Cannabis sativa vs. indica vs. ruderalis – What’s in a (Latin) name?

The few times I’ve visited dispensaries in legal states the cannabis products were always described as Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica or hybrids.  In Alaska I tried two gummies and found them to be very different.  One was described as:

“707 HEADBAND: INDICA  |  18.7-21.2% THC. An indica dominant hybrid known for its potency, 707 Headband has uplifting and happy effects while also providing deep relaxation. Originating from Humbolt County (area code 707) in Northern California, Headband is a combination of NY City Sour Diesel, OG Kush and Master Kush.”

The other was described as:

“DURBAN POISON: SATIVA  |  17.2% THC. Known as the “espresso of cannabis”, Durban Poison is one of the most sought after strains in the world. Whether you’re exploring the Alaskan wilderness or just want to vacuum your house, this pure sativa will get have you ready for activity. Listed as one of the 25 Top Strains of All Time by Hightimes Magazine.”

I did find them to be quite different.  The “Sativa” was definitely more activating and made me a little paranoid.  The “Indica dominant hybrid” was more sedating and I was pretty mellow.   I preferred the Indica – but what was it I was really preferring?
Traditionally Cannabis sativa was thought to be taller, with thinner leaves and more uplifting – for daytime use.  Cannabis indica was shorter with fatter leaves and more sedating – for nighttime use.  Cannabis ruderalis was a weedy “roadside” cannabis from Eastern Europe and Russia that bloomed more quickly than the other varieties.  Genes from ruderalis have been bred into some modern varieties to produce “auto-flowering” plants that produce flowers more quickly, regardless of day length.

Lexis-Olivier Ray interviewed Aaron Riley, president and co-founder of Van Nuys-based Cannasafe, one of the nations most prominent cannabis testing facilities for an article in LA Taco. Riley reported that

“Almost all of [the] current crops have been crossed and are somewhat hybridized. Also the terpenes, which really deliver the effects associated with the indicia-sativa argument, are present in both strains,”

All cannabis (including marijuana and hemp) is now considered botanically to be Cannabis sativa.  Differences between strains are largely due to different combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes (and possibly other substances).  This is the same “entourage effect” that results in full-spectrum cannabis products being more effective than isolated substances like CBD isolate and THC isolate.

According to Riley:

The Entourage Effect is what happens with different combinations of terpenes and cannabinoids. This is why smoking cannabis that contains different cannabinoids and terpenes is better and more effective than drugs like Marinol which is Synthetic THC Delta 9,”

So how do you know what to buy?  Buy cannabis that includes Certificates of Analysis (COAs) from independent testing laboratories.  These certificates should list the cannabinoids and terpenes present, as well as whether any harmful chemicals were detected.  Make notes on how different terpenes affect you and read up on different strains.  It’s also fine to use “Indica” vs “Sativa” and a rule-of-thumb to let you know if a strain is sedating (indica) or uplifting and possibly paranoia-inducing (sativa) – but be aware that these labels may not reflect the actual genetics of the plant.


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