Moving Beyond Sativa and Indica

Sativa Indica.jpeg

An inherent part of cannabis culture is the calling out of varieties based on clever, sometimes comical, names. Some recent exemplars describe a region of origin, flavor, fragrance, or other plant characteristic, such as Mowie Wowie, Blueberry, or Purple Urkle. Other names are more abstract, such as Dawgwalker or Astral Works. 

A classic naming system used by botanists, and widely adopted by breeders, growers, and the cannabis consumer, is based on the binomial nomenclature foundation of Cannabis sativa. Cannabis sativa was first introduced in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, whose method for classifying plants and animals is still the basis of our modern taxonomical system.

Linnaeus’s work includes five different names; however, the name Sativa is used for the entire species. The other names are not used for different varieties, but the different biological sexes of the plant. The recognition for proposing Cannabis indica as a separate species goes to the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamark.

This classic naming system has been debated by scientists for centuries now—a storied debate has occurred to determine if the plant we know as Cannabis should be a single species or multiple species.

We will leave it up to the botanists to provide the expert opinion on species classification based on morphological attributes of the plant. What we will attempt to do in this brief post is contribute to the conversation of cannabis taxonomy that is moving beyond sativa and indica.

With the advancement of analytical techniques, the understanding of endocannabinoid pharmacological systems, and overall the increase of regulated cannabis markets at the State level has provided new channels for previously highly restricted research opportunities.

With new research ongoing, and an ever-growing data pool, we now see that the phytochemical makeup of Cannabis sp. is diverse and prolific—and may not always be related to the morphology of a plant.

A skinny leaf variety that grows tall may have a cannabinoid and terpene content that is uplifting and energizing similar to what many call ‘sativa’, BUT, a similar looking plant may have a more sedative and muscle relaxing effect similar to what many call ‘indica’.

It is not the shape of the leaves or other plant morphology that imparts the experience when consuming the plant—it is the cannabinoids and terpenes in the plant.

With the increase of cannabis breeding, using a basis in genetic and phytochemical makeup, we will continue to see novel hybridization that results in unique characteristics in Cannabis. Hopefully this breeding work will provide both beautiful specimen flowers and a diversity of phytochemical profiles that brings new wellness, medical, social, and industrial applications for the plant.

Jeremy L. Sackett