Sativa – Cannabis Sativa

A term often used in the cannabis consumer marketplace to describe a cannabis product with uplifting, cerebral, and energetic effects. Though as research evolves, it’s become clear that cannabis effects are more complex than sativa vs. indica, with the former offering a more energizing experience and the latter providing more relaxation. Cannabis sativa cultivars feature long, thin fan leaves and tend to have long flowering times. The slender sativa leaf can have as many as 13 fingers. Sativas flourish in warmer climates and can naturally grow up to 12 feet tall in a season. Source

What Is Sativa?

To the consumer, both sativa and indica are heavily associated with their perceived effect profiles. Most cannabis users will hear the term sativa and think of an energizing, uplifting, and cerebral experience.

The industry uses this association as a way to market sativa and indica cultivars, and thousands of other cannabis products. But the effects we typically associate with sativa aren’t always produced by sativa plants, nor do indicas always deliver indica-like effects. In fact, effects share no connection with the physical structure of today’s cannabis plants.The terms sativa and indica are far more useful for cultivators than for consumers. In cultivation, sativa is commonly used to describe a plant’s morphology, or physical characteristics, during growth. Sativas tend to be taller than indicas and have long, thin leaves, while indicas are much shorter and contain broad, short leaves. Sativas also take much longer to mature during the flowering stage, with flowering times of up to 100 days.

Taxonomic History

The term sativa is a derivative of the Latin botanical adjective sativum, meaning cultivated. The earliest recorded usage of sativa as a cannabis term comes from English herbalist William Turner’s The Names of Herbes (1548), in which Cannabis sativa is the scientific name given to cultivated hemp.

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus ascribed the name C. sativa to what he considered the only species of the genus Cannabis in 1753. Thirty-two years later, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified Cannabis indica as a separate species from Cannabis sativa, arguably cementing the foundation of our current sativa/indica taxonomy.

Lamarck primarily based his C. indica classification on physical differences from Linnaeus’s C. sativa plant, including narrow, dark green leaves and denser branching. He also noted that C. indica was a more potent inebriant than C. sativa, marking the earliest instance of relating the plant’s effects to its type.

The shift from the Linnaeus’ C. sativa and Lamarck’s C. indica to our current definition of sativa and indica came in 1974 when American biologist Richard Evans Schultes applied the term C. indica to cannabis plants in Afghanistan. Schultes’ C. indica classification ended up having a huge impact on the development of our modern-day indica/sativa taxonomy, tying the indica variety to a distinct geographic origin. This would later be emulated by Loran C. Anderson, who designated Afghan plants as C. indica and Indian plants as C. sativa.

Today, we reserve the sativa label for plants that share common physical profiles. Most countries only recognize one species, Cannabis sativa, and it remains highly debated whether indica is a subspecies. Meanwhile, the marketplace still recognizes two varieties, sativa and indica.

What Is the Difference Between an Indica and a Sativa?

Separating sativa and indica plants according to growth traits and physical makeup is a useful, efficient practice for cultivators.  

The real difference between today’s sativa and indica plants is in their observable traits during the cultivation cycle. Sativa plants grow taller than indicas and have thinner leaves. Sativas also mature much more slowly than indicas, which tend to flower within 45-65 days as opposed to sativa’s 100 days.

Sativa plants have longer flowering cycles, fare better in warm climates with long seasons, and usually grow taller with narrow, light-green leaves. In landrace cultivars, sativas tend to produce higher concentrations of THCA relative to CBDA than indicas.

Crossbreeding has dominated the last 50 years of cannabis cultivation, virtually eliminating the possibility of encountering a pure sativa or indica. Classifying a particular cultivar as indica or sativa usually means that it tilts to one side or the other of a sativa/indica spectrum.

What Are the Effects of a Sativa?

