There’s a lot of buzz in the cannabis community surrounding the terms Indica vs Sativa, but what do they actually mean? Though clever generalizations like “indica = in-da-couch” may roll off the tongues of bud-tenders to help sell a product in a hurry, the intricacies of a strain’s effects are much more complex than simply “indica vs sativa?”.
What’s the Real Difference Between Indica vs Sativa?
Scientifically speaking, Cannabis Sativa L. (or “marijuana”, “pot”, “weed”, “ganja” or any other number dank terms for the kind of cannabis that gets you “high”) is from the same genus as hemp, Cannabis L. Therefore, any cannabis that gets you high (or rather, any plant with enough THC) can be considered a sativa. Nevertheless, the difference between indica and sativa strains is important to understand, especially for growers and breeders who want to give their plants the best environment to thrive. So what is the difference between the two, and why should you care? We’re glad you asked.
The Interagency Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) has further broken down the plant into two subspecies – indica vs sativa – but this distinction is largely based on where the plants originated and their resulting growth patterns, not their effects on the body.
Let’s take, for example, indicas that originated from the Hindu Kush Mountain Range where growing seasons were notoriously short and weather conditions more variable. The strain adapted to the conditions by maturing quicker; producing shorter, stockier plants and flowers; and coating themselves with a thick dusting of trichomes (where all the most important chemicals are), making them especially ideal for medical patients.
Conversely, sativa strains that come from warmer areas like Colombia, Thailand, and Mexico, have adapted to the uninterrupted sunny days with longer grow times; taller, lankier buds; and higher tolerance to heat. Sativas also tend to boast sweet or fruity flavors lending to their uplifting qualities, which leads us to a very important distinction in determining why different strains produce different effects.
Terpenes Play an Important Role in Indica vs Sativa
Terpenes are largely what determines the ambiance of a high. They’re typically the first thing someone notices when sniffing fresh flowers or opening a bag of carefully-cured dank due to their pungent aroma and (hopefully) awesome flavor. But terpenes play a much greater role in determining the outcome of a high than many people realize.
Terpenes have long been used therapeutically to help treat things like the common cold or a restless mind, and their abundance in cannabis has the same effect on our bodies. In fact, their effects are amplified when consumed in conjunction with cannabinoids like THC and CBD because they work on the same receptors in the body, dancing together in this sort of “entourage effect.”
When terpenes like floral linalool or citrusy limonene interact with cannabinoid receptors in the body, the effects are often an uplifted spirit and a reduced amount of pain. When these qualities are regularly attributed to a specific strain type — in this case, a common sativa trait — it is only natural that these generalizations would stick on one side of the indica vs sativa debate (just like the musky flavor of myrcene terpenes characteristic of many indica strains).
Using What You Learn to Find the Best Cannabis Strains
Just because a strain’s effects are not necessarily determined by whether they are more indica-dominant or more sativa-dominant does not mean the distinction isn’t important. To grow the best cannabis for your space and desired effects, it’s important to consider both the strain type (indica versus sativa) as well as its terpene content. Search for strains based on their flavor profile or strain type then refine your search accordingly until you find the perfect strain(s) for your needs.
We encourage you to track your results in a notebook and share your results with our social media pages or in the comment section below. Comments help our online community thrive by letting us learn from each other.
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 Fine, P. G., & Rosenfeld, M. J. (2013, October). The Endocannabinoid System, Cannabinoids, and Pain. Retrieved October 21, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3820295/