November 20, 2020 // Rachel Burkons

Indica and Sativa: Understanding the Difference Between Cannabis Types

It’s right up there with understanding what an eighth is: Learning the terms indica and sativa is a cannabis rite of passage. These words are so deeply rooted in the language and culture of cannabis that, for many, they’re considered dogma, with indica referring to relaxing, sedating cannabis varieties, and sativa the uplifting, invigorating alternative. But the truth is, these terms are increasingly outdated and inaccurate to describe the genetics and products in the modern cannabis marketplace. Let's demystify two of cannabis’ biggest buzzwords: indica and sativa.

From Root to Myth

So where did the terms indica and sativa come from, how did they come to be the two main categories of cannabis, and when and how did it go wrong? First we must look at the plant’s origin and long coexistence with humans. It is believed that the genus Cannabis is indigenous to the wet Southern Asia habitats, and that it was domesticated and spread widely for its use both as a raw textile material and medicinal and psychoactive compound. For millennia, humans and domesticated cannabis lived side-by-side, but it wasn’t until Europe’s Age of Enlightenment that scientists began to classify the plant. It all started back in 1753, when Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus first identified cannabis plants as Cannabis sativa, with “sativa” simply meaning cultivated, and referring to the common hemp plants growing across Europe at the time. While Linnaeus did not notate the psychoactive effects of this plant, we have come to understand that these plants most likely resemble the modern day hemp plant, which produces low levels of THC, high levels of CBD and serves great industrial and textile use. Linnaeus described its physiology – a.k.a. what the plant looked like: Cannabis sativa is a tall plant, with skinny, long, bright green leaves. Less than 30 years later, in 1785, European naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck described and named a second “species” of cannabis, named Cannabis indica, meaning cannabis from India. Samples of this plant were squat, with broad dark green leaves. In India, cannabis has long been used as a psychoactive with widespread social and medicinal use, indicating that this species was more potent, with psychoactive THC.

Evolving with Civilization

We will never know the precise cannabinoid content of these ancient plants, but what we do know is that as humans began to move around the world more freely, so did cannabis. As a cultivated plant, cannabis made its way to the Americas by the 19th century, where cultivators bred the plant for desirable traits they were looking for: either strong, tall fibrous plants that served an industrial purpose, or plants bred for potency and psychoactivity. As cannabis varieties began to be cultivated and cross-bred for potency, they became hybrids. You may have heard this term used in a dispensary to describe a variety with a balanced effect that is neither indica nor sativa: the reality is that all flower available in the modern commercial marketplace is a hybrid, a result of centuries of genetic selection and cultivated breeding. With the terms indica and sativa lying in scientific classification and plant physiology, their modern use as descriptors of effect is inaccurate and misleading. Nonetheless, brands, cultivators and dispensaries have leaned into this language in an attempt to help the consumer understand what they can expect from a specific variety. (A note on the term "variety," since we’ve been talking science; this is the correct verbiage to use when we’re talking about a strain, and refers to the genetics of the seed. Once that genetic material is planted by a farmer, it becomes a cultivar, or a specific expression of cultivation technique and terroir). Some brands have since abandoned the indica-or-sativa language entirely for effect-based nomenclature like “Calm,” “Uplift,” or “Dream.”

Shopping for the Right Strain for You

So if indica and sativa aren’t necessarily helpful or accurate terms to consider when purchasing cannabis, what are? Well, the cannabinoid content and terpene profiles are a great starting place. If you’re lucky enough to be in a recreational market where testing is a requirement, lab results will be available and can be used to help guide you (ask for a Certificate of Analysis or COA to get a detailed breakdown of both cannabinoid and terpene profiles). Considering the THC percentage, whether or not other cannabinoids such as CBN are present, and evaluating the terpene profile can give you an idea of what to expect from a specific variety. (Read our Terpene Guide to understand how terpenes contribute to the effects of cannabis.) While the terms indica and sativa are not likely to go away in the early days of our collective acceptance of cannabis, understanding that these words do not offer true, fool-proof guideposts for cannabis experiences is key to deepening your knowledge of the plant. Breeding, genetics and cultivation techniques have resulted in a wide array of cannabis varieties, each with unique flavor profiles and effects, and far more complex than the broad strokes of indica versus sativa.