It is common for cannabis (aka marijuana) products and treatments in the prescription and non-prescription market (which is currently illegal in Australia) to be broken up into three distinct groups: indica, sativa, and hybrid. Many patients and consumers still use these classifications to predict the effects their cannabis will have, but how accurate are they?
In this article, we’ll explore these three different strain types and the new ways patients, consumers and those in the medicinal cannabis industry are classifying their cannabis.
The history of indica and sativa
Cannabis is believed to have originated in Central Asia and to have migrated to almost every continent across all reaches of the planet, adapting to various climates in the process. These adaptations coupled with the selective breeding of cannabis by cultivators led to variations in cannabis that became known as landrace strains, which are each named after their region of origin.
Many of these landrace strains were collected from their native habitats and brought to the Western world, where they were crossbred with one another in horticultural attempts to explore the plant’s potential. This process of hybridisation has given rise to the thousands of named cannabis varieties consumed across the world today.
You may have heard the terms ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ as well as ‘hybrid’ in discussions around cannabis strains. Indicas and sativas came from the original landrace strains mentioned above and are known for their distinctive effects on the user.
In 1753, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (known as the ‘father of modern taxonomy’) published Species Plantarum, a book listing every species of plant known at the time, classified into genera. Linnaeus classified all cannabis plants under one group, ‘Cannabis sativa L.,’ with ‘Cannabis’ as the genus, ‘sativa’ as the species, and ‘L.’ indicating Linnaeus’ system. ‘Sativa’ comes from the Latin ‘sativum,’ meaning ‘cultivated.’1
Later, in 1785, French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck became the first person to classify the differences between two distinct species of the plant: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. Lamarck’s classifications were based on the physical characteristics of the different plants, and his own experience when testing them. ‘Cannabis sativa’ was found to be a taller, slimmer, and more fibrous plant, while ‘Cannabis indica,’ was found to be shorter, wider, and possessing greater psychoactive properties. The name Indica means ‘from India,’ which is where the plant was thought to originate.
Today, these definitions have endured. These are the three main types of 'strains' of cannabis you may have encountered:
We’ll explore each of these strains below.
What is indica?
Typically known for their relaxing properties, Indica strains originally grew in cold, northern climates. They grew shorter and stockier because of these environments, with a shorter life cycle that allowed them to be harvested before the colder weather hit.
- Cannabis indica is native to Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Turkey.
- Indica plants are shorter and stockier than sativa plants with bushy greenery and broad, dark green leaves. Indicas grow faster than sativa plants, and also produce more flowers (buds).
- Indica strains tend to have higher levels of CBD than sativa strains, but the THC content isn’t always less.
Most commonly associated effects
- Based on anecdotal feedback, Indica strains tend to be associated with a relaxing, sedating effect, which may assist with anxiety symptoms and sleep issues.
What is sativa?
Known for their uplifting, stimulating effects, Sativa strains are found primarily in hot, dry climates.
- Sativa strains are indigenous to warmer parts of the world, such as Eastern Asia and Central and South America.
- Sativa plants are taller and slimmer than indicas, with thin, light green leaves. As they can exceed 3m in height, Cannabis sativa plants typically take much longer to mature than indicas.
- Sativa strains tend to have a lower ratio of CBD to THC than Indicas.
Most commonly associated effects:
- Based on anecdotal feedback, cannabis sativa is known for its stimulating effects. It is often said to produce a 'mind high' that may increase creativity and focus and reduce anxiety.
How to recognise differences between indica and sativa
Nowadays, instead of indica and sativa strains, most cannabis strains are hybrid strains, a combination of both (we'll unpack this more below). Therefore it doesn't really make sense to compare indica vs sativa when it comes to therapeutic effects. Where the two different cannabis strains do differ distinctly is in appearance.
- Sativa plant – skinny, light green leaves on a tall, slim plant
- Indica plant – short, bushy plants with broad, dark green leaves
What is hybrid cannabis?
Cannabis growers are constantly producing new and unique strains from different combinations of indica- and sativa-descended parent plants, and these are known as hybrid cannabis strains. Often grown to target specific medical use cases, hybrid cannabis plants can deliver a wide range of varying effects. Hybrids are typically grown on farms or in greenhouses from a combination of sativa and indica strains, each with unique ratios of THC to CBD.
Due to the long history of cross breeding cannabis, research suggests that strains with pure indica or pure sativa strains are rare today.2 This means that most 'Indica strains' and 'Sativa strains' are actually hybrid strains, with genetics inherited from both types.
What are the main effects of hybrids?
Hybrids are typically classified as indica-dominant, sativa-dominant, or balanced. This means that the effects of a hybrid strain will depend on whether it has more indica or sativa in its lineage, and (more importantly) its cannabinoid and terpene content. Hybrids are typically grown to elicit specific medicinal and other effects, such as reducing anxiety and depression, delivering pain relief, and more.
Changes to how we describe strains:
Today, research suggests that years of crossbreeding has likely hybridised sativa and indica strains to the point that most of the cannabis consumed today is a combination of the two species’ lineages.
But if sativa, indica and hybrid strain classifications don't matter as much anymore, what does?
Many in the industry now prefer to classify cannabis as fitting more or less within these categories, defined by the level of major cannabinoids CBD and THC, also known as chemotypes:
- Type I: High THC (more than 0.3% THC and less than 0.5% CBD)
- Type II: THC/CBD (high contents of both CBD and THC)
- Type III: High CBD (less than 0.3% THC)
But even more importantly – we are increasingly seeing the value that terpenes, minor cannabinoids (such as CBG and CBN), flavonoids and other compounds have in the therapeutic potential of cannabis strains.
