Understanding Basics: Indica, Sativa, and Getting What You Want

“Sativa for daytime, indica for night” is a delineation that no longer works in the modern cannabis landscape. Today’s cannabis cultivation has muddied the waters on black-and-white definitions portrayed in media or by inexperienced budtenders. 300 years ago, when the ‘cannabis sativa’ plant was identified as being a separate species from ‘cannabis indica’, there were obvious differences in the way users felt when sampling the two. But thanks to time, research and an expanding understanding of the intricacies of cannabis, we understand that effects largely don’t depend on the size and shape of the plant.
With thousands of crossbred genetics, designer hemp buds specializing in cannabinoid isolation, and subtle ways to manipulate the plant’s growth into giving a desired effect, we have to understand what “sativa” and “indica” represent today.

SATIVA

All the word ‘sativa’ represents today is the name of the cannabis species based on physical traits. Not all Sativa plants produce energetic, giggly, creative effects. However, all sativa plants grow similarly: long, thin leaves on a tall and narrow stem. Sativas generally take longer to mature, which results in their often uniquely sweet or fruity terpene profiles. It’s these mature terpenes that allow for what some consider a generally more subtle “uplifting” effect. Centuries ago, this was the cannabis species of choice for farmers who had grown “industrial hemp”, because when grown in large groups, the stalks dominated the grow space and left little room for flowering. The fibrous stems coupled with the plant height makes for a high-yielding crop for those looking to maximize. Farmers planting any sativa hemp seeds can expect a later harvest and a taller plant, potentially requiring higher ceilings or plan for the long, thin stems that can get too heavy without support.

INDICA

Despite what some people believe, the term ‘indica’ does not refer to a uniform effect profile from smokable hemp flower and other cannabis products. Instead, indica only represents a cannabis species with specific physical characteristics opposite sativas. All indica plants grow short and stout when compared to sativas, looking bushier and boasting fat leaves. The maturation time for indica buds is noticeably shorter than a sativa— a trait that farmers often prefer. Quicker harvests mean quicker turnaround and ultimately more product. The faster maturation means that indicas can offer different terpene profiles, often cited as being earthy or skunky. At Colorado Breeders Depot, we will only use the words ‘sativa’ or ‘indica’ to refer to the physical plant species itself. Doing so allows growers and consumers to have no confusion regarding growth characteristics.

So What’s Causing Different Effects?

The short answer to this is: combinations and ratios. Cannabis plants produce at least 113 different individual compounds known as cannabinoids. These are chemical combinations of molecules that interact with the human endocannabinoid system. Basically, our bodies come equipped with a cannabis-processing unit, full of millions of receptors ready for cannabis molecules to attach and have an effect on the body, and everyone is unique. All cannabis plants produce trichomes on their buds, leaves and branches which contain these cannabinoids, terpenes, and resin. Research on isolated cannabinoids has found that there is usually a majority of people that experience similar effects with the major cannabinoids found in today’s cannabis ecosystem.

Here are some basic characteristics of these major cannabinoids:

  • CBD (cannabidilol) can improve circulation, and has been found to reduce inflammation and some pain symptoms. Provides light relaxation without being overtly sedative.
  • CBG (cannabigerol) provides an uplifting effect, almost energetic for some. Our customers love CBG for its pain-relieving effects. CBG has also been used to treat PTSD symptoms, as well as with dementia patients and those who suffer from seizures.
  • CBN (cannabinol) was the first cannabis compound to ever be isolated and extracted. Users squarely agree that CBN isolates are fantastically sedative and work well when fighting insomnia or simply wanting to deeply relax.
  • CBC (Cannabichromene) fights inflammation and encourages neurogenesis, or the creation of brain cells. Some users also tout its usefulness when it comes to relieving pain and anxiety.
  • THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) causes the psychoactive ‘high’ feeling. THC can stimulate appetite and reduce nausea.

Advanced technology and cultivation techniques have allowed breeders to pick and choose traits from many different strains, and create hybrids that contain new and unique ratios of these cannabinoids. Hemp flower maintains THC levels of 0.3% or less to meet federal requirements, allowing other cannabinoids to showcase their benefits.

TERPENES

Terpenes are essential oils found on all plants that help give off scent and flavor. Cannabis can contain nearly infinite combinations of these oils. Terpenes also have an effect on the human endocannabinoid system, meaning they synergize and change how cannabinoids work on your body. Identical cannabinoid profiles with different terpene profiles can make for a vastly different experience.
Major cannabis terpenes (or ‘terps’ for short) include Linalool, Pinene, Limonene, Myrcene and Caryophyllene. High concentrations of one or more of these oils can make a hemp bud more relaxing (myrcene) or more energizing (limonene).

Finding a grower well-versed in the different cannabinoid profiles and terpenes found in their plants can make finding the right strain effortless. Modern lab data can provide quick and accurate percentages of each detectable compound. This endless sea of possible combinations is where you can truly find the ‘indica or sativa’ effects in a strain. Shape and size matter far less than the thousands upon thousands of molecules that make each plant so different.

THE HARVEST MATTERS

Breeders can create an indica plant containing all the energetic and uplifting compounds or grow a sativa strain that will put you to sleep. Besides hybridization and specifically customized genetics, manipulating the harvest times of a crop can yield incredibly different results. When growing, the plant’s trichomes can appear frosty, milky white. With maturation they turn clear, and then turn an amber color. Because these trichomes are home to the cannabinoids and terpenes, harvesting in various states of maturity can greatly impact the effect when consumed.

  • Harvesting early, while milky white makes for peak potency through maximal cannabinoids but yields underdeveloped terpenes. Growers know this can make for a heavier, couch-lock effect regardless of strain or species.
  • Harvesting late, once all the trichomes have turned a vivid amber means there is some cannabinoid degradation and loss of potency. The terpenes are fully developed and can make for a milder, headier characteristic for consumers. Overgrowing the plant has shown to be a factor in causing anxiety in some people
  • An ideal harvest occurs when half of the trichomes are still frosty or clear, and half have turned amber. This balance ensures a terpene and cannabinoid profile that is both potent and well-developed. The strain’s genetics come through cleaner and as intended.

Asking the right questions— and understanding the answer— can get you the product you’re looking for. Ask about the cannabinoid profile, ask about terpenes, ask about strain characteristics and whether the harvest was early or late. Sample a wide variety to find what works with your biochemistry. Knowledge and intention are what will yield the best hemp flower experience, from seed to smoke.

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