Sativa and Indica: Are There Any Pure Strains out There?

Sativa and Indica

The terms Cannabis Sativa L. and Cannabis Indica Lam. were created many years ago to identify the two species of the Cannabaceae family. Nowadays, these names go by the more familiar terms Sativa and Indica.



After hundreds of years of breeding and blending these plants for potency, aroma, flavor, and cerebral effects, one question remains: Are there any more true Sativas or Indicas out there today?

Differences Between Cannabis Plants

Sativa and Indica are wildly different from each other –from the plants’ appearances and growing styles to the cerebral effects you experience when consuming,

types of cannabis indica and sativaTypically a Sativa plant is taller with larger leaves. These plants also produce highs that provide mental stimulation and a clear-headed high. Indicas typically grow shorter and bushier and produce a high that will help you sleep and relax.

We have no idea exactly how long cannabis has been growing on Earth, but we do have evidence of humans using cannabis thousands of years ago in the East. The original cannabis landraces have been traced all the way back to Central and Southern Asia.

Wild cannabis was also found from the Middle East all the way to China and Mongolia. Despite growing in similar latitudes across the globe, these varieties of cannabis began developing differently.

Cannabis, like every other living being, has had the chance to evolve and adapt to the environment. Sativas and Indicas grew apart from each other because of the different climates. The geography ranges from the lowlands of the Hindu Kush valleys, the foothills of the Himalayas, and the peaks of the Rif mountains in Morocco.

Cannabis is a highly heterozygous, wind-pollinated dioecious plant, and a lot of cannabis strains are cloned in order to maintain their genetic identity. Strain names are assigned to these plants even as they are grown from seed, unlike apples and grapes for example.

A cannabis strain name doesn’t always mean that the plant is genetically unique, either. Scientists have found that in 6 of 17 comparisons (35%), some cannabis samples were more genetically similar to strains with different names than to samples with identical names. They go on to conclude that the genetic identity of a marijuana strain cannot be reliably guessed by its name or reported ancestry.

Finding Purity

Odds are you’ve been to several dispensaries that have their Sativa, Indica, and hybrid strains proudly displayed on a spectrum. Some friends and coworkers have probably claimed that these broad descriptions definitely describe the effects. For example, a “pure Indica” will help you get to sleep and that “100% Sativa” that will give you mental clarity and a nice head buzz. While these strains are often very close to original Sativas and Indicas, you’ll usually find they are all hybrids after tracing the lineage using genetics. The pure Sativa or Indica qualities have been bred out in order for us to get the potency we desire.

Recently, a pair of Canadian scientists published a new study on the matter in the peer-reviewed cannabis journal PLOS ONE. They found Indicas and Sativas may have been clearly distinct a long time ago, but the constant cross-breeding over the years has created more hybridization than anything else. Now it’s almost impossible to tell which traits belonged to the original landrace cannabis.

The findings were published in the journal as follows:

“Although the taxonomic separation of the putative taxa C. sativa and C. indica remains controversial, a vernacular taxonomy that distinguishes between “Sativa” and “Indica” strains is widespread in the marijuana community. Sativa-type plants, tall with narrow leaves, are widely believed to produce marijuana with a stimulating, cerebral psychoactive effect while Indica-type plants, short with wide leaves, are reported to produce marijuana that is sedative and relaxing.

We find that the genetic structure of marijuana is in partial agreement with strain-specific ancestry estimates obtained from various online sources. We observe a moderate correlation between the positions of marijuana strains along the first principal component and reported estimates of C. sativa ancestry. This relationship is also observed for the second principal component.

This observation suggests that C. sativa and C. indica may represent distinguishable pools of genetic diversity, but that breeding has resulted in considerable admixture between the two. While there appears to be a genetic basis for the reported ancestry of many marijuana strains, in some cases the assignment of ancestry strongly disagrees with our genotype data.

As an example, the pair found that Jamaican Lamb’s Bread, which is always reported as a pure Sativa, is genetically identical to a pure Indica from Afghanistan. They went on to write “…a similar level of misclassification was found in strains obtained from Dutch coffee shops based on chemical composition. The inaccuracy of reported ancestry in marijuana likely stems from the predominantly clandestine nature of Cannabis growing and breeding over the past century.

The study also pointed out that the term hybrid was recently born so that medical patients can easily classify the effects they will receive. If you’ve ever heard of a strain being Indica or Sativa dominant, you can understand the genetic designation for newer strains. It’s helpful for describing a plant’s morphological characteristics and therapeutic effects, but most of the time, you’re smoking true hybrids that contain very little characteristics from the original true species.

“From an industry standpoint, there have been moves toward developing more consistency,” said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “There’s no real centralized information, so it’s difficult for people to tell one strain of Strawberry Kush from the next.”

It appears that the original landrace Sativa strains are all gone though their names still exist. Thai, Burmese, Pakistani, and Mexican are all examples of long-gone landrace Sativas. Afghani, Hindu Kush, Moroccan, and Ketama strains were the pure landrace Indicas.

The strains we know and love are all hybridized children. Haze, Blue Dream, and Strawberry Cough are all well-recognized Sativa dominant hybrids. Girl Scout Cookies, Granddaddy Purple, and Blueberry are all Indica-dominant hybrids. In short, there is no such thing as a pure Indica or a pure Sativa anymore.