What’s in a Name? Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid Plants
With their illuminated display pods, interactive tablets, and extensive inventories, stepping into a dispensary feels a little like walking into a futuristic utopia. Expert budtenders stand by, waiting to help you find the perfect product to relieve anxiety, boost energy, promote restful sleep, or even manage chronic pain. A 2017 report by Forbes predicts that the global cannabis market will be worth $31.4 Billion by 2021. With international market growth and expanding state-based recreational legalization, growers have both the market demand and the financial incentive to experiment with their growing practice.
Over the last few years, cannabis research drastically impacted how we view the cannabis plant and its many benefits. Whether you’re partaking for the first time or a seasoned expert, keeping up with the changes can be time intensive. So let’s start with the basics. What is a strain, and how do you find the product that will work best for you?
Indica, Sativa, and Hybrids
If you’ve walked into a dispensary at any point, you’ve heard or seen the terms indica, sativa, and hybrid. Since the 18th century, these classifying terms have referred to two subspecies of cannabis. In modern parlance, the names are also used to organize and identify thousands of strains and have become synonymous with their intended effect.
Most consumers believe that indica produces physical sedation and is best as a nightcap or to relieve stress, while sativa creates an energetic “head high” ideal for social situations and creativity. In reality, recent research shows that a plant’s genetic classification may have little to do with the psychic or physical effects that users experience.
Indica plants originated in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent— Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet and so on. They’re smaller, denser plants with distinctive fat leaves and a shorter flowering cycle.
Sativa plants are comparatively tall, have skinny leaves, and a longer flowering cycle, sometimes taking as long as 16 weeks to produce a pure, finished sativa. When grown outside, sativa plants can reach 20 feet of height. These plants supposedly originated in the tropics.
Hybrids contain a genetic combination of indica and sativa and can display characteristics of either subspecies, depending on their lineage. While modern consumers and backyard budtenders herald hybrids as the new frontier in cannabis, some researchers believe all marijuana plants are likely hybrids of some sort.
“Nobody was keeping track of marijuana with the methods of a modern agriculturist some 5,000 years ago.”
Sean Myles, professor of agricultural genetic diversity, told Vice: “We may loosely call things ‘indica’ or ‘sativa,’ and that’s a fair rule of thumb for describing their physical traits and psychoactive effects. But since nobody was keeping track of marijuana with the methods of a modern agriculturist some 5,000 years ago, we don’t know what a ‘pure’ sativa or indica really is, DNA-wise.”
The reality is much more complicated (and much more exciting) than we could have imagined.
Ethan Russo, a board-certified neurologist and one of the country’s leading cannabis researchers, is another critic of judging bud based on appearance. In an interview with The Stranger, he points out, “Looking at a tall pot plant and deciding that smoking its flower will uplift you is like deciding how sweet an apple variety is by looking at its tree trunk in June. Wouldn’t it make more sense to decide the apple’s qualities by tasting its fruit in September?”
Russo is among those leading the charge for chemical testing and more thorough research into which properties cause which effects. There are hundreds of active chemicals (cannabinoids and terpenes) in marijuana that interact with each body’s particular chemistry to produce psychic and physical reactions. Understanding exactly how certain cannabinoids and terpenes influence specific neural receptors will lead to more predictable, more customizable strains than simple taxonomic classification.
So why do so many dispensaries still use plant names to classify strains?
These terms and their referents existed long before commercial dispensaries. For many, it’s become an efficient shorthand to ask customers what effect they want. With so many strains and products to choose from, these terms give customers a simple way to navigate a complex market. “As we move forward, there will be no such thing as sativa or indica,” Alison Draisin, CEO of Seattle’s Ettalew’s Edibles, claims. “It’s going to be about education and teaching people to go for the effect rather than go for the term sativa or indica.”
In the meantime, knowing which plant is associated with the effect you’re looking for might still be the easiest way to find a product you love.