Sativa & Indica, Explained

The two terms "Sativa" and "Indica" have been used to describe certain cannabis strains for decades, but what do they actually mean?

Throughout the years, the two species have been crossbred a thousand times over.

The terms Sativa and Indica have been ingrained in cannabis culture ever since the 18th century when Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus identified a single species of cannabis, Cannabis sativa. Shortly after, biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified a second species from plant material collected in India, which he classified as Cannabis indica.

Lamarck found that Cannabis indica had firmer stems, thinner bark, and a different shape to its leaves and flowers than its cousin, Cannabis sativa. He also noted that Cannabis indica produced psychoactive effects when smoked in a pipe. 

Throughout the years, the two species have been crossbred thousands of times over, rendering the distinctions of C. sativa and C. indica irrelevant. Meanwhile, the terms have taken on a much more clinical, but ultimately inaccurate meaning within the cannabis community. Many believe Sativa strains provide an energizing and “creative” high, while Indica is thought to be much heavier, aiding in sleep, nausea, and muscle relaxation. 

But as our knowledge of the plant has expanded over the last few years, it has become clear that whether Indica or Sativa, the plant’s effect on consumers varies depending on the cannabinoids and terpenes present, as well as the human’s own endocannabinoid system. 

To be clear, the difference between Indica and Sativa is still there, most notably in their morphology. It just has nothing to do with the kind of high you should expect. The two terms should really be focused on the genealogy of the plant, while the plant’s effects are going to heavily rely on the plant’s chemical makeup, i.e. cannabinoids and terpenes. You can learn more about those two terms and their effects on the human brain here.

So what determines a cannabis plant’s chemical makeup? Does having trace amounts of C. sativa or C. indica in a plant’s DNA affect the quality and quantity of cannabinoids and terpenes?

While the plant’s phenotype is dependent on environmental factors, its genotype is largely inherited. However, most strains on the market today are a hybrid of C. Sativa and C. Indica, making it impossible to tell in the end. 

There is no denying that C. sativa and C. indica are two separate classifications of the Cannabis plant that differ in their genetic and chemical makeup. Regardless, extensive crossbreeding has made the two terms obsolete in identifying today’s strains. The only true way to estimate what kind of high to expect from a certain product is by analyzing its cannabinoid and terpene content and tracking your own experiences with those molecules.

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