine its phenotype, or the visible expression of its genotype. Genetically and phenotypically diverse varieties of Cannabis evolved under the pressures of natural selection within the diverse environments into which they were introduced, and were further selected by humans to provide fiber, seed, or drug products. …Taxonomists also recognize three population types for Cannabis based on natural origins and associations with humans; those that are truly wild, those that are cultivated, and feral escapes from cultivation that grow spontaneously in areas associated with and often disturbed by humans.

Clarke, R. C., & Merlin, M. D. (2016). Cannabis domestication, breeding history, present-day genetic diversity, and future prospects.

Landrace Cannabis Strains

Landrace strains of Cannabis species have arisen through the spread and escape of cultivated cannabis seeds. Throughout history, humans have accidentally carried new species to foreign lands through activities like trade and travel.

These small populations of cannabis species can adapt to the new environments and give rise to unique and distinct features after a few generations. These adaptations help the new variety thrive in its new home. This is how the founder effect gives rise to landraces according to Clarke, R. C., & Merlin, M. D. (2016).

Landraces are not always indigenous to an area but become a distinct local variety after adapting to their new home. While Cannabis is indigenous to areas of Asia and the Middle East, landrace strains have arisen in countries like Colombia, India, Jamaica, Thailand.

Hybrid Cannabis Strains- Indicas Versus Sativas

Cultivation is a major driving factor in the genetic diversity of cannabis species. Today, there are hundreds of hybrid cannabis strains that have been intentionally bred to showcase unique features. Many hybrids are classified by their percent of indica vs sativa. 

While the cannabis species monikers of “indica” and “sativa” are widely misused and misunderstood they can give insight into the hybrid’s prominent traits and appearance. “Indica dominant” hybrids tend to be more sedative and have dominant Afghani genetics. “Sativa dominant” hybrids tend to be more energizing and have dominant Asian genetics.

Chemotypes of Cannabis Species

So if cannabis species and strains don’t describe the biochemical trait of cannabis well, what is the alternative? A chemotype is a chemical profile. Researchers have the ability to dive deep into the genetics and chemistry of plants. Their techniques have revealed that cannabis plants have three distinct chemotypes that do not always align with plant species. Clarke, R. C., & Merlin, M. D. (2016) describe the three chemotypes of cannabis as follows:

21st Century Cannabis Species Taxonomy

Clarke, R. C., & Merlin, M. D. (2016) break down the Cannabis species with a more modern approach that seeks to clarify confusion among indica, sativa, and hemp. Their approach considers the biotype (growth morphology), geographical origin and distribution, common uses, and chemical profiles. This is probably the most accurate way to classify Cannabis species because it considers more factors than the three species system and the chemotype system.

Clarke & Merlin’s Modern Cannabis Taxonomy for Cultivated and Feral Populations

Scientific Name &
Biochemical Traits
GrowthOrigin & SpreadUses
Cannabis sativa, subspecies sativa
-Rarely psychoactive
-Low resin production
-THC less than or equal to CBD
Narrow-Leaf HempEurope (New World)Fiber and Seed
Cannabis indica, subspecies chinesis
-Mildly psychoactive
-Moderate resin production
-Equal levels of THC and CBD
Broad-Leaf HempEast Asia (Europe, New World)Fiber and Seed
Indica (wrongly called “sativa”)
Cannabis indica, subspecies indica
-Very psychoactive
-High resin production
-High THC and low CBD levels
Narrow-Leaf DrugSouth Asia (Middle East, Africa, Europe, New World)Drug, Fiber, and Seed
Afghan (wrongly called “indica”)
Cannabis indica, subspecies afghanica
-Moderately psychoactive
-High resin production
-THC and CBD levels about equal
Broad-leaf drugAfghanistan (Europe, New World)Drug
“Sinsemilla” cultivars
-Do not produce seed
-Very high resin production
-Usually, high THC and low CBD but some high CBD hybrids exist
Hybrid of Broad-Leaf Drug x Narrow-Leaf DrugNew World (Europe, Worldwide)
*Cultivated only, no feral plants included
Drug
Adapted from Clarke, R. C., & Merlin, M. D. (2016). Cannabis domestication, breeding history, present-day genetic diversity, and future prospects.

Final Thoughts on Indicas Versus Sativas

Understanding the basics of cannabis botany help make sense of the many products on the market. This information is also important for people who work in the cannabis industry but do not use cannabis. Public understanding of the cannabis plant has been stifled by legal prohibition and lack of scholarly research in the past. 

Now, we have more information that can be publically accessed through resources like Google Scholar, SciHub, and NCBI. With resources like these, we can now re-evaluate traditional black market cannabis knowledge and ideas that have been long held by mater growers and cannabis breeders. 

References

Clarke, R. C., & Merlin, M. D. (2016). Cannabis domestication, breeding history, present-day genetic diversity, and future prospects. Critical reviews in plant sciences, 35(5-6), 293-327.

Russo, E. B. (2007). History of cannabis and its preparations in saga, science, and sobriquet. Chemistry & biodiversity, 4(8), 1614-1648.

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