Cannabeginners: The History of Durban Poison

Learn the origins of this iconic landrace cultivar.
Durban Poison
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South Africa has a long tradition of cannabis cultivation and southern Africa is home to numerous landrace cultivars that many may never have heard of outside the region. For many years, Durban Poison was one of them, but thanks to the birth of Amsterdam’s coffee shops and the work of American cannabis enthusiasts, the whole world now can enjoy this unique, THCv-rich landrace cultivar. 

What is a Landrace Cultivar?

A landrace cultivar is one that was bred by the land and not intentionally bred by people (though often these landrace cultivars have long and rich histories of cultivation and use by local people). As the Pondoland area, right next to the province where Durban is located, is home to nearly a million small-scale cannabis cultivators and is basically South Africa’s Emerald Triangle, it is likely that these families and their ancestors have been the traditional cultivators of Durban Poison. While they may not have originally bred it, these traditional growers have played a role in selecting the best phenotypes to cultivate and which genetics will get passed on to new generations. 

History of Durban Poison

The modern history of Durban Poison began in the late 1970s, when the legendary cannabis breeder and grower, Ed Rosenthal, took a trip to Amsterdam. Despite many websites claiming Rosenthal went to South Africa to get the genetics, he told High Times, “I did not travel to South Africa, that is totally not true, I don’t know who created that urban legend.” 

The truth is he went to “a coffee shop called the Transvaal,” which was named for a province in South Africa and “was run by white South Africans who were importing cannabis from South Africa.” Rosenthal noted that “South Africa is far from the equator so it is seasonal like the US,” which means cultivars that do well there might also do well back in California. While he admits that none of those original seeds were “super powerful,” Rosenthal said the benefit of the Durban seeds was that they “were very fast growing and ripening.” At the time, Rosenthal was living with the botanist Mel Frank while they were working on the Marijuana Growers Guide, and he gave some seeds to Frank and “many other people.” 

Frank then passed on some of the seeds to Skunkman Sam, the legendary cannabis grower who bred Skunk #1 and many other classic cultivars. Like many landrace cultivars, Durban Poison originally suffered from intersex characteristics, which needed to be bred out of it before it could be a stabilized cultivar. Skunkman Sam spent several seasons working on it in California to get rid of those intersex traits, before Durban Poison would make the leap back across the Atlantic to Amsterdam.

In the mid-1980s, Skunkman Sam relocated from California to Amsterdam and brought his valuable cannabis genetics with him. Once he got to Amsterdam, Skunkman Sam met with cannabis breeder and creator of the first cannabis seedbank, Nevil Schoenmakers. It was through Nevil, his Holland Seed Bank, and other Dutch seed banks, that Durban Poison would become internationally known. 

There is a history to Durban Poison before it ever made it to Amsterdam, while it was still a landrace in South Africa. According to the 1987 Super Sativa Seed Club catalog, Durban Poison was believed to have originated in the Pinetown area, about 10 miles into the mountains west of Durban. Beyond that, little else is known about the exact origins of Durban Poison (i.e. which person or group of people cultivated it first and maintained that genetic legacy until the seeds got to Amsterdam). 

Flavor/Terpene Profile

Most sources online describe Durban Poison as having a sweet and piney scent/flavor. Durban has also been described as having a flavor of licorice with a citrusy aftertaste. Some sources note that Durban Poison has elevated levels of D-Limonene, which lab certificates of analysis show to be one of the more common terpenes in samples tested. Other terpenes commonly found in Durban include myrcene, pinene, and beta caryophyllene.

Elevated THCv Levels

The effects of Durban have been compared to drinking a shot of espresso and it is often referred to as a pure sativa with the uplifting and energizing effects associated with those cultivars. Many believe those coffee-like effects have to do with the elevated levels of THCv in Durban Poison, which give it a stronger psychoactive effect with a shorter duration. Recent research casts some doubt on previous claims of THCv being psychoactive, showing limited interaction at the CB1 receptor, leading the researchers to say, “The main advantage of THCV over THC is the lack of psychoactive effects.”

Durban Poison has been bred with numerous other cultivars, and generally elevated THCv levels get passed on. A couple of commonly found cultivars Durban is part of are Cherry Pie and Cookies. Beyond having elevated THCv levels, Durban has very low amounts of CBD, it’s mostly THC and THCv. 

Durban is a Sativa, but Does that Matter?

Durban Poison is widely regarded to be a pure sativa. Those cultivars have long been associated with producing a powerful cerebral high and uplifting effects (as opposed to indicas which have long been viewed as creating a body high and sedation). While recent research calls the entire indica and sativa dichotomy into question, one thing is not in doubt, Durban Poison is very energizing and is definitely recommended for anyone looking for a coffee-like effect from their bud. If you can’t find Durban Poison, look for other African landrace cultivars like Red Congolese of Malawi, which are both known for similarly speedy effects. 

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3 comments
  1. One sad thing is that when strain hunters and many other international travels….and a few South Africans brought seeds back to South Africathey unintentionally caused the original land race genetics to disappear, Rooibaard (Red beard) originating in the Eastern Cape like Durban poison has pretty much disappeared completely, most of the wild cannabis strains are now sativa/indica hybrids

    1. Rooibaard originated from Swaziland, EC is know for its pondo classic or transkei kush. Unfortuntely you are right, our heiloom seeds are trashed, but not all is lost and seed collectors have saved the genetics of DP for many decades. The story above is true, DP arrived in the States first and then moved to Europe. However there were 4 people in total who took seeds overseas, and some of those genetics are still growing. Sam the Skunkman, passed his original seeds to Todd McCormick, so you know where you can find the originals. Happy growing.

  2. Rooibaard circa 1997 that was confiscated and then returned to me have been run and currently sitting on 40 000 seeds. True to form and checked all the boxes. The “Light green” (euro) influence did have a big affect after about 1998 and i was happy to welcome back this Legend. Cheers

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