Sativa vs Indica Genetics: The Science Behind Them

Sativa vs Indica Genetics: The Science Behind Them

We’ve written a couple of recent posts about the difference between sativa vs indica weed strains. But we want to backtrack a bit to talk about their genetics and why illustrating the differences through an indica vs sativa chart may be misleading.

More accurately, we want to explain why there’s really very little scientific evidence for a genetic difference between indica vs sative in the first place.

Now, before you feel up in arms about being lied to, know that we did not bend the truth in our last few posts. Sativas and indicas are real plant categories that are useful for describing types of weed strains and their various effects.

More importantly, the plants we refer to as sativas and indicas do have noticeable physical differences. You can also trace many of them back to parent plants hailing from different regions of the globe.

These different lineages explain the dramatic physical contrasts you see illustrated in an indica vs sativa chart.

But on a chemical and biological level, the difference between sativa vs indica genetics may be largely bunk. New research shows that the number of exceptions for “indica = couch lock and sativa = energized” is enough to make the categories largely meaningless.

We blame hundreds of years of prohibition on all this science catch-up. And, we should also all admit that “sativa” and “indica” are still useful categories in the same way that “red” vs “white” wines can be useful for making generalizations.

So, to clear the air and enlighten you, here is some of the science behind indica vs sativa genetics — and why we think the terms should stick around.

Sativa vs Indica Genetics Based on Botanical History

The reason we have two different categories of weed is simple: people originally thought they were two different plants.

Cannabis sativa was first scientifically described and documented by herbalist Leonhart Fuchs in 1542. Along with hundreds of other plants, Fuchs wrote descriptions and illustrations of Cannabis sativa plants in his book Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants.

Fast forward 200 years to when triple threat biologist, naturalist, and, botanist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck claimed he had found a second species of cannabis: Cannabis indica.

This plant grew much shorter and bushier compared to its “sativa” cousin. Lamarck also noted that it had more powerful psychoactive properties when consumed.

Seeing that the two genetic clades had dramatically different appearances— with “sativa” plants growing many feet taller— the categories of sativa vs indica genetics made sense.

Lamarck’s drawings even serve as the basis for a common indica vs sativa chart seen on articles covering the topic.

Crossbreeding Muddies the Genetics Waters

Sativa vs indica

Complicating matters is the fact that both sativa and indica plants are heavily crossbred. This process accelerated in the 1960s as pure genetic landrace strains gave rise to heirloom crossbreeds and hybrids.

Because marijuana was illegal, there was little formality in the way these strains were grown and distributed. And, since buying marijuana can be a sketchy, back alley situations where your dealer is not a botanist, misinformation spreads.

Eventually, there were so many different names bouncing around that people struggled to make sense of it all. Why was their Black Domina so different than their Acapulco Gold? How could they possibly know what to expect from their weed?

Enter the old categories of indica vs sative genetics. The same properties used to describe how different certain plants looked, based on their region of origin, came to describe how they affected you.

The indica strains, which hailed from arid mountainous regions, laid you low and made you relax. Since you could recognize their fat leaves and tight nugs on an indica vs sativa chart, the distinction was easy.

Likewise, the wispy leaves and spindly buds of sativa strains made them easy to recognize. Therefore, no matter what name came with your nugs, you could predict what they would offer when smoked based on indica vs sative heritage.

How Prohibition Hurt Scientific Knowledge on Marijuana

The only reason we have been in the dark for so long about marijuana genetics is because of prohibition.

Bans against marijuana in North America also means strict restrictions on conducting research.

In the U.S., things were so bad that only one university was able to conduct trials on marijuana’s effects.

Cannabis products used in experiments and trials looked nothing like the quality and diversity offered on the black market. Subjects were given low-THC samples from a single genetic breeding stock. Some patients even received moldy weed!

Because of this regulatory environment, everyone has come to ask their dealer for their opinion on the best strains.

What Does Science Tell us Now?

Sativa vs indica science

Thanks to marijuana laws relaxing in parts of the world, groundbreaking research has come to light. And one of the most mind-blowing findings was that the science behind sativa vs indica genetics was mostly hogwash.

In fact, sativas and indicas were both actually offshoots of one species: Cannabis sativa.

The vast majority of strains tested in a 2015 Canadian study were also seriously mislabeled.

Their seed producers claimed some portion of indica vs sative genetics, but actual evidence found humongous mismatches. Some strains that were labeled as 90% sativa and 10% indica were actually closer to 50/50.

What’s more, many contain genes from a third genetic clade: cannabis ruderalis. In total, just 5% to 10% of marijuana strains can be considered “pure sativa” or “pure indica”,despite what their labels may claim.

Making matters worse, differences in indica vs sative leaf shape and bud shape do not necessarily equate to effects. Some strains that have a distinct sativa look offer sleepy relaxation, for example.

This finding invalidates a lot of the truisms you will see on an indica vs sativa chart.

Even among accurately labeled strains, growing conditions can create big differences in the end product.

Why Sativa vs Indica Genetics is Still Important

Indica vs sativa chart

According to some industry professionals, the solution is to ignore whether your cannabis is sativa vs indica. Instead, all products should be labelled according to CBD:THC ratios and terpene profiles.

However, there is argument to keep the two categories around.  it takes a sophisticated palate and tons of knowledge for a wine lover to be able to guess where a wine’s grape species comes from based on a single sip. Yet, we can guess that a white pinot grigio is going to be a lot drier and more acidic than a sweet dark red zinfandel.

Broad categories like these help the layperson make decisions and they don’t depend on genetic studies to make fairly accurate guesses.

So, we will keep you updated with the latest information and research on sativa vs indica genetics to enlighten you. But don’t expect us— or anyone else— to stop using the terms anytime soon! They’re just too useful, even if they can be a bit misleading from time to time.