While the sativa/indica taxonomy is efficient for cultivators, it doesn’t help consumers predict the effects of a given cannabis plant. Human intervention has dramatically changed the chemical makeup of cannabis. In the days of Linnaeus and Lamarck, the effects of C. sativa and C. indica plants may have aligned more closely with their physical characteristics. Today, a plant’s appearance tells us nothing about what kind of effect it will produce.

Is Sativa an Upper?

Within the cannabis community, the cannabis sativa plant is often characterized as having uplifting effects that produce a head high, while indicas are thought to be sedative and typically lead to an intense body high. Dr. Ethan Russo, a psychopharmacology researcher and board-certified neurologist on the forefront of cannabinoid research, explained in an interview published in the peer-reviewed journal “Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research,” that “the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility.” In reality, the effects of cannabis are based on the unique chemical profiles of each variety, rather than a genetic lineage.

For example, a landrace cultivar with indica lineage grown in a new environment could potentially produce a unique chemical profile that would cause uplifting effects.

Furthermore, cannabis effects have more to do with the makeup of a user’s individual endocannabinoid system than a plant’s genetic lineage. Individuals may have different experiences based on the way their endocannabinoid system interacts with a given profile of cannabinoids. One user may report feeling sedation and relaxation from a plant of sativa lineage while another will report an uplifting effect from the same plant.

If you go to your local dispensary today, you’ll probably be faced with product labeled either sativa, indica, or hybrid. The addition of hybrid to the cannabis lexicon is a sign that cannabis marketing is catching up to reality. All modern cultivars are technically hybrids.

Conclusion

Research has not yet caught up to the wealth of cannabis varieties in circulation today. Terpene and cannabinoid profiles are becoming more prominent in product marketing as the average cannabis consumer becomes more educated about the complex nature of the cannabis plant — and more sophisticated in their purchasing choices as a result.

As Dr. Ethan Russo explains, predicting the effects of a cannabis cultivar requires us to “quantify the biochemical components of a given Cannabis strain and correlate these with the observed effects in real patients.” If a cultivar delivers sativa-like effects, it will have more to do with terpene content than plant structure or possibly cannabinoid content. For example, cultivars high in limonene, whether sativa or indica, are very likely to facilitate an uplifted mood.

The terms sativa and indica are far more valuable for cultivators than they are for consumers. Until we collectively develop a new taxonomy to give consumers a better idea of what effects they’re signing up for, it’s important to remember that sativa plants are not guaranteed to produce sativa-like effects.

When browsing Leafly or purchasing cannabis at a dispensary, you may notice strains are commonly broken up into three distinct groups: indicasativa, and hybrid. Most consumers have used these three cannabis types as a standard for predicting effects.

Indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid: Know the effects of each cannabis type

Indica strain effects

Indica strains are believed to be physically sedating, which make them perfect for relaxing with a movie or as a nightcap before bed.

Sativa strain effects

Sativa strains are said to provide invigorating, uplifting cerebral effects that pair well with physical activity, social gatherings, and creative projects.

Hybrid strain effects

Hybrid strains are thought to fall somewhere in between the indica-sativa spectrum, depending on the traits they inherit from their parent strains.

This belief that indicas, sativas, and hybrids deliver distinct effects is so deeply rooted in mainstream cannabis culture that budtenders typically begin their strain recommendations by asking you which of these three types you prefer.

However, data collected by cannabis researchers suggests these categories aren’t as definitive as we thought—in other words, there’s little evidence to suggest that indicas and sativas exhibit a consistent pattern of chemical profiles that would make indicas inherently sedating and sativas uplifting. We know that indica and sativa cannabis strains look different and grow differently, but this distinction is primarily useful only to cannabis growers.

(Leafly)

So how exactly did the words “indica” and “sativa” become the standard descriptors for marijuana strains, and how meaningful are they when choosing a strain?