Early research tells us that a whole plant approach to cannabinoid therapies which takes full advantage of the cannabinoid content (beyond THC and CBD) and terpene profile of the cannabis plant may be the most effective way to meet its healing potential.3,4
- Research has found that the cannabis plant produces between 80 and 100 cannabinoids and about 300 non-cannabinoid chemicals.5
- Cannabinoids are naturally occurring components responsible for producing many of the effects of cannabis by interacting with our endocannabinoid systems.
- Knowing which cannabinoids and ratios of cannabinoids like THC and CBD (and many more) are present in your cannabis treatments is one of the best ways to predict the effects it will have on you and your symptoms.
- Learn more about some of the different types of cannabinoids and what they do here.
- Terpenes are the organic, aromatic compounds found in plants in the form of oils. Essentially, they are what gives a plant its unique flavour and aroma.
- Terpenes are responsible for the aromatic diversity of the wide range of strains and cultivars available.
- Beyond just influencing the cannabis plant’s unique taste and smell, terpenes also play a significant role in the therapeutic effects of cannabis by interacting with cannabinoids and other cannabis compounds to create subtle differences in our experience.
- Learn more about different terpenes and their effects here.
What is Cannabis ruderalis?
Cannabis ruderalis is a third type of cannabis strain which contains low quantities of cannabinoids. It isn’t widely used because it isn’t known to produce any potent effects.
- Ruderalis plants are found in more extreme environments than other strains, such as those in Eastern Europe, Himalayan regions of India, Siberia, and Russia. Like indica plants, ruderalis grows quickly, having adapted to cold, low-sunlight environments.
- Ruderalis are small, bushy plants which rarely grow taller than 30 centimetres, but they grow rapidly and can be ready for harvest in little more than a month from the time of planting.
- Ruderalis typically contains very little THC and somewhat higher amounts of CBD, but it does not contain enough of either cannabinoid to produce any noticeable effects.
Most commonly associated effects:
- Because of its low potency and cannabinoid content, ruderalis isn’t typically used for medicinal or recreational purposes on its own. It may, however, be bred with other cannabis types because it is affordable and yields large quantities.
Which strain is right for me?
The best way to find the strain that works for you and your symptoms is to get a valid prescription from a licensed healthcare professional. A doctor who is well versed in medicinal cannabis and cannabinoid medicines will be able to find a treatment type that works for you, while taking all of your individual needs as well as available strain types, cannabinoid and terpene content, formats, and delivery methods into consideration.
It’s important to note that cannabis grown or obtained without a prescription is illegal in all states in Australia, except the ACT. And, because non-prescription cannabis is unregulated in Australia, it is highly likely that your therapeutic needs won’t be met by the cannabis you purchase without a prescription. Learn more about illegal v. legal cannabis in Australia here. A medicinal cannabis prescription from a qualified doctor is the best way to ensure the safety, quality, efficacy and cannabinoid and terpene content of your cannabis medicines for optimum results.
Polln is Australia’s leading digital clinic for holistic plant medicine. We deliver compassionate care to expertly manage a range of health conditions naturally. If you’d like to learn about your Medicinal Cannabis options in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and other areas throughout Australia, sign up as a Polln patient or make an appointment today. Or, find out if medicinal cannabis might be right for you by taking our free eligibility quiz.
- Should I smoke indica for anxiety?
While indica strains are most commonly associated with relaxing effects, there is little evidence to suggest that this is due to their strain-type alone. In fact, research now suggests that most strains are hybrid, containing both indica and sativa lineages. The plant compounds, cannabinoids and terpenes are the best indicators for the effects your cannabis will have on symptoms like anxiety. If you are looking to reduce anxiety, a qualified doctor can help you find a cannabis treatment with the right cannabinoid and terpene content for you and your symptoms.
Smoking is not supported by the TGA, and comes with a long list of health risks. Learn about some of the other methods available for consuming medicinal cannabis to get the most out of your treatments here.
- What is stronger indica or sativa?
In terms of their intoxicating or psychoactive effects, sativa strains are said to be ‘stronger’ than indica strains because of their high THC content. THC is a psychoactive, intoxicating cannabinoid which produces the ‘high’ commonly associated with cannabis use, and it can be impairing and cause adverse side effects at higher doses.
- What happens if you mix indica and sativa strains?
If you take different strains of cannabis together at the same time, you will alter the effects of your cannabis – much like a hybridised strain. If you are prescribed two different strains or types of cannabinoid medicines, your doctor will likely have prescribed the specific strains for varying, specific uses, or to take at different times in the day. Talk to your doctor about the best time to take them and whether they are safe to be taken together or close together.
Experimenting with or taking too much of either of your cannabis strains could result in negative effects, so it’s best to only consume your cannabinoid medicines as advised by your doctor.
- C. Linnaeus, “Species Plantarum,” Vol. 1, London, 1753, pp. 392.
- Russo, EB. Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Br J Pharmacol, 2011. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21749363/
The information on this website is provided for educational and informational purposes only and not intended for use as medical advice. Polln is not promoting the use of medicinal cannabis. Medicinal cannabis in Australia is scheduled medication and regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Details about medicinal cannabis as a scheduled drug can be found on their website. If you would like to explore medicinal cannabis for your chronic condition, please consult with a doctor.
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