What's in a name?
In our final episode for Season One, we explore the ways in which Cannabis is named and represented in the market place - by strain name and indica/sativa designation. How do strain names and indica/sativa designations relate to genetic lineage and chemical profiles? Where did the indica vs. sativa model come from? How should confused consumers navigate the strain game?
Contributions from: Angus of The Real Seed Company; Steve Albarran and Brad Bogus of Confident Cannabis
The Real Seed Company: www.therealseedcompany.com
Confident Cannabis: www.confidentcannabis.com
Connect by Confident Cannabis: connect.confidentcannabis.com
Phylos Galaxy: https://phylos.bio/galaxy/
Kannapedia by Medicinal Genomics: http://www.kannapedia.net/
You’re listening to the Curious About Cannabis Podcast.
Before we get started, I have a short announcement.
This is the last episode of our first season, and I want to just take a moment to say thank you so much for coming on this journey with me over the past several months. We will be taking a small break from episodes like these to get new content ready to share with you for season two, which will start this Summer. We will be restructuring the podcast a bit, based on your feedback. Going forward we will be releasing the behind-the-scenes interviews regularly throughout the entire year, but we will only be releasing seasons of our topical episodes, like this one, twice a year, with one season starting in late Fall, and one season starting in Summer.
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Now, without further ado, let’s get on to the episode.
Gorilla Glue. Grape Krush. Blue Dream. Koala. Mr. Nice. OG Kush. Skywalker Haze. Moonshine Haze. AK-47. Trainwreck. Tangie. Hash Plant. Trinity. Vortex.
What’s in a name?
Go into any legal Cannabis dispensary in Oregon and your head is likely to spin trying to keep up with the seemingly limitless numbers of names of different varieties of Cannabis on the shelf. It’s enough to keep Cannabis connouisseurs on their toes, while the Cannabis curious are sometimes left confused and bewildered. And beyond these various strain names, we have other labels, like indica, sativa, and hybrid. Supposedly some make you sleepy. Some make you feel awake. Others are supposedly balanced for a productive lifestyle. But is there really anything to this system of naming and categorizing Cannabis varieties? What do all of these names mean?
In this episode, we will be taking a look into the world of Cannabis names, The Strain Game.
Hey everybody this is Jason Wilson with the Curious About Cannabis Podcast.
If you have been involved in the Cannabis industry for any amount of time or have visited a dispensary, you may be familiar with the company and website, Leafly. Leafly was originally started as a way to collect information on Cannabis strains. Over time they have evolved, but their core focus on strains has certainly not gone away. Here is some copy from their website describing Cannabis strains:
“Marijuana strains are organized into three primary types: sativa, indica, and hybrid. Each type of strain has unique effects on both the mind and body. For example, sativa strains are uplifting and pair well with activities like social gatherings and being physically active. On the opposite end of the strain spectrum, indica strains are relaxing and can help amplify a deep level of physical sedation - making indica great for those times when you need deep sleep. Lastly, there are hybrid strains which fall between indicas and sativas. Hybrid strains offer a combination of both energizing and relaxing effects. Hybrid strains are great for the times when it’s too late for an energizing sativa or too early for a sedating indica strain.”
But is this legit? Or could this be a well-intentioned, but ill-fated effort that is ultimately misleading consumers and promoting bias and placebo in the consumer market?
Many claims are often made surrounding the name of a Cannabis variety including information about the plant’s genetic lineage, it’s chemical profile, and the effect it will have on a consumer. In today’s episode we are going to be taking a critical look at the way Cannabis is commonly categorized – by strain name and indica/sativa designation.
And to guide our curious quest we will be focusing on several key questions:
So, without further ado, let’s get started.
What is a Cannabis Strain?
If you ask different people in the Cannabis industry what they think of the concept of Cannabis strains, you are likely to get mixed reactions.
Some people think that strains are completely useless, outdated ideas. Some think they are concepts reserved for the craft Cannabis cultivators that have an in-depth understanding of the source of the genetics that they cultivate. While others think that strain names are vitally important for understanding the effects that a product may have on them. So, what’s really going on here?
