Harry’s World: Re-Examining the Terms Indica and Sativa

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion as of late about the definitions of the words: Sativa, Indica, Hybrid and Ruderalis. Are these terms that describe effects? Terms that define growth patterns? Or are they broader forms of descriptions, used to classify plants into sub-species?

In biology, the most commonly accepted system used for classifying plants was laid out by Carl Linnaeus. (His last initial is the capitol L. seen at the end of the large form name Cannabis Sativa L.) In classifying plants, he used the basis of shared or common characteristics as his model of division. Within each kingdom (for plants, this would be kingdom plantae), there are six hierarchical groupings: Divisions, Classes, Orders, Families, Genera and Species.

Cannabis is in the Rosales Family, the Cannabaceae Genus and its species is C. sativa. It is further categorized as having three sub species: sativa, indica and ruderalis. This categorization has largely been formulated on visual assessments of the plant, so things like growth height, shape and leaf morphology, were largely the botanists’ primary tools.

sativa vs indica IMG_2434
Indica plants, like the one on the left, grow short and squat with thick fan leaves and dense buds. Sativa plants, as seen on the right, grow tall with thin leaves and produce wispy buds.

In our own stoner nomenclature, these categories have been further reclassified as Indica, Sativa and Hybrid. This is how most of us know and understand how our cannabis affects us, as well as how it grows.

So when asked what the best strain is to alleviate pain while still having a certain level of clarity, a sativa is often recommended. For people looking for deep sleep, often it is an indica. However, these descriptions are far less scientific and, more often than not, plagued with inaccuracies as not everything is as it seems. It is possible that a strain has been mislabeled in a garden or even entirely misidentified over the years.

In the scientific community, there has been a wave of papers coming out in recent years that talk about genetics and the study of the cannabis genome. New websites are popping up that offer views of cannabis family trees that map out related strains, like Phylosbioscience.com. With this scientific point of view, terms like “narrow leaf drug varietal” (NLD) and “wide leaf drug varietal” (WLD), are now much more common.

Noted plant scientist Karl W. Hillig wrote several papers in the last 10 years examining cannabis taxonomy. He made use of several tools in his assessment, using genetics and chemo-taxonomy, which studies how the chemical ratios of compounds found in certain plants can be used to group them into common categories. This allowed him to create an in-depth re-examination of how cannabis should be organized. Other renowned botanists such as Ernest Small and C.E Turner placed significant importance on understanding the compounds found in each strain and using those as a pathway for grouping common strains.

In discussions with Reggie Gaudino, Ph.D., Don Land, Ph.D. and Kymron deCesare the lead scientists at Steep Hill, an analytical lab in Berkeley California, found that the overall number of common cannabinoids and terpene ratios boils down to about 13 “cocktail” recipes. This is quite marvelous when you consider there are over 480 compounds, according to Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, director of the Marijuana Project at the University of Mississippi.

The leaf from an Indica plant.
The leaf from an Indica plant.

Of those compounds, there are over 60 compounds unique to cannabis; these cannabinoids have been found to be “extremely important” chemotaxonomic markers according to Small and Turner. There are 120 known cannabinoids and over 100 different terpenes which can be found in cannabis.

So, to describe a plant by its common name like Indica or Sativa or even an amalgamation of the two like “Hybrid” continues to do the plant injustice, as we now better understand how the synergistic effect of the chemical compounds found in cannabis works. Fundamentally, the effect is governed by four occurrences;

  1. The ratio of cannabinoids to each other (i.e., the ratio between THC-A to CBD-A or CBG-A and CBC-A, etc.).
  2. The ratio of terpenes to each other (things like Humulene, beta-Caryophyllene, d-limonene, etc.).
  3. The way in which those terpenes combine with the cannabinoids forming a cocktail that we ingest.
  4. The personal effect that the cocktail has on our individual and unique CB1 and CB2 receptor systems within our own bodies. Just because one strain is meant to affect you in one way does not always make it so. This is because we, as unique individuals, all react differently to those cocktails of cannabinoids and terpenes. For example, people who suffer from ADHD use Sativas for a calming effect, whereas most people have the opposite effects from a Sativa.

A greater understanding of these four occurrences is crucial to having a deeper understanding of both how to better classify the plant and, in turn, to better understand how those classifications govern effect. A better understanding of how the compounds work with each other and how those cocktails govern individual effect will further help us understand which strains are the best for a specific need or use.

The leaf from a Sativa plant.
The leaf from a Sativa plant.

Going forward, hopefully more universities and researchers will continue trials on humans that will better allow us to understand how the synergy of compounds found in the cannabis plant work within each individual. Once we put those two together, then we can start to look at human DNA and cannabis DNA to better understand why strain A works best with person D or strain B works best with person K. We have come a long way but still have some ways to go.

Keep it green and keep on growing!

Any questions? Please feel free to email me at harryresin@hightimes.com. And for more photos, you can find me on Instagram as @harry_resin.

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