One of the very first and most common questions asked by new marijuana consumers is, “What’s the difference between indica and sativa plants?” Throw a third option in to the mix — “hybrid” — and even veteran connoisseurs get confused by this classification system.
The most distinguishing characteristics of indica and sativa plants include such factors as geographical origin, morphology, flowering time, yield, flavor, and effect.
To begin, let’s examine the fundamental issue of classification.
1. The Classification Controversy
There exists an intense, ongoing debate within the scientific community over the classification of cannabis:
- The species was first classified by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. Linnaeus essentially contended that since all varieties (strains) of cannabis can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, they constitute a single species.
- The first, modern challenge to Linneaus’ ‘single species’ theory was by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785. Lamarck used the term “C.indica” to refer to Indian cannabis, which he argued differed from “C.sativa,” the type of cannabis found commonly in Europe. Lamarck’s classification heavily influenced popular notions of the difference between sativa and indica.
- Today, the scientific community remains heavily divided over exact classification. For example, while some insist that cannabis is a single species, others describe up to four: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, Cannabis rederalis, and Cannabis afghanica (or kafiristanica).
- For years, the difference between sativa and indica has been reflected in the names of their respective strains. By unofficial convention, strains associated with indica have been referred to as “Kush” (for the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan). On the other hand, sativa strains have been associated with the name “Haze.” These terms are entirely arbitrary. In fact, the names of strains today — ranging from celebrity names to pornographic references — are ultimately nothing more than the product of fertile imaginations or clever marketing ploys.
Outside the scientific community, one of the most common methods used to explain the difference between indica and sativa is based on geography.
- The often harsh environments under which cannabis plants evolved does help explain the hearty and highly-adaptable nature of the species.
- The differences in plant size/leaf shape is most likely attributable to how each species adopted to different climate regimes:
Indica — Believed to have originated in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. The short, stubby nature of the indica evolved to deal with hot, dry conditions.
Sativa — Believed to have originated along the Equator, e.g. Thailand. The thin, lanky stems of the sativa allowed the plant to respirate and aerate more efficiently in hot, humid climates.
While the genetic difference between indica and sativa is, indeed, small, it is significant.
Outwardly, the most noticeable difference between sativa and indica is appearance (What scientists call “morphology”):
- Generally a light green color
- Tall and lanky — Normally grow 8-12 feet high, but can reach 18-20 feet under optimum conditions.
- Long, thin, ‘wispy’ narrow leaves
- Airy or “loose’ branch structure
- Generally a dark green color
- Relatively short and stout — Grows 3-4 feet in height
- Shorter, stocker, leaf shape
- Denser, more compact flower cluster
As with appearance, the difference between sativa and indica is also notable in their effects. While there are general differences in physiological effect on mind/body, the heavy number of new strains brought about by hybridization have blurred sharp, precise distinctions.
- Produces a sense of euphoria and heightened energy
- A cerebral, ‘giddy,’ exhilarating, or hallucinogenic high
- A good sativa should be as stimulating as a strong cup of coffee. Best used during the day!
- Relaxing and calming effect
- Creates a “body buzz” or “couch lock”
- Similar to taking a sleeping pill. Best used for relaxing or sleeping!
5. Smell and Flavor
Another distinguishing difference between sativa and indica is taste. However, because there are so many strains on the market, there is an endless variety of flavors.
Sativa: Known for being quite pungent, sativa strains offer sweet aromas with earthy undertones of pepper and even ammonia. Smell can be musty, woody, “earthy” or “dank.”
Indica: The buds of indica have a distinct sweet and sour odor, ranging in flavor from bitter to sweet and fruity (Strawberry, blackberry, and blueberry being very common).
6. Flowering Time
Another difference between sativa and indica is flowering time, or when a plant begins to produce resinous buds. The time can vary considerably:
- Accustomed to warm climates, Sativa grows best outdoors.
- Takes a while to flower: Typically 12-14 weeks
- Able to flourish in much harsher growing conditions. Originating in the cold, mountainous climate of the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan. As a result, Indica produces a thick, cannabinoid-dense resin meant to protect itself.
- Typically flowers between 8-9 weeks.
7. Yield Size
- 3 ounces to one pound per plant
- Larger yields, but lower levels of THC (~10-25%).
- 1.5 to 2.5 ounces per plant
- Lower yields, but higher levels of THC (~18% THC).
8. A Short Note on Hybrids
With literally thousands of different cannabis plants being bred, it’s easiest for breeders and consumers to classify the varieties as either an indica or sativa strain. The hybrid category was adopted later as growers began crossbreeding and mixing genetics from different cannabis plants. The resulting hybrid will grow, mature, and smoke as a consequence of its genetic traits and lineage.
There are a number of different hybrid categories. For example:
- In most cases, these strains are best reserved for nighttime dosing, but some strains also offer more active highs, great for mood elevation.
- These hybrids produce a relaxing, full-body high while also providing ocular effects and mental relaxation.
- Those with autoimmune diseases prefer indica-dominant hybrids.
- These hybrids offer the robust cerebral high as is customary in sativa strains, but are bred with the shorter flowering time and heavier yields of indica plants. Since these strains typically contain smaller amounts of THC, they are perfect for daytime use.
3) “Even” Hybrids (i.e. “50/50”)
- Individuals seeking the optimal balance of effects, 50/50 hybrid strains accomplish just that. They offer the perfect combination of both mind and body relief.
9. The Difference Between Sativa and Indica: A Reality Check
The difference between sativa and indica is not necessarily as clean and precise as many consumers would believe. There are literally thousands of different varieties (or “strains”) of cannabis.
- Oftentimes, the difference between sativa and indica, between one variety and another, is based on personal experience and/or word of mouth.
- The amount — and mixture of — cannabinoids, terpenoids, and flavonoids in any
given variety leads to a (virtually) endless of number of combinations.
- The body of scientific literature regarding the specific, quantified, medicinal effects of various combinations or “menus” of constituent ingredients is sparse.
- By one estimate, an estimated 99% of all cannabis on the market today is some form of hybrid. “Pure,” original strains of Sativas and Indicas are uncommon on the US market.
- The consumer may not obtain the effect they seek, because growing conditions have a significant impact, even on stabilized strains: Often strains can manifest new characteristics.
- The specific effect of THC, whether Sativa or Indica, is the same; the key mitigating factors are the actual amounts of THC and/or CBD present in the cannabis.
Cannabis is a complex plant, offering an array of benefits to its consumers. The combinations of strains are endless as are the medical utility, effect, and potency of every strain.
- As breeders continue to develop new strains of cannabis plants, it’s important to note that not every strain is going to affect every consumer in the same way. Individuals who dose more regularly will obviously have a higher tolerance than individuals who dose less frequently.
- Delivery methods can also affect the reaction consumers have to the same exact strain. Consumers are encouraged to take care when selecting strains and dosages as to reduce the risk of potential side effects.
Which strain or variation should a customer use? The choice is yours. Just be aware of some of the larger, underlying differences between the sativa and indica. Don’t get lost in cute or clever names. Try an assortment of diverse types. See what works — and doesn’t. Experimentation is the key…
Be smart. Be safe. And enjoy!