There are hundreds if not thousands of strains of marijuana grown today, but each of these strains originates from one (or both) of two main species: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. A third species, Cannabis ruderalis, is grown but not commonly used recreationally.
What are the differences between indica and sativa?
(Afghanistan, Turkey, Morocco India)
|Sedative properties used to relax muscles, ease anxiety|
(Mexico, Colombia, Thailand, and others)
|Energizing properties used to stimulate the mind and appetite|
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Origins of Marijuana Strains
Cannabis is among one of the oldest known cultivated crops, dating back several thousand years. Today, marijuana plants are mostly cultivated in two strains: indica and sativa, which are recognizably different in their morphology and function.
Both the indica and sativa species are being grown all around the world, but they each originated in distinct regions.
Cannabis indica first grew in Middle Eastern regions such as in the Kush Mountains of Afghanistan as well as in Morocco and Turkey. These rocky areas provide harsh growing conditions, but indica adapted well to the hostile climate in these mountainous regions by developing a solid, cannabinoid-dense resin to protect itself.
Cannabis sativa grows around the equator in Mexico, Columbia, Thailand and various other tropical areas. In these regions, day and night cycles are more or less equal: 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. These day-night cycles are very stable throughout the year. As a result of this climate, sativa plants developed a high tolerance to heat.
Marijuana plants imported from India, on the other hand, could be transformed in hashish and used as intoxicants. The French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed in 1785 to distinguish the Indian cannabis (named Cannabis indica) from the European hemp, producing the modern distinction between indica and sativa.
In the early 19th century, European doctors began to recognize the intoxicating properties of Cannabis indica. This strand began to be used for medicinal purposes in Western countries.
In the 1970s, the import of Cannabis indica into the Americas began. Soon, cultivators were creating hybrid indica–sativa cannabis, which saw wide distribution through the United States.
Marijuana Strain Morphology
Indica plants typically reach 3-4 feet tall. Ther can be conveniently cultivated either indoors or outdoors because of their small size.
Sativa plants usually grow least 10 feet tall, but in optimal conditions they can even reach 20 feet tall. Their growth potential makes outdoor cultivation necessary.
The appearance of the plant is a very clear indicator of its identity:
- Short, bushy, robust plant
- Fewer and shorter branches
- Broad, maple-shaped leaves
- Buds and flowers are situated close to each other and feel sticky
- Larger amount of resin compared to sativa
- Seeds are soft and marble-colored
- Lots of long branches
- Many thin, long leaves
- Buds often have a red hue, and in colder climates can turn purple
- Flowers are long, sausage-shaped and grouped in loose clusters all around the plant
- The roots are vast and sprawling
- Sativa seeds are soft and have no markings
- Indica plants are small, have thick branches or broad That makes them convenient to grow indoors.
- Sativa plants are tall, have sparse branches with long and slender leaves. That makes them good candidates for outdoor cultivation.
Indica plants mature earlier than sativa plants and are more resistant to mold. Their growth can be promoted by artificially adjusting the light, which can shorten their maturation time considerably. That is why people often cultivate them indoors.
Sativa plants originate from very sunny and warm regions and need a lot of sunshine to grow. They require more time to germinate than indica. As well, it is not possible to artificially enhance or quicken their growth, so growers prefer to cultivate them outdoors.
Larger plants lead to bigger harvest. Indicas are small, and they usually provide about 1.5-2.5 ounces per plant. The more substantial sativas typically yield between 3 ounces up to 1 pound.
Of course, the growing conditions influence the harvest as well. Growing a plant in a small pot with not much light will, naturally, lead to a smaller plant. Cultivating a plant outdoors with exposure to plenty of sunlight will promote growth.
Effects of Marijuana Strains
Since indica and sativa plants have different origins and morphologies, it is not surprising that the effect of ingesting each strain differs. Both strains of cannabis are used for recreational as well as medicinal purposes.
- The indica strain is responsible for the famous “couch lock.” It provides a full-body high that lasts for several hours.
- Indica brings the user into a deep state of calm and relaxation and is often used it as a stress reliever.
- Regular marijuana users may take a dose of indica before going to sleep because of its sedative properties.