First let’s talk about the word “strain”.
In biology, the term “strain” is generally only used when talking about micro-organisms. There are various strains of E. coli, for instance. But in botany, the term “strain” is not typically used to describe different varieties of plants. Instead, the term “variety” is commonly used. More specifically, the term, “cultivar”, meaning “cultivated variety” is often used to refer to different plant types of the same species and subspecies. An additional taxonomical rank used in botany is “form” which is a level lower than variety and is often used to distinguish slightly different varieties of a variety.
Let’s take the Cannabis strain Gorilla Glue, or GG, for example. There are different varieties of Gorilla Glue, like Gorilla Glue #4, and Gorilla Glue #12, etc. But Gorilla Glue itself is a variety of a subspecies of Cannabis. So, GG #4 and #12 would be considered forms of the Gorilla Glue variety.
So, if we want to be botanically correct, we should replace the term “strain” altogether, with the term “cultivar”. And if there are variations of a particular cultivar, then those variations should be called “forms”.
Indica vs Sativa
But what about these terms Indica and Sativa? The old colloquial wisdom states that there are three species of Cannabis plants: sativa, indica and ruderalis. Indica Cannabis plants are short, bushy, and produce heavily sedating effects, whereas sativa plants are tall, airy, and produce stimulating effects. And ruderalis plants are often either considered wild plants or perhaps wild and autoflowering plants. But where did this idea come from?
Let me begin by saying that Cannabis researchers have long debated how to categorize Cannabis and how many species of Cannabis there are. The terms sativa, indica, and ruderalis are only a few of many terms that have been used throughout time to organize Cannabis. These terms have been used inconsistently by different researchers throughout time to describe different types of Cannabis plants.
This basic idea of sativa plants being tall and wide branched and indica plants being short and densely branched comes from a researcher named Richard Schultes in the early 1970s. Schultes suggested that there are three species of Cannabis – sativa, indica and ruderalis. Each of these species was associated with basic morphological characteristics – that the tall Cannabis plants were Cannabis sativa, the short bushier plants were Cannabis indica, and the very small, sometimes unbranching, forms of Cannabis plant often seen in the wild were considered Cannabis ruderalis.
However, a few years later another taxonomical model for Cannabis would be presented that focused on the plant’s chemical profiles, rather than morphology. This taxonomic model, presented by Small and Cronquist, suggests that Cannabis is one single species, Cannabis sativa, with at least two subspecies, sativa and indica. Under this model, the sativa subspecies consists of fiber-type and low THC varieties of Cannabis, while the indica subspecies consisted of high THC and 1:1 THC,CBD ratio plants. Genetic research performed by John McPartland and Geoffrey Guy confirmed that THC-rich varieties of Cannabis are all of the same species. So if we accept this model, which I should point out that not everyone believes this model is accurate, but we’ll save that for later, If we accept the Small and Cronquist model, then all THC-rich varieties of Cannabis should be Cannabis sativa subspecies indica.
Some researchers felt it made little sense to organize a plant based on its intoxicating properties, and so later on in 1980, a researcher named Loran Anderson would refine Schulte’s taxonomical model, taking Schultes’ focus on the growth form of Cannabis varieties and adding details about leaf characteristics to the picture. Anderson characterized Cannabis indica as short broad leaf plants, Cannabis sativa as tall narrow leaf plants, and Cannabis ruderalis as small, weedy plants. Anderson also pointed out that these distinctions between sativa, indica and ruderalis have little to do with chemical profiles.
So this the work of Schultes and Anderson are largely why we refer to Cannabis plants as indica or sativa based on how they look. But why do we often use these terms to refer to chemical profile as well? Well, it’s a complicated story, and maybe too complicated to dive into too much in this episode.
