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Sativa vs. Indica: What’s the Difference?

Updated: Sep 20


Sativa vs Indica?


When you enter a dispensary for the first time, you’ll likely see cannabis being categorized in one of two ways: You’ll have your indica strains, which are said to be nice and relaxing, helping you rest, relax, and slow down. Then you’ll have sativa, which it’s claimed has an energizing effect, increases focus, and helps you get things done. Sounds good, right?


Of course, it’s not that easy. While it’s true that some strains are heavier on the chill effect, and some better for daytime use, it’s not as simple as saying all sativa strains do one thing and all indica do another.


So why do we use these classifications?


Sativa vs. Indica Classifications


Cannabis sativa was named by a Swedish botanist, Carl Lannaeus, in the mid-1700s. In the later half of that century, a French biologist named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified Cannabis indica as a different member of the same plant species. Based on physical characteristics, he differentiated it from Cannabis sativa. 


The basis for the separate taxonomy of these two plants came down to the different appearance of each, not the different effects each had when consumed. Researchers believed — and many still do today — that the differences in the two strains has to do with their geographical location of origin. Little interbreeding between locations caused the plants to develop unique physical characteristics.   


While it’s true that different strains have different proportions of relaxing versus energizing effects, those effects mostly come down to the present cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain, and have less to do with whether the plant is cannabis indica or cannabis sativa.


What’s the Real Difference Between Indica and Sativa?


Indica plants are believed to have originated in the Middle East, particularly in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey. 


Indica plants are shorter, with a woody stalk, unlike the fibrous stalk of Sativa plants. Indica plants also grow faster, and produce more bud. Their leaves are bushier and darker green, and indica plants tend to have thick, lush foliage. The common belief that indica is more relaxing than sativa comes from the basis that indica plants are more likely to have an even balance of THC to CBD — though, of course, this isn’t true for all indica strains. 


Sativa plants are from hot, more humid climates, particularly Southeast Asia and Central and South America. They’re taller plants with a more flexible stalk, and produce the long, pointy, thin-fingered leaf that is so recognizable as cannabis. Sativa has a longer flowering cycle than indica plants, likely due to it’s predisposition to grow in hotter climates. 


Sativa strains are believed to be more energizing and creativity-enhancing than indica strains due to their higher THC content, but again, this type of generalization does not always hold true and shouldn’t be relied on.

 

There’s a Third Type, Too - Cannabis Ruderalis


And, believe it or not, the cannabis family doesn’t end at sativa vs. indica breeds. In the 1930s, a third type was identified by a Russian botanist named Dmitrij Janischewsky, which he called Cannabis ruderalis. Unlike indica and sativa, which are differentiated by unique physical characteristics, ruderalis is differentiated by its flowering cycle. 


Both indica and sativa strains grow, and flower, seasonally and according to available light. Unlike those plants, ruderalis flowers automatically, 20-40 days after the plant sprouts. 


Ruderalis is a hardier plant, and mostly grows wild in the colder climates in Central Asia and Russia. It’s shorter and stalkier, and grows fewer leaves than other members of the cannabis species. Because of this, it’s not commonly grown and harvested commercially, as it doesn’t have the output that other species of cannabis do. However due to its shorter stature (ruderalis tops out at about 2 feet tall), in addition to its rapid flowering, it’s becoming a popular choice for at-home growers. In nature, ruderalis doesn’t typically have notable amounts of THC and CBD, but some varieties have been bred to produce more CBD.


Commercially, ruderalis is used in hybrid plants, mostly to selectively breed for faster flowering time in commercial plants.

 

What About Hybrids?


Hybrid strains currently dominate the market, as most strains are marketed to be “sativa dominant” or “indica dominant” rather than truly sativa or indica strains. This isn’t to say that hybrid strains are less pure in any sense of the word - the truth is, hybrid strains are often bred to be more consistent, and to produce specific effects. 


So How Do I Know What I’m Getting?


While the classifications of indica versus sativa are more useful in a botanical sense, they don’t really tell us as much as we think about the effects of a strain. So how do you know what to look for? 


Well, for starters, the ratio of CBD to THC is a good place to start. Strains that are much higher in THC will have a stronger high and a more cerebral effect. Strains closer to a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC will be more balanced, and are praised for their pain relieving effects while still allowing you to go about your day without being incapacitated. Higher CBD strains will have much less of an intoxicating effect, but are desirable for the anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory effects. 


But the more we learn about cannabis, the more we’re starting to realize that marked differences between strains may have more to do with terpenes than we realized


Terpenes are the chemical compounds that give plants their aroma and flavour; they’re present in every strain of cannabis, and have different effects of their own, depending on which terpenes are dominant within that strain. 


For example, a strain dominant in myrcene, a terpene, will have more of a heady high and a relaxing effect, as myrcene interacts with THC to increase its potency and also acts as a relaxant in its own right. Strains dominant with pinene, when combined with CBD, reduce anxiety but increase focus and alertness, allowing you to get more done. 


There are over 100 different terpenes present in cannabis, in varying proportions, and many different cannabinoids. If you’re looking for a specific experience from your cannabis, it may be worth your time to ask your local dispensary about the various strains they offer and their cannabinoid and terpene profile - which can be much more specific than relying on indica/sativa classifications. 

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