Seeking Out Productive Cannabis

what are sativas - red dragon
Red Dragon – a sativa. Photo: David Downs

What Are Sativas?

Cannabis today is commercially classified and sold in three main families: sativa, indica and hybrid, which is a combination of the first two.

These are folk names rather than scientific classifications.

In general, sativa strains are marketed as daytime varietals, because users generally report an uplifting and energetic euphoria, or high. By contrast, indicas often are sold as nighttime strains, because they tend to be more analgesic; that is, they can relieve physical body pain like neuropathy, as well as make you feel relaxed and sleepy. One mnemonic trick to remember the distinctions is the phrase “indica means ‘in da couch.’”

Sativa strains have recently become all the rage thanks in part to their cerebral effects. Medical pot patients describe sativas giving them focus, creativity, productivity and overall energy and euphoria. They can also cause rapid heart rate, and anxiety or paranoia.

But the sativa-indica dichotomy is not necessarily a scientific one. Continuing scientific analysis is expected to refine the categories.

Subjective experiences and wisdom from earlier generations comprised almost everything we knew about weed. But new research and chemical quantification is refining this folk taxonomy for the thousands of cannabis varietals called “strains.”

Cannabis first appeared along the steppes of Asia, and, as it moved south across the Himalayas, climatic conditions forced the plant to evolve. What we call indicas evolved to thrive in the short, hot summers and punishing monsoons of the Himalayan foothills. By contrast, sativas adapted to the endless summers of the equator, with constant rains and humidity.

Sativas grow slowly in the tropical sun. They’re tall and airy, to fight off mold from the rains. Indicas flower fast in the short mountainous summer. They’re shorter and more dense, to withstand the cold. Today, most commercial strains are hybrids of the two.

Lone Watty, co-founder of GG Strains, a company that invented the popular strain GG#4 — formally known as Gorilla Glue 4 — said, “Visually, a knowledgeable cultivator would be able to tell the difference between an indica or sativa plant due to the size and shape of the leaf.”

Cannabis’ evolutionary adaptations also changed the plants’ chemical output and psychological effects.

Part of sativas’ appeal is their mix of essential oils, called terpenes. The smell and taste of any given cannabis strain comes from its terpenes, which also have therapeutic properties. Terpenes modify the high of cannabis’ main active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), as well as lesser active ingredients. This mix of the plant’s main active ingredients — the cannabinoids — as well as its terpenes, creates a unique physical effect as well as chemical fingerprint for each strain, called its chemotype.

The benefit of chemical analysis is apparent in the case of GG4 which is often listed as a sativa hybrid — that is, mostly sativa. But that’s not what lab testing has confirmed.

“We came out with the genetic testing of the original GG4 and it’s 63 percent indica,” Watty said.

So are all of the market’s sativas derived from an equatorial ancestor? That’s a hazy cloud we have yet to clear. But as we determine the chemotype of each strain, we can see what matches up with traditional sativas.

One day, an array of chemotypes may supplant the sativa-indica classification system and strain names. But due to its simplicity and utility, the sativa-indica divide isn’t going away anytime soon.

Dan Michaels lives in Connecticut and is the author of “Green: A Field Guide to Marijuana” (2015).

[Click here to download an infographic on the difference between Sativas and Indicas]

Power Plants – Popular sativas and sativa hybrids

  • Super Silver Haze
  • Durban
  • AK-47
  • Jack Herer
  • Green Crack
  • Cinderella 99
  • Pineapple Thai