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Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid: What’s the Difference?

Trying to choose between an indica or sativa? We can help!

Cannabis strains are typically broken up into one of three distinct groups: indica, sativa, and hybrid. Although all these strains are considered marijuana, these classifications help users determine the types of effects, smells, and even flavors they should expect from a strain.

First we will look at some of the differences between indicas and sativas, before going into detail about hybrid cannabis strains.

Origin of Cannabis Strains

When speaking of the original locations for indica and sativa strains, we must discuss landraces. These original landraces (a region’s native, naturally-occurring cannabis strain) are locally adapted strains optimized through natural evolution to grow in their specific microclimates.

Indica strains are generally agreed to have originated near Central Asia and spread to regions in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, and Turkey. Indica landraces like Afghani Kush, Hindu Kush, Mazar I Sharif generally thrived between 30° and 50° latitudes by adapting to these local growing conditions.

Growing in warmer weather, sativa landraces, like Durban Poison, Panama Red, and Acapulco Gold, originated in the countries located on or near the equator, such as Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, and Southeast Asia. Today, sativas still grow wild throughout many humid and tropical areas of the world.

sativa and indica landraces

These naturally-growing landraces formed the genetic backbone for modern cannabis strains. By crossbreeding these landraces, as well as the strains that were produced by this breeding, the immense variety of cannabis strains we have now was made possible.

Morphology and Growth

Visually, it is often possible to identify an indica or sativa plant by focusing on certain characteristics.

Indica strains tend to grow short and and bushy – usually under 6 feet tall. Sativas, on the other hand, can reach heights up to 20 feet when grown outdoors. Sativa branches are spread out and grow upwards, while their leaves are long and narrow, while the leaves of an indica plant are thicker and broader.

Because they grow smaller, indica strains are well suited for cultivating indoors. Indica plants typically produce less of a yield than sativa plants. However, this lower yield is offset by an indica’s shorter growing cycle.

Sativa plants have much longer vegetation periods than indica strains, taking anywhere from 10 to 16 weeks to fully mature during the flowering period. This longer vegetation period often results in a much higher yield.

growing marijuana at home

Chemical Composition

On a chemical level, indica and sativa strains are different in the make-up of their cannabinoid content, as well as in the balance of other compounds, such as terpenes.

There are over 100 cannabinoids that have been identified in the cannabis plant, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), the primary cannabinoids found in marijuana.

Pure sativa strains usually produce a high THC content and low CBD content. Landrace indica strains, on the other hand, tend have a lower THC content, and a somewhat higher CBD content. However, thanks to crossbreeding, both indica and sativa strains can be found with varying THC:CBD cannabinoid concentrations.

After THC, CBD is the second most prevalent cannabinoid found in cannabis. CBD is noted for the way THC interacts with the body, controlling the effects of THC and perhaps modulating the strain’s particular high.

At least 120 different terpenes have also been found in cannabis. The concentration and balance of these terpenes can largely influence the flavor and scent of a particular strain, and may even affect its high.

Indica strains are known for having flavor profiles ranging from sweet musk and rich earth to dark fruit, like berry and grape, while sativa strains are known for citrus, pine, and even tropical profiles.

terpenes give marijuana scents and flavors

Effects

Although each cannabis strain will have nuanced effects on the body and mind, indica and sativa classifications can help determine how a strain’s personality will manifest itself.

Effects from indica strains exist predominantly in the body, though the hundreds of hybrids available differ widely in their exact effect profiles.

Indica strains can be

  • Calming
  • Relaxing
  • Sedating
  • Soothing

Many consumers turn to indica-dominant strains after strenuous activity to better manage their recovery or other chronic issues. Indicas are also ideal for nights spent at home watching a movie or binge watching TV as a way to disconnect. This incredible relaxation is good for unwinding from a long day or a busy week. Some of the heavier-feeling indicas are perfect for right before bed, helping you to clear your mind and physically melt into sleep.

Sativa strains, on the other hand, tend to manifest their effects in the mind, for a more cerebral high.

Sativa strains can be:

  • Uplifting
  • Energetic
  • Motivating
  • Creative

The euphoric response produced by sativa strains can encourage deep conversation and enhance creativity, which is why it’s often most suited for daytime use or social situations. Because of its uplifting properties, sativa strains of medical marijuana are often used by those struggling with mood issues.

A Note About Hybrids…

Technically speaking, all cannabis strains – except for native landraces – are hybrids, combining the effects of parent genetics into a single strain.

For example, the popular strain Girl Scout Cookies reportedly pulls its genetics from the pure sativa Durban Poison and a hybrid strain called OG Kush, which is in turn a likely crossbreeding of Chemdawg and a Hindu Kush landrace. Just as Girl Scout Cookies is a product of breeding, the strain itself has been used as a parent to create dozens of new strains now on dispensary shelves.

legal marijuana dispensary

Tracing the genetics of these hybrid strains can become confusing, as popular strain resources now list nearly two thousand different strain names, each with its own unique genetic family tree. The more removed these hybrids are from the original landraces, the more strains are involved in creating its genetics.

Strains will take on the characteristics of its parent strains, including their scent and flavor profiles. This ability to breed strains together creates an almost endless combination of terpene and cannabinoid compositions. This breeding also allows cultivators to create a myriad of effects. These effects will manifest as either indica-dominant, sativa-dominant, or balanced hybrids.

When shopping for a hybrid strain at your local dispensary, your budtender should be able to tell you if it leans sativa or indica-dominant or if it is a 50/50 hybrid with balanced influence from both sativa and indica genetics. Knowing a strain’s parent genetics and the ratio of its indica or sativa-dominance can help new and experienced users alike to find the strain that best fits their individual preferences.

… and Phenotypes

When we talk about a strain’s genetics, that is its genotype or the DNA that determines its blueprint for growth. A phenotype, however, is an organism’s observable characteristics  – an expression of both its genetics and environmental influences.

A phenotype is the actual plant that grows and any variations that may exist due to external fluctuations. This physical expression of a plant’s genes is responsible for any variations that may occur within a strain when it is grown. Whether a certain harvest of your favorite strains has an interesting smell or exhibits stronger indica or sativa effects than expected, it may be due to that particular phenotype and the environment in which it was grown.

Dig Deeper

You can learn more about indicas and sativas on our Cannabis 101 page, or find the most potent strains on earth HERE.

Post by Jeffrey Stamberger

Jeffrey writes media content covering the latest in news, medical research, policy changes, and product education from the cannabis industry.

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