Cannabis sativa L., Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis — you’ve probably already heard these terms being used to describe different species of cannabis. For centuries, people have been saying that sativa strains have a strong and uplifting ‘head high’, while indica strains supposedly have a more body-centred and relaxing high. And people have been basing their weed-related decisions and opinions on this categorisation for just as long. The big question is whether this distinction is correct.
Because of the global legal status of cannabis in the past, there wasn’t a lot of research being done on it. And, thus, this classification was just assumed to be correct. However, with the progress that the legal marijuana movement made in the past few years, scientists were able to uncover what is actually responsible for the different highs. So, without further ado, let’s dive right in.
The history of Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa L. and Cannabis ruderalis
Cannabis sativa L. was first officially identified as such by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753. Linnaeus identified psychoactive cannabis plants as Cannabis sativa in his work ‘Species Plantarum Cannabis sativa L’. The ‘L.’ in ‘Cannabis sativa L.’ stands for Linnaeus and indicates that he was the first to name the species.
In 1785, while he was observing the physical characteristics of India’s psychoactive cannabis plants, the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck went on to identify Cannabis indica as a different species. The cannabis varieties that Lamarck identified in India had darker, wider leaves than Cannabis sativa L. plants and were mainly being used for their seeds and fibre, but they were also being used for the production of hashish.
About 150 years later, in 1924, the Russian botanist D. E. Janischewsky first described Cannabis ruderalis as a third species. Cannabis ruderalis is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis, and high in cannabidiol (CBD), which is not psychoactive and somewhat counteracts THC, but more on that later. Today, Cannabis ruderalis plants also get referred to as auto-flowering plants due to the fact that they will enter the flowering phase regardless of the amount of light they get.
However, some studies, like this chemotaxonomic analysis that got published by Indiana University in 2004, indicate that there are actually only two species of cannabis, Cannabis sativa L. and Cannabis indica, with Cannabis ruderalis being a sub-species of Cannabis sativa L. Further, many experts believe that there is actually only a singular polymorphic species of cannabis, Cannabis sativa, as all the strains can be interbred with each other.
What differentiates Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa?
Even though the terms indica and sativa get thrown around a lot to describe different strains and to give the consumers an idea of what kind of high to expect, most of the cannabis varieties that people consume today stem from Cannabis indica. So, what actually differentiates Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica?
Physically speaking, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are definitely different from each other. For example, while Cannabis indica plants are short and bushy with broad, wide leaves and a lot of flowers, Cannabis sativa L. plants are generally thinner, have thin, small leaves and can be as tall as 4 metres. But that’s not all that differentiates the two. And, as it turns out, it’s not what counts anyway.
Who would have guessed that looks can be deceiving? What actually matters is the chemical makeup of the plant. That’s what is responsible for the strain-specific effects of cannabis.
Chemotaxonomy is a method of biological classification based on the similarities that can be found in the structure of certain compounds. Two such compounds would be the cannabinoids THC and CBD. And, if you look at it from a chemotaxonomic point of view, there are three types of cannabis. There is a type of cannabis with high levels of THC, one with high levels of CBD and one with balanced THC and CBD levels.
And, historically speaking, sativa strains usually have high THC levels and low CBD levels, while indica strains usually have, at least somewhat, higher CBD levels and more fibre. This is also why the sativa and indica differentiation can, to a certain point, make sense.
However, thanks to cross-breeding, and the natural variation of cannabinoid levels in different strains, it can also completely miss the mark. Today, there are many different ‘indica’ strains with high THC levels or balanced CBD and THC levels. There are also auto-flowering strains with high amounts of CBD and low amounts of THC that get used for the production of medical marijuana.
Related: GMO-Hemp – Weed of the Future?
While this is great for all kinds of reasons, this makes the classic distinction between sativa and indica basically useless. That being said, with the technological, legislative and scientific advancements of the past decades, a lot of new information has come to light.
What you should care about when choosing your cannabis strain
So, after all that, what should you actually care about when you are choosing a cannabis strain? Well, that depends entirely on what you want to achieve. There are many different aspects apart from the actual cannabis strain and its cannabinoid profile that you need to consider. For example, your tolerance, which varies from cannabinoid to cannabinoid, the dosage as well as how you consume your cannabis.
That being said, you should definitely look at the chemical profile of a strain before you buy it. This includes not only the cannabinoid profile but also the terpenes and flavonoids present in the specific cannabis strain and how they interact with each other. Cannabis contains more than a hundred different types of cannabinoids and just as many terpenes.
The four most common cannabinoids and their effects are:
- THC — THC makes you hungry, relieves symptoms like pain and nausea, can cause anxiety and makes you feel euphoric and high.
- CBD — CBD alleviates anxiety, inflammation, pain and many other ailments, can help with mental disorders and counteracts THC’s effects.
- CBN — Cannabinol can ease symptoms and side effects of neurological conditions, such as epilepsy, seizures and uncontrollable muscle stiffness.
- CBG — Cannabigerol can help to reduce anxiety and symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder as well as depression.
Terpenes are aromatic compounds that are produced by plants. They can be found in oranges, lavender, pepper and, of course, cannabis. Terpenes get secreted by the same glands that ooze out CBD and THC and they are what gives the various cannabis strains their distinctive smells. The effects of any given terpene or cannabinoid may change in the presence of other compounds. This is known as the entourage effect.
Four of the most common terpenes and their effects are:
- Myrcene — Myrcene has an earthy aroma and can reduce anxiety and help with insomnia.
- Linalool — Linalool has a floral scent and improves relaxation and mood. It is also found in lavender.
- Caryophyllene — Caryophyllene has a spicy, peppery smell and directly activates the CB2 cannabinoid receptors. It can reduce inflammation, pain and many other things.
- Pinene — Pinene smells like pine and can do anything from boosting your memory to reducing pain and nausea.
Unfortunately, it can still be very hard to get the right information about your cannabis. However, at least you don’t just have to rely entirely on vague categories such as indica or sativa anymore. You can either get information about the chemical makeup of specific strains online or you can have it tested yourself. Also, some producers and sellers might add this information in the future to make your choice easier.