- The sativa strain has the opposite effect of indica, providing an uplifting, energetic high after consumption.
- Sativa stimulates the appetite and thirst. Users may lose track of how much they have eaten.
- Sativa is also a popular strain for socializing, inducing feelings of well-being and laughter.
- Users often rely on sativa as a stimulus for creativity.
Both strains of marijuana are widely used for medicinal purposes. Because each strain has a different effect on the user, they are not interchangeable. Indica and sativa are used to relieve very different types of symptoms.
As mentioned above, indica has sedative properties. It relaxes all kinds of muscles, which can also be used to affect some symptoms of psychological conditions. Below are some medicinal uses for Indica:
- Relieves muscle spasms
- Alleviates pain in general
- Relieves headaches, including some types of migraines, by relaxing tense muscles in the head, face or the neck
- Treats insomnia by assisting in relaxation.
- Calms anxiety by slowing down the heartbeat and increasing deep breathing
- Relieves symptoms of fibromyalgia, lupus or multiple sclerosis
- Indica has also been used as an antiepileptic agent
The energizing effects of consuming sativa can have beneficial effects for very different conditions:
- Many patients with mental health issues self-medicate with sativa to alleviate their symptoms.
- Treats ADHD
- Stimulates the appetite, which can help users suffering from anorexia or certain types of cancer
Active Compounds in Marijuana
Marijuana has two main active ingredients: Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). They are each present in both indica and sativa plants, but in different quantities.
Each ingredient has different properties; perhaps most importantly, THC is psychoactive while CBD is not.
Indica plants have a higher ratio of CBD to THC, explaining its common use as a tranquilizer or muscle relaxant.
Sativa plants naturally contain more THC than CBD, and so provide a more traditional psychoactive high.
The above distinctions, however, have many exceptions. Nowadays, the ratios of CBD to THC are not as consistent as they were 50 years ago. There are two reasons for that:
- Natural Variation – The quantity of each compound can vary within one type of cannabis plant, depending on the cultivation conditions.
- Hybridization – Over the past 50 years, people have begun to create hybrid strains. Through this process, an initially CBD-dominant indica strain could become a plant with a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC.
Interestingly, the demand is mostly for strains high in CBD. This demand implies that chronic treatment of pain seems to a priority over psychoactive properties in marijuana use.
Other Strains of Marijuana
A third strain (hemp) has been scientifically distinguished from the other two categories. It was labeled by the Russian botanist Dmitri Yanishevki in 1942 as Cannabis ruderalis. The name refers to the plant’s behavior of colonizing a piece of land if no competitive vegetation is present. Ruderalis is native to Russia as well as Poland and various parts of Eastern Europe.
Ruderalis matures very quickly compared to indica and sativa. Its flowers bloom independently of a light source – their growth is dictated by the age of the plant instead. A Ruderalis plant will be fully-grown in about seven weeks, and will rarely be taller than two feet.
Like indica, ruderalis contains more CBD than THC. The plant is not considered to have psychoactive effects and, is rarely grown for use as a recreational drug.
Ruderalis has other uses, however, including:
- Fuel – It is a valuable source of biodiesel fuel.
- Sustainability – Hemp is used to produce paper, as well as insulation layers in newly built houses.
- Cross-breeding – Because of the quick maturation cycle and resistance to weather conditions, ruderalis is now frequently bred with indica or sativa strains to promote their growth.
Other kinds of cannabis are hybrid strains, including any combination of indica, sativa and ruderalis. By crossbreeding these three types of marijuana, growers may control the properties of the resulting hybrid strain.
Some reasons for creating hybrid marijuana strands include:
- An indica-dominant hybrid will mainly have a relaxing, sedative effect, but a slight presence of sativa will prevent the user from falling asleep.
- Sativa-dominant hybrids are typically stimulating and energizing, but the presence of indica may be able to relax the body as well.
- Cross-breeding with ruderalis strains can accelerate plant growth. Because they grow much quicker than sativa and indica, many growers create ruderalis hybrids with otherwise sativa-dominant or indica-dominant plants.
Understanding the nature of each species and the differences between indica and sativa will make it easier for you to understand and navigate the diverse strains available today.