The difference between cannabis indica and sativa is one of the most popular topics of cannabis enthusiast around the world.
However, it’s an area that is not understood well by everyone, with many people thinking the differences in between indicas and sativas simply comes down to whether a strain gives you a “head high” or a “body high”.
THE CANNABIS GENUS
Cannabis was first classified in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist who devised the modern system used to classify and name organisms.
Today, experts are still debating on how to properly classify the plant.
Some suggest that cannabis can be classified into three separate species (Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa, and Cannabis ruderalis), while others suggest that all varieties should be treated as subspecies of one species: Cannabis sativa.
For the sake of this article, we’ll assume the former theory is correct and that cannabis can be divided into three separate species.
The first, Cannabis sativa, can be further divided into two subspecies, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis sativa L. The former boasts high concentrations of THC, the psychoactive active in marijuana, while the latter doesn’t. The latter is often referred to as hemp and serves many industrial purposes.
Cannabis indica contains high concentrations of THC and other cannabinoids like Cannabis sativa. The last species, Cannabis ruderalis, is a rare variety with unique autoflowering traits.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INDICA AND SATIVA
Cannabis sativa and indica are the most popular species of cannabis used to produce weed, and while some people might claim that all weed looks, tastes, and smells the same, there are some tell-tale signs that distinguish indica and sativa varieties apart.
Here are some of the main differences between indica and sativa strains:
Arguably one of the biggest differences between Cannabis indica and sativa plants for cultivators is their appearance.
Cannabis sativa plants are characterised by growing into large, almost tree-like plants that can easily grow over 3 metres outdoors. They are loosely branched and boast light green leaves with narrow blades, and produce large buds that tend to grow along the branches of the plant.
Cannabis indica plants, on the other hand, grow much shorter, reaching outdoors only about 100-200cm on average. They are densely branched, making them appear noticeably more “bushy” than sativa plants, and boast large leaves with wide blades and a rich, dark green colour.
Indica buds tend to grow in clusters along the nodes of the plant’s stems and branches. While they are usually smaller than the buds from sativa plants, they tend to be more dense and heavier.
GROW CYCLE AND YIELD
Most growers notice a distinct difference between the grow cycles and yields of sativa and indica plants.
Indicas can usually flower in between 45-60 days and produce noticeably heavier yields despite being smaller plants (this may be due to the fact that indica buds are denser and heavier than sativa buds).
Sativas tends to flower in 60-90 days and produce lighter yields in general, but some strains have the potential to produce monster yields, due to enormously sized plants.
Cannabis indica and sativa produce noticeably different effects.
Indicas are renowned for producing strong sedative effects treasured by recreational users as well as medical patients looking to treat pain and insomnia, among other conditions/symptoms.
Because of their ability to produce strong physical sedation, people tend to consider indica strains better for night time use.
Sativas, on the other hand, tend to produce uplifting effects that some people find great for boosting their levels of motivation and creativity, as well as improving their mood.
Unlike with indicas, many people report using sativa varieties throughout the day or in situations where they want to remain productive and social, or to treat symptoms of depression or ADHD.
There is a lot of debate claiming that the indica and sativa cannabis varieties have different geographic origins. Unfortunately, there is not enough scientific evidence to prove this theory.
There is fairly decent evidence that cannabis indica originates from the Indian subcontinent.
The species was first described by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785, who was using plant specimens he collected in India.
The species still grows naturally in many areas in India and surrounding areas, including the southern border of the Himalayas and thrives in cold temperatures and high altitudes.
India is also considered the birthplace of cannabis use, playing a strong role in religion. Today, most seed banks and cannabis cultivators will agree that cannabis indica stems from this area.
Meanwhile, cannabis sativa was first classified by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. While Linnaeus also claimed that the plant originated from India, he was actually working with hemp samples (Cannabis sativa L.) grown in Europe.
The exact origins of cannabis sativa, on the other hand, aren’t so clear. The species thrives in warmer climates close to the equator, leading some people to argue that it may have originated in warmer areas of Southeast Asia (such as Thailand).
THE IMPORTANCE OF PHENOTYPES AND GENOTYPES
As we saw above, there are some noticeable differences between sativa and indica cannabis varieties. However, it’s important to remember that these are just basic rules or guidelines – ones that certain strains will not abide by.
As a cannabis user, you’re likely to stumble across a strain that, despite being well-regarded as a sativa, produces some effects that are characteristic of an indica (or vice versa).
As a cultivator, you may also find yourself planting a batch of seeds of a particular indica strain and, in a few weeks, you might end up with 1 or 2 plants that look like sativas (or vice versa).
These differences/irregularities are caused by different cannabis phenotypes.
Phenotypes can best be described as the observable traits of an organism. A genotype, on the other hand, is the genetic makeup responsible for creating those traits in the organism.
So, while the Bubba Kush seeds you’ve bought may all share the same genetics, they may sprout into noticeably distinct plants, some of which might seem more sativa-like than others.
Different cannabis phenotypes will also boast distinct chemical profiles and contain different concentrations of the terpenes and cannabinoids that ultimately give a batch of weed it’s unique effects.
If you’re not too familiar with this topic, we suggest you check out our previous post on cannabis genotypes and phenotypes, as well as this article on cannabis cloning.
CROSS-BREEDING AND HYBRID CANNABIS STRAINS
Cannabis cultivators and breeders are always trying to create and stabilize new cannabis varieties with specific genetics and traits.
To do so, they may cross an indica plant with a sativa and try to create a new cannabis variety that, for example, boasts the fast flowering times and big yields of an indica but produces buds with a distinct sativa kick.
Whenever breeders do this, they essentially create cannabis hybrids; strains that feature both sativa and indica genetics.
Hybrids are extremely popular because they allow breeders to create unique strains with distinct highs, unique medical potential, or the ability to flourish in specific grow environments/conditions.
Cannabis ruderalis is a type of cannabis quickly gaining popularity among breeders.
It was first discovered in Russia in the 1940s is believed to be indigenous to Southern Siberia. It usually grows to only 60-80cm tall and matures in about seven weeks.
While it often contains low concentrations of THC, it boasts a unique trait no other cannabis species does: autoflowering. This allows ruderalis to enter its flowering phase with age, rather than by changing light cycles. When these genetics are working into hybrid strains, it allows for multiple grows per year, no matter the hours of light.
Some seed banks are actively experimenting with ruderalis varieties and crossing them with indicas and sativas, and successfully producing strong, reliable and easy to grow autoflowering hybrids.