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Getting to the Root of 'Sativa vs. Indica'

October 26th, 2021
Getting to the Root of 'Sativa vs. Indica'

Sativa and indica were once solely used to describe the morphology of cannabis, and to categorize the plants' differing characteristics.

Plants with a tall, slender build and delicate light green leaves were dubbed Cannabis sativa - while Cannabis indica was used to describe shorter, stouter plants with dark green leaves, and thicker stems.

‘Sativa’ is derived from the latin adjective sativum meaning ‘cultivated’; we first see this term applied to cannabis by the English herbalist William Turner in his 1548 text ‘The Names of Herbes’.

In 1785, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified a short, darker-leafed subspecies, which he dubbed Cannabis indica.

Many years later in 1930, a third subspecies was introduced by a Russian botanist named Dmitrij Janischewsky, Cannabis ruderalis. Ruderalis was identified not by its physicality, but by its consistent flowering cycle of 20 to 40 days.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the labels sativa and indica are still used by cannabis cultivators taxonomically. Sativas have a longer flowering cycle, and tend to prefer warmer climates; which has given rise to the moniker ‘equatorials’, whereas indicas have a shorter flowering cycle, and do well in cooler environments.

Nowadays these terms are also being used to illustrate the potential effects of a cannabis cultivar - with ‘sativa’ being attributed to those with a more uplifting terpene and cannabinoid profile, and ‘indica’ for those which are more sedating.

In theory, this is great - a straightforward way to explain the effects of this medicinal herb; however, in reality the therapeutic constituents found within the cannabis plant cannot be this easily categorized.

This truth is soundly delineated by a 2019 study aptly titled ‘Genetic tools weed out misconceptions of strain reliability in Cannabis sativa: implications for a budding industry’, researchers Anna L. Schwabe and Mitchell E. McGlaughlin sourced and examined 30 different cultivars, to see if they could determine a common genetic identity. They found that cultivar samples from different sources with the same name contained significantly different genetic variables.

For your average recreational cannabis user, this is not too concerning. However, for the medical user treating a specific condition based upon a cultivar’s reputed terpene and cannabinoid profile, this creates a significant problem.

The obvious solution is to shift our focus from ‘sativa vs indica’ to how each cultivar’s phytochemical constituents express themselves as they interact with an individual’s unique endocannabinoid system.

Since Canada legalized cannabis in 2018, we have seen a slow but steady shift in the general public's perception of cannabis use. Naturally, there are many curious individuals who have begun to consider the possible health benefits of a medicinal herb long decried as ‘the Devil’s lettuce’.

There are currently many accessible resources available for those who wish to educate themselves. The Trichome Institute, based in Denver, Colorado, offers online training for budtenders and cannabis enthusiasts alike. They specialize in a training process referred to as the ‘interpening’, which is an in-depth exploration of the terpene and cannabinoid profiles present in cultivars, and how to navigate discussing these topics with cannabis users.

It has also become commonplace for cannabis products to have an attached certificate of analysis, often referred to by its acronym COA, which is a summary of the lab tests done on the product and typically highlights the THC and CBD content, as well as the standard testing for possible contaminants.

COAs also occasionally include terpene information, as well as details regarding the lesser known cannabinoids, effectively providing a wealth of valuable information as to the potential therapeutic effects of the cultivar.

It is imperative that medical cannabis users have access to up to date COAs so they can track their progress with specific cultivars, and develop an awareness of the terpene and cannabinoid profiles which work best for them - that way if a trusted standby cultivar is unavailable, the patient is empowered to choose a substitute that could work best for them.



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