Indica vs. sativa: The origin and evolution of strain terminology

The words “indica” and “sativa” were introduced in the 18th century to describe different species of cannabis: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. The term sativa, named by Carl Linneaus, described hemp plants found in Europe and western Eurasia, where it was cultivated for its fiber and seeds. Cannabis indica, named by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, describes the intoxicating varieties discovered in India, where it was harvested for its seeds, fiber, and hashish production.

Although the cannabis varieties we consume largely stem from Cannabis indica, both terms are used—even if incorrectly—to organize the thousands of strains circulating the market today.

Here’s how terms have shifted since their earliest botanical definitions.

Sativa definition

“Sativa” is the tall, narrow-leaf variety of cannabis plants thought to induce energizing effects. However, these narrow-leaf drug (NLD) varieties were originally Cannabis indica ssp. indica.

Examples of sativa strains:

Indica definition

“Indica” is the stout, broad-leaf variety of cannabis plants thought to deliver sedating effects. These broad-leaf drugs (BLD) varieties are technically Cannabis indica ssp. afghanica.

Examples of indica strains:

Hemp definition

What we call “hemp” refers to the industrial, non-intoxicating varieties harvested primarily for fiber, seeds, and CBD. However, this was originally named Cannabis sativa.

What is hybrid marijuana?

Hybrid strains are bred from both indica- and sativa-descended plants. Due to the long history of crossbreeding cannabis strains—much of it historically done underground to evade authorities—strains that have pure indica or pure sativa lineages are rare. Most strains referred to as “indica” or “sativa” are, in fact, hybrids, with genetics inherited from both subspecies.

Examples of hybrid strains:

With the mass commercialization of cannabis, the taxonomic distinctions between cannabis species and subspecies got turned on its head and set in stone. It seems the contemporary use of indica, sativa, and hybrid descriptors is here to stay, but as an informed consumer, you should understand the practical value of these categories—which brings us to the research.

New research on indica and sativa strains

The indica, sativa, and hybrid system we use to predict cannabis effects is no doubt convenient, especially when first entering the vast, overwhelming world of cannabis. With so many strains and products to choose from, where else are we to begin?“The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs. short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.”Ethan Russo, cannabis researcher and neurologist

The answer is cannabinoids and terpenes, two words you should put in your back pocket if you haven’t already. We’ll get to know these terms shortly.

But first, we asked two prominent cannabis researchers if the sativa/indica classification should have any bearing on a consumer’s strain selection. Ethan Russo is a neurologist whose research in cannabis psychopharmacology is respected worldwide, and Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., is a chemist who founded the first independent testing lab, The Werc Shop, to analyze cannabis terpenes in a commercial capacity.

“The way that the sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense,” Russo told Leafly. “The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs. short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.”

Raber agreed, and when asked if budtenders should be guiding consumers with terms like “indica” and “sativa,” he replied, “There is no factual or scientific basis to making these broad sweeping recommendations, and it needs to stop today. What we need to seek to understand better is which standardized cannabis composition is causing which effects, when delivered in which fashions, at which specific dosages, to which types of [consumers].”

What this means is not all sativas will energize you, and not all indicas will sedate you. You may notice a tendency for these so-called sativas to be uplifting or for these indicas to be relaxing, especially when we expect to feel one way or the other. But there’s no hard-and-fast rule, and the chemical data doesn’t reflect a clear or perfect predictive, pattern.

If indica and sativa aren’t predictive of effects, what is?

The effects of any given cannabis strain depend on a number of different factors, including the product’s profile of compounds such as terpenes and cannabinoids, your unique biology and tolerance, dose, and consumption method. By understanding how these factors change the experience, you’ll have the best chance of finding that perfect strain for you.

Cannabinoids

The cannabis plant is composed of hundreds of chemical compounds that create a unique harmony of effects, which is primarily led by cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD (the two most common) are the main drivers of cannabis’ therapeutic and recreational effects.

  • THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) makes us feel hungry and high, and relieves symptoms like pain and nausea. For a full list of THC’s potential effects, read more here.
  • CBD (cannabidiol) is a non-intoxicating compound known to alleviate anxiety, pain, inflammation, and many other medical ailments.

Cannabis contains dozens of different cannabinoids, but start by familiarizing yourself with THC and CBD first. Instead of choosing a strain based on its indica/sativa/hybrid classification, consider basing your selection on these three buckets instead.

THC-dominant strains

THC-dominant strains are primarily chosen by consumers seeking a potent euphoric experience. These strains are also selected by patients treating pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more. If you tend to feel anxious with THC-dominant strains or dislike other side effects associated with THC, try a strain with higher levels of CBD.

Examples of THC-dominant strains:

CBD-dominant strains

CBD-dominant strains contain only small amounts of THC, and are widely used by those highly sensitive to THC or patients needing clear-headed symptom relief.

Balanced THC/CBD strains

Balanced THC/CBD strains contain similar levels of THC and CBD, offering mild euphoria alongside symptom relief. These tend to be a good choice for novice consumers seeking an introduction to cannabis’ signature high.

Cannabis strains present three distinct cannabinoid profiles called “chemotypes.” Space Queen is an example of a THC-dominant strain (as shown by diamond shapes), Canna-Tsu contains an approximate balance of THC and CBD (composed of both diamonds and circles), and Sour Tsunami has very little THC, but elevated levels of CBD (made up of only circles). (Leafly)

It’s worth noting that both indica and sativa strains exhibit these different cannabinoid profiles. “Initially most people thought higher CBD levels caused sedation, and that CBD was more prevalent in indica cultivars, which we now know is most definitely not the case,” Raber told Leafly. “We are more prone to see some CBD in sativa-like cultivars, but there isn’t a systemic rule or relationship in that regard.”

StrainSativa, Indica, or HybridAverage THC %
Sour DieselSativa19%
Jack HererSativa17.5%
Do-Si-DosIndica20.5%
Purple PunchIndica19.5%
Blue DreamHybrid19%
GelatoHybrid17.5%

Terpenes

If you’ve ever used aromatherapy to relax or invigorate your mind and body, you understand the basics of terpenes. Terpenes are aromatic compounds commonly produced by plants and fruit. They can be found in lavender flowers, oranges, hops, pepper, and of course, cannabis. Secreted by the same glands that ooze THC and CBD, terpenes are what make cannabis smell like berries, citrus, pine, fuel, etc.“Terpenes seem to be major players in driving the sedating or energizing effects.”Jeffrey Raber, Founder of the Werc Shop

While research has yet to uncover how terpenes, whether by themselves or combined with other terpenes, shape the effects of different cannabis strains, we do know that terpenes can make us feel stimulated or sedated, depending on which ones are produced. Pinene, for example, is an alerting terpene while linalool has relaxing properties. There are many types of terpenes in cannabis, and it’s worth familiarizing yourself with common terpenes—especially myrcene, caryophyllene, limonene, and terpinolene since they’re the most likely to have a pronounced presence in cannabis.

“Terpenes seem to be major players in driving the sedating or energizing effects,” Raber said. “Which terpenes cause which effects is apparently much more complicated than all of us would like, as it seems to [vary based on specific] ones and their relative ratios to each other and the cannabinoids.”

According to Raber, a strain’s indica or sativa morphology does not specifically determine these aromas and effects. However, you may find the consistency among individual strains. The strain Tangie, for example, delivers a distinctive citrus aroma, while DJ Short Blueberry should never fail to offer the hallmark scent of ripe berry.

So now we know that terpenes are responsible for the different aromas found in cannabis and that, according to early research, they may deliver unique therapeutic effects. But to what extent do they make a strain energizing or sedating? And are there patterns that could explain why indicas and sativas sometimes feel different?