But basically, the term Cannabis sativa was originally used by Carl Linnaeus in the 1753 to describe a non-intoxicating form of Cannabis commonly cultivated in Europe, which we would today call hemp. Cannabis indica was originally used by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck thirty years later to describe Cannabis from India that was intoxicating. The plants he reviewed had narrow leaves, not wide leaves, and the primary difference was that the plants were a little shorter, more aromatic, and intoxicating. Later on, the term Cannabis sativa would be used by a Russian researcher to describe forms of Cannabis from Afghanistan that were used to make hash – a significant departure from Carl Linnaeus. Then later on the term Cannabis indica would be applied to forms of Cannabis from Afghanistan that were used to make hash. So these uses of the terms Cannabis sativa and indica would become confused throughout time, and blended in the minds of many with the taxonomical models that Small and Cronquist and Schultes and Anderson put together, separately, ultimately resulting in a totally confused vernacular that we have been stuck with to this day.
This is Angus from The Real Seed Company. Angus has spent years travelling around the world collecting seeds of Cannabis varieties often referred to as “landrace strains”, which are varieties which have naturalized to the region in which they grow. Through his travels, Angus has had the opportunity to get to know people from cultures all over the world that have been growing Cannabis for millenia, and along the way he has studied the issue of Cannabis taxonomy in depth as he has become a de facto Cannabis historian.
But the story gets even more confusing.
So far we’ve talked about two ways of categorizing Cannabis – one that categorizes Cannabis by morphology, and the other that categorizes Cannabis by chemotype. But there’s another way of categorizing Cannabis which we already hinted at. And that’s by the plant’s genes.
The researcher Karl Hillig performed several different experiments looking at the genetic and chemical variation among Cannabis varieties. In his genetic research, he made a scatter plot representing the differences between samples, and then compared the data to different indica/sativa taxonomical models. What he found was that of the major taxonomical models that he reviewed, including those by Schultes and Small and Cronquist, none of them fit his data. His data showed two distinct clusters, seemingly representative of a split in the Cannabis gene pool.
In their book Cannabis Evolution and Ethnobotany, Robert Clarke and Mark Merlin present a revised taxonomical model that states that all THC-rich cultivars and broad-leafed hemp cultivars are Cannabis indica, and all narrow leaf hemp is Cannabis sativa. This model also posits that all Cannabis varieties are ultimately derived from a single Putative Ancestor. In Clarke and Merlin’s model, THC-rich Cannabis varieties are separated on the subspecies level by their morphology and named after their presumed origins. So narrow leaf THC-rich varieties are Cannabis indica ssp. indica, representing their presumed origins of India, while broad leaf THC-rich varieties are Cannabis indica ssp. afghanica, referring to their presumed origin of Afghanistan. Broad leaf hemp varieties would be Cannabis indica ssp. chinensis, representing origins from China, and narrow leaf hemp varieties would be Cannabis sativa ssp. sativa.
Upon careful review, it appears that the colloquial use of indica and sativa is really just a bastardized synthesis of taxonomical systems, and it doesn’t accurately represent any single system of organizing Cannabis. In short – it’s made up. It seems to take elements from each of these systems that we have covered but fails to accurately deliver on any of them. It’s really quite a mess that should be abandoned.
When I was attending the University of Mississippi and spending time at the NIDA Cannabis lab there, I asked the researchers how many species of Cannabis they recognized, and I was given a firm answer that there was only one species of Cannabis. When reviewing the Integrated Taxonomical Information System, Cannabis is listed as a single species – Cannabis sativa.
Perhaps as genomic research into Cannabis progresses, the taxonomy of Cannabis will evolve. Based on trends in biology, this is likely to be the case. Genetic research is leading to many changes in how all of life is categorized, across the board, and Cannabis is not likely to escape this rearrangement.
Taking a step back from all of these taxonomical models, let’s briefly discuss what terms like “sativa”, “indica”, “ruderalis” mean from a botanical perspective.
The term “sativa” is typically used to refer to cultivated plants. For instance, the common oat is Avena sativa. The term “indica” technically means “from India.” And the term “ruderalis” is derived from the word “ruderal”, usually used to describe plants that grow easily in disturbed areas. Cannabis researcher John McPartland has argued that we should take the meanings of these terms seriously when deciding how to talk about Cannabis. For instance, as far as we can tell, only domesticated varieties of Cannabis still exist in the world. Sure, there are plants that have escaped cultivation and re-naturalized, but are there really any varieties of Cannabis in existence that are untouched by human domestication? It’s highly unlikely.
