By now, nearly all stoners are aware of the differences between indica, sativa,and hybrid cannabis varieties. These familiar names bring to mind our favorite strains, Blueberry, Green Crack, Dutch Treat, the list goes on, and continues to grow as people continue to cross-breed. With so many varieties, many bearing multiple names and phenotypes, choosing the right strain for you can be quite the difficult proposition. In order for one to best navigate these winding, murky waters, one must first be willing to learn a little about the origins and biology of this remarkable herb.
Cannabis evolved between 34 million years ago and 6.38 million years ago in the Kush mountain range, which extends from North-eastern Afghanistan all the way down through Northern Pakistan, and India’s northern border, forming the western portion of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region. Seeds found in sites dated to be as old as 12,000 years suggest that our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors were at least partly responsible for spreading cannabis from this fairly central region to Africa and Asia as they migrated between these areas. As humanity settled into it’s various different corners of the globe, the cannabis that they had collected and taken with them began to adapt to the various different climates in which it was dropped along the way. It was in this way that C. sativa and C. indica separated and became distinct species which began self-sustaining wild populations.
As cannabis adapted to different areas, it began to differ greatly from its geographically distant relatives, both physiologically and in the terpenes and cannabinoids that they produced. Cannabis which stayed in the mountainous Kush region became known as indica and grew to be short and stocky, producing dense buds. These adaptations protect against the cold, wet, mountain climate which can cause rot in less adapted plants. Meanwhile cannabis which landed in the hot, low-elevation African and Asian climates grew tall with a loose, fluffy bud structure, allowing them to grow and reproduce very quickly and became known as sativas. Sativa varieties even made it over to the new world by way of the Spanish Invasion of South America.These different regional varieties are what became known as the “Landrace Strains”, and these are considered to be the genetic forebears of all the strains that we know today.
A landrace strain can best be described as cannabis that has come from a specific region which has not been crossbred with any other strain, and are considered to be genetically “pure” sativa or indica cultivars. Strains like Hindu Kush, Moroccan red, Durban Poison, and Acapulco Gold are all examples of landrace strains, illustrating just how far this plant has spread and how adaptable it is. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about these strains is how different locations and growing conditions can affect such drastic differences in taste, smell, and effect. Differences which came fully to light in the early 1960’s, when strains from Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan were brought to Northern California by adventurous stoners who had hiked the fabled “Hippie Highway” and returned with seeds. Conditions are very similar in the two regions, both being mountainous terrain on roughly the same parallel, allowing for these strains to adapt quickly, producing new phenotypes in the process.
As growers came across all these different strains, the first intentional crosses between the two subspecies began to spring up all over California and the West coast. Strains that are now world famous such as Skunk, Big Bud, Haze, Northern Lights, and many others made their debut between 1960 and the mid 1980s in a frenzy of crossbreeding. Even the U.S. Government got in on the action, breeding the strain G-13 at the University of Mississippi in an effort to understand more about the plant. One night somebody stole the seeds to the strain and soon enough, people were smoking government weed. Strains developed during this time are referred to as heirloom strains and they are still highly prized for their unique flavors and highs. Eventually, the cross-breeding fever spread overseas to the Netherlands, where legal tolerance allowed for a more scientific approach to breeding. Dutch breeders went figuratively nuts, producing a litany of new hybrids like Dutch Treat, and Cherry Pie. In fact, many of the hybrid strains that we know now were produced by dutch growers during this time.
In this day and age, there are so many variants, it’s nearly impossible to keep them all straight. With genetic lines ranging from 95% pure indica or sativa, to lineages which have been scrambled to the dank smelling winds, finding the perfect strain can be difficult. Additionally, strains which were at one time staples of the cannabis world have become difficult, some even say impossible, to come across. An industry wide lack of desire to cultivate the old strains, combined with the danger of transporting landraces from their native homes are definitely not helping in regards to reviving these older strains. All’s not lost however, as a large number of growers have been dedicating resources towards reviving the old landraces and heirlooms.
As humans continue to grow and change as a species, so to does our oldest friend. Cannabis is as versatile and ever changing as the people who grow and smoke it, leading to a symbiosis that has stood the test of time. We must be cautious however, if we lose touch with the origins of cannabis we run the risk of losing strains and their unique effects. Understanding where our favorite strains come from and how they grow is important to maintaining the genetic integrity and quality of smoke from our favorite strains for years to come. Hopefully, with the proper care and attention, we can continue to innovate without losing touch with our roots.
- by Budtender Andrew