Take a look at lab data illustrating terpene trends among indicas, sativas, and hybrids:

(Leafly)

Above, you’ll find the levels at which indica, sativa, and hybrid strains tend to produce common terpenes. They’re inclined to present relatively similar patterns in terpene profiles with some interesting points of variation, one of which is terpinolene.

Terpinolene is a terpene found at high levels in only a small subset of cannabis strains, most of which are sativas and hybrids. Some terpinolene-dominant strains you’ve probably seen or heard of include Dutch Treat, Jack Herer, Golden Goat, and Ghost Train Haze. You’ll find terpinolene in many strains related to these as Jack crosses (e.g., XJ-13, J1, Chernobyl) or Golden Goat hybrids (e.g., Golden Pineapple, Golden Ticket), indicating that there may be genetic consistency.

Still, a majority of sativa strains are not terpinolene-dominant. But if you’ve tried terpinolene-dominant strains in the past, you may have noticed they’re similar in effect. What this suggests is that strains with similar cannabinoid and terpene combinations may offer more reliable consistency in effects.

Terpene profiles also allow us to deepen our understanding of potential variations within each cannabis type. Let’s take three hybrid strains for example—ACDC, Chernobyl, and OG Kush.

All three of these are “hybrid” strains, but each may deliver very different effects. (Leafly)

Although each categorically identifies as “hybrids,” they’re vastly different strains on a chemical level. ACDC is a gentle CBD strain commonly chosen by those who are sensitive to THC and its anxious side effects. Chernobyl is a blissful and uplifting strain that is preferred by many for daytime activities. OG Kush delivers a heavy-handed punch of euphoria that is commonly chosen by seasoned smokers or reserved for evening sessions.

By going a step beyond their indica, sativa, or hybrid classification to consider cannabinoids and terpenes, you’re more likely to identify the specific strains you like or don’t like. If you can, smell the strains you’re considering for purchase. Find the aromas that stand out to you and give them a try. In time, your intuition and knowledge of cannabinoids and terpenes will guide you to your favorite strains and products.

Biology, dosing, and cannabis consumption method

Lastly, consider the following questions when choosing the right strain or product for you.

Strain consideration #1: How much experience do you have with cannabis?

If your tolerance is low, consider a low-THC strain in low doses.

Strain consideration #2: Are you susceptible to anxiety or other side effects of THC?

If so, try a strain high in CBD.

Strain consideration #3: Do you want the effects to last a long time?

There are many factors to consider when choosing a strain, but if you find that indica strains consistently deliver a positive experience, then by all means, stick to those. However, if you’re still searching for that ideal strain, these are important details to keep in mind.

What cannabis strain is right for you?

This may seem overwhelming, especially if you’re a budtender whose job it is to guide consumers to the right product. Ironically, the more you know about cannabis, the more questions seem to arise. But understanding the basic properties of cannabinoids, terpenes, and consumption methods will often answer the most fundamental question of cannabis: What product is right for me?

For budtenders, be aware of the basis of your recommendation, especially for customers treating medical ailments. Educate yourself on the benefits of different cannabinoids and terpenes, and use that knowledge to make a recommendation beyond the oversimplifications and marketing tactics embedded in the sativa/indica distinction.

“In the future, I’d like to see the terms ‘sativa’ and ‘indica’ be abandoned in favor of a system in which the consumer tells the budtender what s/he would like to have in terms of effects from their cannabis selection, and then study the offerings together,” Russo said. “If a buzz is all that is wanted, then high THC with limonene or terpinolene would be desirable. If someone, in contrast, has to work or study and treat their pain, then high CBD with low THC plus some alpha-pinene to reduce short-term memory impairment would be the ticket.”

Cannabis is a personal experience, and how you select it is, too. Understanding its nuances should help give you an alternative perspective on what qualities to look for in a strain. Some of you are happy to sit down with any strain, any time, and that’s okay. For others, this level of precision in strain selection is key to having a good experience—and feeling good is what cannabis is all about.

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