Widespread cannabis legalization has seen a new generation of cannabis enthusiasts emerging along with a wave of research into the medical applications of the plant. Most people think they have a pretty good understanding of what makes the two different but what is the actual difference between Indica and Sativa?
The two species of the Cannabis genus that are most commonly grown are Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Sativa. Within the scientific community, some debate exists around whether there is a taxonomic difference between the two but what we all want to know is what the difference is in terms of its physical structure, effects and medicinal values – so what are the defining differences between the two?
Generally, most believe that an Indica strain will give you more of a sedative, relaxing high – something you would perhaps smoke before bed – while a Sativa strain will give you a creative head high, leaving you feeling awake and able to be active. Getting some cleaning done around the house is always easiest with a nice Sativa strain like Jack Herer; one good bowl and you’ll be good to go for a while!
Each strain has its own range of effects on the body and mind, resulting in a wide range of medicinal benefits but in most cases, strains that you would find at a dispensary or from a local source would tend to be hybrids. Pure strains are really difficult to find and hybrids take the best from one strain and combine it with that of another. Via interbreeding, you can isolate certain traits and properties, such as smell, internodal distance and bud density to get the best characteristics of each parent plant.
Those ‘differences’ were used to describe the different variations of the Cannabis plant, whether in grow patterns or effects. But, with the science catching up with the legalization of cannabis, scientific research and testing has shown that as far as the effects go – it’s not the Indica/Sativa what makes the difference but rather different terpene profiles and cannabinoid ratios.
And although, both Sativas and Indicas, in general, tend to have different terpene and cannabinoids profiles, it’s quite possible to breed those into any cannabis strain, no matter if it would be considered Indica or Sativa. Generally, Indica plants tend to have more of earthy, woody and spicy flavors and aromas and Sativas tend to have more of a sweet, flowery and fruity vibe going on.
The same goes for effects – although Indicas are considered to be more relaxing and sleepy and Sativas are more uplifting, energetic and euphoric, it’s the cannabinoids and terpenes that are responsible for those effects.
The effects of Indica or Indica-dominant strain is commonly known to be a relaxing, sedative effect, ideal for use before bed or for those who have trouble sleeping. In addition to often being very high-potency, Indica plants tend to have strong mind-altering effects. In some instances, there have been reports of people having psychedelic experiences, where they can see visuals and feel their thoughts drifting in and out of reality which may be appealing to some but perhaps not to others! Cannabis Indica has many medicinal qualities including but not limited to pain relief, nausea relief and to help stimulate the appetite.
In contrast to Indica, Cannabis Sativa tends to have a more uplifting and cerebral high. This can include feeling slightly light headed and buzzed, having increased creativity and perhaps even wanting to be productive and getting things done.
Similarly, to Indica strains Sativa also has a multitude of medicinal properties. The Sativa effects (uplifting, creativity) are commonly used by people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental disorders, although in same cases the energetic buzz can make anxiety worse.
The term hybrid is misleading and quite useful at the same time because the use of it in conjunction with the terms ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ makes it seem as if there are far more pure indica/sativa strains than there actually are. In fact, most popular strains of cannabis which you would think are definitively Indica or Sativa, are actually hybrids! This is primarily because:
- Pure strains often have one or more undesirable attributes, whether being low potency, being disease prone or level of difficulty during the growing process.
- You can combine different attributes from different strains to get a more unique experience.
Why would one want to cross two strains to make a hybrid?
Breeders make hybrids for two reasons – to add desirable treats and to eliminate less desirable treats. Let’s say you want to add a smell of gas onto a floral smelling strain, or you want to shorten the flowering time of a certain strain, or you want to create a shorter, more bushier plant, or you want a plant that has more CBD, or you want to make a strain that will be an autoflower or one more resistant to pathogens and pests, you can cross your strain with a strain that exhibits those characteristics.
Cannabis Indica grows freely in countries like India, Pakistan and Afghanistan where it is usually processed into some form of hashish while Cannabis Sativa is most often found in places near the equator such as Indonesia and South America. Colombia is home to many landrace strains; strains which have grown indigenous in the same area without any external influence/manipulation. These strains often offer high-quality genetics and make very good parents to isolate certain properties from.
So while it might be easier to classify effects of cannabis by the cannabis variety, it’s important to realize that the effects of cannabis on the human body is more dependent on the ratio of cannabinoids and terpenes within the bud, not the variety of the cannabis itself. For instance, it is possible to get Sativa-dominant strain which still has some properties you would attribute to an Indica strain and vice versa.
Indica plants tend to be shorter and bushier while Sativa plants tend to be taller and have lots of space in between nodes. The bushy stature of an Indica is accentuated by its large, broad leaves while Sativa plants tend to have long, finger-like leaves which are closer to what a stereotypical cannabis leaf looks like. Both are a response to environmental conditions those plants grow in. It’s reported that growing what’s considered to be a Sativa in different conditions will result in same plant exhibiting more of an Indica kind of characteristics.
The broader leaves and shorter stature of an Indica plant are due to their shorter flowering season which often makes them a good choice for growing (both personal and commercial). As shorter flowering seasons often mean a cooler climate, these strains are more suited to grow in a cool environment, whether it is indoor or outdoor. A strain like Northern Lights is a great example of this.
Sativa plants grow in regions which have longer summers and so they have far longer flowering periods than their Indica counterparts. While this may be an inconvenience for some, most growers who are patient to wait out often 10-12 week flower periods can expect to be rewarded with long colas of terpy goodness.
Throughout this article, there has been no mention of there being any variety of cannabis other than Sativa or Indica. However, there is a third variety of cannabis called cannabis Ruderalis. This is a low-THC species of cannabis which is native to Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Due to its geographical location, it experiences extremely short summers hence it flowers very early in the cycle. Modern growers have utilized this to create “autoflowering” strains which automatically flower after 3-4 weeks of vegetative growth.
So, while ‘Indica’ and ‘Sativa’ refer to taxonomic classification terms, as far us users and growers are concerned, the two terms refer to two unique cannabis experiences; one that is relaxing and one that is uplifting. But it isn’t the variety of cannabis which influences which effects are experienced, rather it’s the amount and ratio of different cannabinoids and terpenes which cause the effects we all know and love. The second thing that people use to differentiate the two are growing patterns but they too can be mixed, depending largely on the conditions the plants are grown in.
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