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99% of the time when visiting a dispensary you’re greeted with the following question:
‘Are you shopping for an indica, sativa or a hybrid strain today?’. Pretty simple, even for the apprehensive and overwhelmed first-timer. Nowadays, most people whether they consume cannabis or not, have some comprehension of these unusual labels. Or so they think. What if these terms don’t actually mean what you think they do? What if your entire purchasing strategy up until this point has been a total ruse? No need to get alarmed or panic. Choosing between an indica, sativa or a hybrid strain, in addition to observing the flower’s aroma and appearance, is the most common way cannabis consumers decide which bud to take home.
Since the late 1990’s, medically legal cannabis dispensaries have divided and classified their flower selection into these three categories in order to help patients navigate through their diverse inventory. Unfortunately due to the prohibition of cannabis and lack of government funding for research studies, we’ve all just been making the best with the limited information we have. The absence of any awareness around cannabis is really no one’s fault but our government. Be that as it may, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve all been missing the mark for the past two decades. Thankfully with the legalization of recreational cannabis in 11 states and counting, and its new acceptance into mainstream media, we’re finally getting the resources needed for a deeper understanding of this complex plant.
The indica, sativa and hybrid ‘theory’ isn’t really a novel concept for most cannabis consumers and it breaks down as follows:
Indica cultivar or strains yield a strong ‘body high’, one that provides deep relaxation and great pain relief. Indica strains are considered to be more potent, they make your body feel like jello, and induce a blissful sleep. Sativa strains, on the other hand, are known for their cerebral effects commonly referred to as a ‘head high’. Sativa strains are mentally stimulating and provide great bursts of creativity and joy; unless you’re someone living with anxiety. Certain sativa strains may enhance thoughts or feelings of worry, unease, and self-doubt. Hybrid strains usually produce the most 'balanced high' for the consumer, although most of them tend to slightly lean one way over the other. But if this aspect of the plant doesn’t actually contribute to its effect or outcome, then it’s no wonder why some consumers consider themselves the exception to these colloquial commandments by experiencing the opposite effects when smoking either indica, sativa, or hybrid flower.
What do these terms really mean?
In reality these terms refer to the physical characteristics of the individual plants and their unique flowering cycles. Meaning these classifications are based on qualities you can observe with the naked eye and not their effect. Indica cultivar take less time to flower and thrive in colder weather, while sativa cultivar prefer warmer climates. Indica strains are short and stocky, whereas sativa strains grow tall with longer, thinner leaves.
Again, picture hybrid strains as a cross between the two. “In 1753, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus identified psychoactive cannabis plants as Cannabis sativa in his work Species Plantarum, and 32 years later, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified Cannabis indica as a different species while observing the physical characteristics of India’s cannabis plants. Lamarck argued that C. indica plants have dark green, wide leaves compared with C. sativa leaves, which are light and narrow.”
By 1930 C. ruderalis was discovered as the third subspecies by Russian botanist Dmitrij Janischewsky. The C. ruderalis or hybrid is also unique in its flowering cycle because it automatically begins to flower within the first 30 days of cultivation.
It’s hard to say if Linnaeus, Lamarck and Janischewsky had any idea of the life these scientific names would take on centuries later. It’s even harder to say exactly when their definitions got mixed up with the expected outcome of the flower. Nonetheless, the terms 'Indica’, ‘Sativa’ and ‘Hybrid’ have been molding cannabis consumers shopping habits for years.
Photo by Jesse Milns/Leafly
What actually determines the various outcomes from cannabis?
A strain’s high depends on multiple factors but its main influence comes from its individual cannabinoid and terpene profiles. Cannabinoids are the active compounds that provide the marvelously beneficial side-effects once they come into contact with the human endocannabinoid system. Popular cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are only two out of the 100+ cannabinoids present in the female plant. Terpenes are the aromatic and flavorful molecules in cannabis, as well as other organisms such as fruit, vegetables and spices. Cannabinoids and terpenes are both found in the plant's trichomes, the sticky crystals covering the plant’s surface. They’re produced as a natural protectant for the plant against external dangers and harsh environments. Research shows that terpenes and cannabinoids are the real agents responsible for each cultivars distinctive outcome. Along with the consumer’s unique make-up, this relationship between terpenes and cannabinoids (commonly referred to as ‘the entourage effect’) is the true driving force behind the strain’s distinctive outcome.
The most prominent terpenes in cannabis are:
Limonene found in most citrus fruits. Limonene gives certain cannabis strains a delightfully fruity and citrusy smell.
Pinene one of the most common terpenes in nature. Mostly associated with coniferous or evergreen trees, like pine.
Myrcene the most prominent terpene in cannabis. It has a very earthy smell and can be associated with mangoes, basil and lemongrass. Myrcene has potent anti-inflammatory and sedative effects when consumed.
Caryophyllene also an extremely prominent terpene in cannabis. Caryophyllene has has a peppery scent, with incredible pain relieving qualities.
Terpinolene has a uniquely crisp herbal aroma and can be found in other common flowers like lilac. Terpinolene works as a great antioxidant and is typically found in sativa strains.
Humulene is a very common cannabis terpene also found in sage and ginseng. Humulene has a subtle, spicy, almost woody aroma. It’s scent has also been described as ‘hoppy’ since it’s a common terpene in hops.
Linalool is a terpene found in many lovely flowers such as lavender, jasmine, and rose. The enticing aroma is very floral and pleasant. Linalool has several health benefits including anti-fungal and anticonvulsant properties. Linalool can also be very sedative.
Although we’re all still learning about terpenes and discovering their unique properties, we hope that familiarizing yourself with these terpenes will allow you to make a more educated decision when purchasing cannabis in the future.
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