Truth About Cannabis Varieties: Sativa, Indica and Hybrid

by | Sep 17, 2023 | A High Class Blog, Myth vs Fact

Did you know those who originally named the different species of marijuana did so based on the plant’s appearance (i.e., morphology) and NOT their effects on a person? Continue reading for more facts about the different cannabis varieties (a.k.a. strains) and another one that’s less known but slowly gaining in popularity!

Cannabis Varieties Demystified

Sativa cannabis strain

Cannabis Sativa

Beauty comes in all forms, and this includes the marijuana plant! Let’s begin with clarifying the obvious appearance and growing cycle of each variety of cannabis:

  • Cannabis Sativa plants are taller, with narrower, light green leaves and a longer flowering cycle.
  • Cannabis Indica plants are shorter, with broader, dark green leaves and a shorter flowering cycle.
  • Cannabis Ruderalis plants are much shorter (usually no more than 2 ft high), with large leaves, flower earlier, and have an auto-flowering cycle (i.e., do not depend on light conditions).

Although hybrid plants are not technically considered a variety of the cannabis plant, they are nevertheless an important strain. Perhaps, even more important than the others (as you will find out below)! Hybrid plants have been cultivated using crossbreeding methods and have combined characteristics of Sativa and Indica, depending on the genetic lineage used.

Interesting fact: The debate between botanists is ongoing as to whether Sativa and Indica are two distinct species. They believe Indica is actually a subspecies!

Cannabis Indica variety

Cannabis Indica

The Cannabis Name Game: Timeline and Players

In Latin, sativa means ‘cultivated.’ For thousands of years, hemp crops were widely cultivated in Europe and Western Eurasia for their fiber and seeds. We’re talking prehistoric times, my friends!

One of the earliest noted scientific uses of the term, “Cannabis Sativa” was in the 18th century by Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus as the Latin name for domesticated hemp in his book, Species Plantarum.

A few decades later, European naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, published a description of the wild-growing psychoactive variety of cannabis discovered in India. High in THC, it was used to produce hashish. He considered this as a second species of marijuana and named it, “Cannabis Indica.” Indica means “of India” in Latin.

Interestingly, Lamarck’s Indica plant was described as having a similar appearance to Linnaeus’ Sativa. Remember, this sativa is actually the nonpsychoactive hemp variety of marijuana. Hemp and the psychoactive Sativa variety we’re more familiar with look very similar.

The morphology of the Indica variety changed in the 1970s into what we know today. It happened when ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes, published an image of a short, broad-leafed Afghan variety and classified it as ‘Cannabis Indica’ in his paper on the Cannabis genus.

At this time, breeders in North America and Europe imported the Afghan variety to use its early flowering stage, cold tolerance, and short, dense structure to their cultivating advantage. They crossbred it with the narrow-leafed varieties from the tropics, known as ‘Sativas.’ Hello, hybrids!

Breeders used Schultes’ use of ‘Cannabis Indica’ for the broad-leafed variety to distinguish it from the known tropical narrow-leafed variety of cannabis. This term for the Afghan variety stuck among growers and those within the cannabis culture continued to use it.

Recently, botanists have tried to drill down the classifications of cannabis. Dr. Karl Hillig of Indiana University has done chemical analyses on cannabis that support the two-species idea of cannabis. He uses the THC/CBD ratios of the plant to differentiate the varieties.

What About Cannabis Ruderalis?

Russian botanist, D.E. Janischewsky, classified this cannabis strain in 1924 and named it “Ruderalis” because it is the first to grow “out of the rubble” in areas that have been cleared of other vegetation.

It’s obviously a hearty variety! It has sturdy, fibrous stems, and is branchless for the most part. First discovered in Siberia, it grows wild in Eastern Europe and the Northern Himalayas in Asia.

It’s low in THC but high in CBD. For this reason, it hasn’t been grown for recreational use. However, it’s now grown in the Americas, most notably in the midwestern United States, for medicinal purposes.

Interesting fact: pure sativa and indica plants are extremely rare. Due to various factors in its cultivation history, almost every cannabis strain on the market is a hybrid of the two varieties, and dominant in one.

Why Care About Different Cannabis Varieties?

With all the confusion, and the fact that pretty much all cannabis on the market today is hybrid, why care about the different strains?

Short answer: if you’re going to be your own cannabis scientist, you have to start with the origins!

The longer answer is that you might want to know about all the confounding aspects of cannabis so you use more diligence and care when experimenting with cannabis.

Researchers are still unraveling the mysteries of this fascinating plant. They are still attempting to classify the different varieties based on scientific tools available today. Keep in mind, they have centuries of pre-science knowledge and information passed down through generations to even begin changing terminology!

Today’s Takeaway

Most budtenders will know that the different chemovars (i.e., classification based on the plant’s chemical composition) on the market and the effects one MAY experience with them have more to do with the terpenes found in the strains, more so than the main plant varieties. Stay tuned for future posts about terpenes!

But, budtenders (and yourselves!) have to start somewhere. And it does seem that for MOST people, Sativas have a certain uplifting effect while Indicas have sedating effects. Again, more on this in future posts!

If you’re shopping for some bud, vapes, and edibles to begin your personal experimentation in cannabis consumption, please visit our online store where we clearly define Sativa, Indica, and Hybrid varieties in our products.

Did you learn a few new things about cannabis in this article? Did anything surprise you? Does any of the information leave you with questions? Feel free to add your comments below!