So, does that mean that all Cannabis in existence today is technically “sativa”? And then what about the use of the term “indica”? McPartland has argued that we should actually split THC-rich Cannabis into two varieties based on their origins – one being indica, and one being called afghanica.
So regardless of how we want to categorize Cannabis, if we want our vocabulary to be consistent, we should use these terms intentionally according to the manner in which these terms have been applied to other plants.
In John McPartland’s 2018 review of Cannabis taxonomy and systematics, he provides a suggestion for fixing these labels in our cultural vernacular to make them more accurate. He states, “In summary, reconciling the vernacular and formal nomenclatures: “Sativa” is really Indica, “Indica” is actually Afghanica, and “Ruderalis” is usually Sativa. All three are varieties of one species, Cannabis sativa.”
But, leaving the taxonomy debate aside for a moment, just how reliable are indica/sativa designations or strain names in terms of genetic lineage and chemical profiles?
Let’s start with genetic lineage. Do strain names and indica/sativa designations correlate with genetic lineage? The short answer is – not really.
First let’s look at some basic issues.
First of all, strain names are often mislabeled. This happens intentionally and unintentionally. It’s common for Cannabis cultivators to cultivate multiple varieties – and it makes sense that in the hustle and bustle of harvesting and processing, some containers of plants may get mislabeled. However, on the more nefarious end of things, some cultivators will change the cultivar name of a batch of Cannabis in an attempt to make it more likely to sell.
Second, strain names are often inappropriately applied to plants propagated from seed.
These two issues alone have muddied the playing field so much, that the reliability of any strain name, just in terms of genetic lineage, is a real crap shoot.
The same issues can be said for indica/sativa designations. Even if we were to accept the colloquial definitions of indica and sativa – the fact of the matter is that cultivators and product manufacturers often uses these labels to indicate an anticipated effect more so than the genetic lineage or even morphology of the plant.
Additionally, there are several online tools that allow you to examine how genetically similar and dissimilar different Cannabis samples are. One is called the Galaxy by Phylos Bioscience, and the other is Kannapedia by Medicinal Genomics. Using these tools, we can examine data related to samples that were labeled as “Blue Dream” for instance. On the Phylos Galaxy, right away we can see different unique genetic clusters, with some clusters being substantially unique. On Kannapedia you can search for all sorts of samples and see the hodge podge of “close relatives”, some that are labeled the same strain, and some that seemingly should be quite different based on colloquial wisdom.
Now, this isn’t to say that there is absolutely no consistency behind strain names. I want to point out that there are in fact genetic patterns among Cannabis varieties. For instance, going back to the Phylos Galaxy you’ll find that there are distinct genetic clusters of close relatives among any one strain name, but which cluster is “the true OG?” The “true Blue Dream”? Is it the biggest cluster? If so, why? Who decides what “Blue Dream” or “OG Kush” actually is, genetically?
In the Kannapedia database, while you will see a strain name listed, you also will see a unique identifier that is the true “label” associated with the genetics that were tested. From a genetic perspective, the strain name is largely irrelevant. However, if you focus on a sample that was labeled “Blue Dream”, for example, you will likely see that it has close relatives that are also labeled as “Blue Dream”. So there is some consistency. Just not enough consistency to trust the labels.
So strain names and indica sativa designations don’t mean much in terms of genetic lineage. But what about chemical profiles?
To begin to tackle this issue, we need to review a lot of data. So I went to my friends at Confident Cannabis to get their opinions on this issue. Confident Cannabis is a technology company that provides various software solutions to Cannabis testing labs, growers, producers, and dispensaries to bring transparency to the supply chain. Their platform captures a lot of data about products moving around in the Cannabis industry, and by analyzing that data, they have been able to glean some interesting insights.
This is Steve Albarran, the CEO of Confident Cannabis
I had Brad Bogus from Confident Cannabis go through the Connect platform with me to explain how it works and what I was seeing.
But what about indica/sativa designation?
