At the time of writing, there were well over 1,000 marijuana strains available. This includes strains from famous families such as Kush and Diesel, but it does NOT mean that there are thousands of cannabis species. Although the number of species within the marijuana family is often disputed, there are three recognized ones:
- Cannabis Sativa
- Cannabis Indica
- Cannabis Ruderalis
Technically, cannabis is a dioecious flowering herb that offers a single harvest each year. However, in the modern era, advanced growing techniques and auto-flowering strains mean growers can enjoy several harvests each year.
The Evolution of Cannabis
Scientists like to use biological taxonomy to determine how various species of flora and fauna are related to one another, and here is a very simple overview:
- Individual species are grouped into genera, which is the plural of genus.
- Genera are placed into different families.
- Families are placed into different orders and on it goes.
As far as weed is concerned, it is a genus of the Cannabacaeae family. Approximately six million years ago, marijuana diverged from the genus homulus which we now call ‘hops.’ Yes, those articles you read which claim there is a link between beer and weed are correct.
Scientists are unable to agree on how the cannabis genus was broken into species. It is not known whether it was environmental changes or human interference that resulted in the three species of marijuana we have today. While it is normal to assume that mankind was responsible, you have to remember that the cannabis genus was around several million years before man was able to have an impact on weed growth one way or the other.
During the last few million years, the world has undergone immense changes including dramatic rises and falls in temperature, not to mention the vast ice sheets that once covered the Earth. In warmer eras, weed spread north as the ice melted. During the bitter cold eras, weed was forced to move south.
Sativa is the most commonly grown cannabis species, and for a long time, it was assumed that all marijuana was sativa. Carl Linnaeus was the first to classify the genus in 1753 and believed it was monotypic (one species), which he elected to call Cannabis Sativa L. (the L stands for Linnaeus).
Sativa plants grow extremely tall, and it is not usual for them to exceed 15 feet. It doesn’t grow thick, and its leaves are narrow and long. The seeds feel soft between your fingers and have no markings. Sativa plants take much longer to flower than their indica counterparts and aren’t affected by light changes as much. On the plus side, they tend to have a shorter vegetative period than indicas.
You will normally find Sativa plants in nations below a latitude of 30 degrees North. These countries include Thailand, Mexico, and Colombia. It is normal for the sativa plant to be dried before it is cooked and consumed. It is not a species that gets you stoned, although you will feel a psychoactive ‘high.’
It is often assumed that all sativas provide you with an energy boost and heightened creativity, but that isn’t necessarily true. In the medical field, Sativas are preferred for depression, mood disorders, and fatigue.
Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck published a description of a second cannabis species, which he called Cannabis Indica Lam. His description was based on plants collected in India. It was his opinion that indicas had poorer fiber quality than sativas, but also said it was a more potent method of getting inebriated.
For the record, strains from Vietnam and China were categorized into new species called Cannabis gigantea Delile ex Vilmorin and Cannabis Chinensis Delile in the 1800s. However, taxonomists found it tough to distinguish these ‘new’ species. As a result, practically all of the world, barring the Soviet Union, went into the 1900s under the assumption that there was only one cannabis species.
Of course, indica plants are very different to Sativas. They are shorter (rarely growing taller than 6 feet) and stockier. These bushy plants are more prone to mold in humid conditions because of the dense foliage. Their leaves are round and robust, and the seeds are marbled and soft between the fingers.
As indica plants are short, they are the preferred option for indoor growers. This species flowers faster than sativas and it is easier to adjust the light cycle to manipulate the plants into flowering. You normally find indica plants above 30 degrees North, including in countries such as Morocco, Afghanistan, and Lebanon.
Indica plants are normally more sedative than sativas and are known for providing a deep feeling of relaxation. In the medical field, this type of weed is used for calming anxiety, muscle spasms, muscle relaxation, and insomnia.
The third cannabis species was not identified until 1924. A Russian botanist called D. E. Janichevsky determined that the cannabis type found in the center of Russia was an entirely different species of the genus. It wasn’t until the 1970s that botanists in North America finally agreed that there were three distinct species.
Even today, almost 100 years after its ‘discovery,’ Ruderalis is rarely mentioned, nor is it a favorite of crossbreeders. It is a very short plant that normally grows to about two feet tall. It has extremely thick foliage and typically grows in the world’s northern regions.
Ruderalis is an extremely tough and durable plant, and also has a fast and early flowering cycle. This is because its cold climate means there isn’t much time for it to mature before the freezing weather sets in. Ruderalis’ most common usage is to produce autoflowering strains. Ruderalis by itself doesn’t have a strong psychoactive effect, but when you mix it with a high THC strain, you could end up with an auto-flowering strain that gets you very high.
This is a variety of the Cannabis Sativa plant, and hemp fiber is used for clothing, paper, and even automotive parts. It is a viable alternative to trees for several uses, because a full crop takes just 3-4 months to grow. From 1937 until 2018, growing hemp was federally illegal, but thanks to the Farm Bill, hemp growers can generate this cash crop legally, as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC. You can extract CBD from hemp to create oil and other products, but it won’t get you high.
A hybrid is a strain that is the result of crossbreeding. The goal is to create a strain that has many of its parents’ positive traits and few of the negative ones. It is becoming increasingly common to combine an indica with a sativa. Even if you get an indica-dominant hybrid, it doesn’t mean the strain will make you sleepy because the sativa traits could provide a boost in energy.
A Note on Male & Female Plants
Male plants are used to pollinate females to create seeds. When a male plant reaches its flowering stage, pollen is released which sticks to the female plant and is absorbed by its pistils. Female plants produce the THC-filled buds you desire and are the type of weed you need to grow if you wish to get high.
Hermaphrodite plants contain male and female sexual organs. A ‘hermie’ plant is capable of fertilizing itself which can be useful from a breeding perspective.
Final Thoughts on Cannabis Species
Regardless of what you hear elsewhere, there ARE distinct differences between marijuana strains. Its three species all exhibit various traits and prefer different growing conditions. Sativa plants grow tall and thin and provide you with a psychoactive high that may help you become more alert.
Indica plants grow short and bushy and offer a more sedative experience. Meanwhile, Ruderalis plants are the shortest of all and don’t offer potent psychoactive properties.