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Go Beyond Indicas, Sativas, and Hybrids: What You Really Need To Know

More likely than not, you’ve bought cannabis that’s labeled as an indica, sativa, or a hybrid. These labels are meant to steer you to thinking that an indica is relaxing, a sativa is energizing, and a hybrid is somewhere between the two.

As we learn more about cannabis, though, we’re learning that these distinctions are far more complicated than a simple label. Although these designations have been used as a general guideline for cannabis consumers for decades, they don’t tell the whole story. 

There’s actually a lot more that goes into your cannabis experience, and it’s important to understand what that is to make the best decision when buying cannabis products. This guide will help you go beyond indica, sativa, and hybrid to understand what really contributes to your high.

Indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid: What’s the real difference?

The terms indica and sativa come from scientific taxonomy and refer to the species of a cannabis plant. The term cannabis is also part of this taxonomy — it’s the genus of the plant, the species that’s a level above indica and sativa. And, of course, as humans have selectively cross-bred sativa and indica plants to get the most desirable cannabis possible, hybrid plants show characteristics of each species.

In reality, selecting a cultivar based on species alone has serious limitations, as modern research has revealed. And yet, many dispensaries still rely on these terms to classify their cannabis products because consumers are so familiar with them. So keep in mind: Indica, sativa, and hybrid solely refers to the plant’s appearance, and not how consuming it might make you feel.

Here’s what these labels really mean:

Cannabis indica

  • Plant appearance: Short and squat, with fat, bushy leaves
  • Commonly associated with: Relaxation, sleep, pain relief
  • Common cultivars: Afghani, Hindu Kush, Mag, Tashkurgan

The indica species of cannabis originated in the Eastern Hemisphere with pure indica landrace strains like Hindu Kush. These types of cultivars naturally grew in the mountain range of the same name between modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Cannabis indica tends to grow short and squat, and contains high levels of THC, making this species highly sought after for its psychoactive effects and the production of hashish.

Cannabis sativa

  • Plant appearance: Tall and stalky, with fibrous stalks and long, thin leaves
  • Commonly associated with: Energy, creativity, happiness
  • Common cultivars: Acapulco Gold, Durban Poison, Panama Red, Thai

The sativa species of cannabis was more common in the Western Hemisphere, growing tall and stalky and containing low levels of THC. Prized for its fibrous stalks, cannabis sativa was more commonly used as industrial hemp to create textiles, rope, and other goods for trade and everyday use.. Acapulco Gold is an example of a pure sativa landrace strain that grew naturally in Mexico.

Hybrid cultivars

  • Plant appearance: Varies depending on the genetics and cultivation environment of the plant
  • Commonly associated with: Varies depending on the genetics and compound profile of the plant
  • Common strains: OG Kush, Sour Diesel, White Widow, GG#4

Sativa and indica strains have been traded worldwide and used to breed hybrid cannabis plants. These plants may be sativa-dominant, indica-dominant, or balanced. These cultivars may look more like a sativa, indica, or somewhere in between, depending on the genetics and how they’re cultivated. Some may even grow in multiple ways, known as phenotypes, each of which might have unique characteristics. 

What you should actually look for when choosing cannabis

While sativa and indica may not be completely relevant, there are more reliable ways to determine how a particular cultivar might make you feel. Turn to the product’s label to get a good sense of the experience that might be in store. Look for these things:

  • Phytocannabinoid profile: Phytocannabinoid profiles describe the levels of compounds like Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), Cannabidiol (CBD), and Cannabigerol (CBG) in cannabis.
    There are more than 100 phytocannabinoids that have been discovered in cannabis, and cannabinoid profiles can vary even among different plants of the same cultivar, let alone the same species. Because of this, the precise phytocannabinoid profile is a better predictor of how a cultivar will affect you than simply whether it is an indica, sativa, or hybrid plant.
  • Terpene profile: Terpenes can influence how cannabis tastes, smells, and makes you feel. There are more than 200 terpenes found in cannabis, and the combinations they appear in vary from cultivar to cultivar.
    Just because two cultivars are both indicas, for example, doesn’t mean they will have the same terpene profiles — and that could make a big difference in the way they make you feel. An indica strain that has a limonene-dominant terpene profile may be more energizing than a sativa strain with a myrcene-dominant terpene profile, flipping the old dichotomy on its head.
  • Product type: The same strain might hit you differently in different types of products. For example, if you smoke Durban Poison flower, it might result in a different experience than dabbing wax extracted from Durban Poison. Understanding how various product types and routes of administration may influence your experience is just as important as selecting the right cultivar.

To better illustrate just how much goes into how a strain affects you when you consume it, we’ve broken down some of the constituent parts of five well-known cultivars. Even this analysis just scratches the surface of what contributes to the way each cannabis strain makes you feel, and researchers are hard at work to determine exactly how each compound works together to produce a unique range of effects, a phenomenon known as “the entourage effect”.

Example cultivar #1: Hindu Kush

Cannabis indica — Landrace strain

Average THC percentage: 19%

Terpene profile: Limonene, beta caryophyllene, pinene

Other phytocannabinoids: CBG (1%)

Effects: Relaxation, appetite stimulation, drowsiness

Example cultivar #2: Durban Poison

Cannabis sativa — Landrace strain

Average THC percentage: 20%

Terpene profile: Terpinolene, myrcene, ocimene

Other phytocannabinoids: CBG (1%)

Effects: Energizing, uplifting, focusing

Example cultivar #3: OG Kush

Indica-dominant hybrid — Chemdawg x Lemon Thai x Hindu Kush

Average THC percentage: 18%

Terpene profile: Myrcene, limonene, beta caryophyllene

Other phytocannabinoids: CBD (1%), CBG (1%)

Effects: Appetite stimulation, euphoric, drowsiness

Example cultivar #4: Sour Diesel

Sativa-dominant hybrid — Chemdawg x Super Skunk

Average THC percentage: 19%

Terpene profile: Beta caryophyllene, myrcene, limonene

Other phytocannabinoids: CBG (1%)

Effects: Energizing, inspiring, euphoric

Example cultivar #5: White Widow

Balanced hybrid — Brazilian sativa landrace x South Indian indica landrace

Average THC percentage: 15%

Terpene profile: Myrcene, beta caryophyllene, pinene

Other phytocannabinoids: CBG (1%)

Effects: Energizing, inspiring

Why are indica and sativa still used to label cannabis products?

In short, it’s hard to change a system that so many of us are used to seeing! Before the widespread legalization of cannabis, indica, sativa, and hybrid were the main designations used to classify cannabis. Folks got used to shopping this way. Dispensaries have continued to adhere to the indica and sativa classifications as a result, even though it’s not always a reliable indicator of the effects consumers can expect. This is especially true now that lab tests can tell us exactly what’s inside a cannabis product.

To truly understand what you’re getting, you need to get down to the compound level and know the chemistry of the cultivar you’ve selected. Otherwise, you may take home a sativa-dominant cultivar that makes you sleepy, or an indica-dominant strain that boosts your energy. Thanks to licensed dispensaries and testing laboratories, obtaining that information is easier than ever before.

Dive into the details for the real story behind your products

Going beyond indica, sativa, and hybrid gives you more insight into how a cultivar will make you feel and whether or not it’s truly the right choice for you. If you’re not sure about the best way to pull back the curtain and evaluate cannabis for your needs, simply ask one of the friendly and knowledgeable budtenders at Iconic Wellness. Our team will be more than happy to guide you toward the best available options for your goals, so stop in and visit one of our Iconic Wellness locations in Gaylord, Sturgis, or Lowell today.

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