The ugly truth of the matter is that there are various plants labeled the same strain with distinctly different cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles. This can be for various reasons, like the mislabeling of strain names. But it can also be due to the fact that terpenes are highly influenced by environmental conditions and they can change rapidly when Cannabis is in storage. You could take a clone of a Cannabis variety and grow it in different conditions and get slightly different terpene concentrations. You could take plants grown in the same conditions and dry them or store them differently and end up with different terpene profiles.
So these names don’t seem to be strongly correlated with genetic lineage. And they don’t seem to mean much in the way of chemical profiles. So what gives?
Well, in short, we need a new system of a categorizing and talking about Cannabis. If we are interested in how something will affect somebody, we care about chemical profile, and we need a vocabulary for talking about patterns of chemical profiles. If we are interested in discussing plant morphology, we need a vocabulary to talk about that which is consistent, accurate, and separate from the vocabulary used to talk about chemical profiles. If we are interested in discussing genetic lineage, we need assistance from genetic mapping tools and some standardized names of Cannabis cultivars which are based on genetic data. Several researchers and companies, like Leafly, have proposed alternative methods to address these distinct problems, but none of these solutions have really taken a strong hold in the Cannabis industry yet.
Going back to where we started, with Leafly, they have attempted to produce a visual guide to understanding a strain’s chemical profile, represented by a series of shapes and colors with unique meanings. The attributes that are associated with each strain are based on numerous lab tests, which is certainly a step in the right direction. The website then goes on to associate each strain with effects like “sleepy”, “relaxing”, “uplifted”, “energetic” – but this is potentially flawed in a number of ways. First, it assumes that a strain name is represented by one particular chemical profile, which as we have talked about in this episode, is not consistent. Even when basing the findings on aggregates of terpene data, you are still left with an average chemical profile that does not necessarily represent what someone will find in a dispensary.
And concerning the predicted effects, if you dive deeper into the data, you often find that even consumers don’t agree on the effects of a Cannabis variety. For many strains on Leafly’s website, close to 50% of people report the most commonly reported effects, meaning that nearly half of people that tried the strain did not feel those same effects.
Another issue that we haven’t really gotten into at all in this episode is: even if you know the chemical profile of a Cannabis variety – can you really predict the effects it will have on somebody? We’ll save that question for another time.
So as a consumer trying to find Cannabis products that work best for you, what do you do after you learn that all of these names are unreliable?
My takeaway is this – stop relying on strain names. Stop relying on indica/sativa designations. Start journaling. Pay attention to the chemical profiles and the organoleptic characteristics of what you consume and keep track of how you respond. You may find that a single chemical profile affects you differently at different times of the day, or in different settings. You may find that that Cannabis that your budtender told you would put you to sleep actually makes your heart race and wakes you up. You may find that a small toke produces very different effects than consuming a larger dose. There are so many variables at play that will influence how a person will respond to Cannabis. To dilute all of those variables down into a simplified model of Cannabis strains or indica/sativa designations is a fool’s errand.
There is also the hidden and impossible to quantify variable – which is you. The chemistry of the product is only part of the picture, and the biochemistry that your own body brings to the table is the other part of the picture. No one can tell you what will work for you, or how something will affect you. And there is no sure-fire way to predict it. It comes down to trial and error.
If you are looking for a good journal designed for this purpose, check out Gold Leaf’s Patient Journal. I’ll be doing a review of Goldleaf’s journals and other educational materials that will be posted on the Curious About Cannabis YouTube channel soon.
So let’s review what we’ve learned:
And with that, I’m your host, Jason Wilson.
Thanks again for tuning in for this episode and this season. It’s been a great pleasure to have you join me on this journey. Until next time, stay curious, and take it easy.
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 Anderson LC. 1980. Leaf Variation Among Cannabis Species From A Controlled Garden. Botanical Museum leaflets, Harvard University. 28(1): 61-69.
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 Piomelli D and Russo EB. 2016. The Cannabis sativa Versus Cannabis indica debate: An Interview with Ethan Russo, MD. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. 1(1): 44-46.