The mysterious origin of cannabis strains

Alla Malyezyk January 23, 2020 2 min. read

Have you ever wondered who gives names to the strains you are buying? Who is the person who decided to name his crop “kush cookies” and what does it mean anyway? We’re here to answer all your questions about strains and their backstory. By the time we’re done here, you’ll learn about terms like landrace and breeding programs. Get ready for a cannabis strain crash course!

What is cannabis?

Let’s start with the basics. Cannabis Sativa L. is the botanical species to the common cannabis we all know. This species is then divided between two sub-categories: indica and sativa. The purpose of this classification is to organize cannabis by its physical description. Indica is a type of cannabis that grows in a smaller bush with broad leaves. Sativa, on the other hand, grows in taller bushes, with long leaves. The physical difference is due to the environment in which the cannabis is grown. Depending on factors such as lighting intensity, soil types, and humidity levels, the plants will adapt and express particular traits.

Cannabis is an annual herb that has been used by humans for centuries now. There is recorded use of cannabis for its fibre, food, and medicinal purposes. It’s suspected to be originally from Central Asia before spreading all across the globe. Since it was first discovered, humans have interacted with the plant to suit their needs.

Landrace strains: the purebreds

Cannabis that naturally grows on land, without human interaction, is called a landrace. They are the purebreds, the ancestors if you will. Amongst them, names like Hindu Kush, Acapulco Gold, Durban Poison might sound familiar. These landraces have undergone years and years of natural selection to offer a unique profile. They were used for their specificities to create the varieties of cannabis we all know today.

As we mentioned earlier, cannabis is an adaptable plant. It acclimatizes to its environment and expresses distinct characteristics and effects. Some cultivars are said to be soothing and others uplifting. When people started to pay attention to these differences, they began to crossbreed plants to control and predict the effects. Here enters the concept of strains like we know them today.

Breeding a new strain

The concept of strains was born when cultivators decided to grow cannabis selectively. This is done through a breeding program, a planned approach to cannabis cultivation. The idea is to control the specific traits the new plant is going to express. The most evocative example of this is the cultivation of levels of THC in a cannabis plant. For years, cultivators tried to breed plants that yield the highest levels of THC possible. To do so, they crossbreed specific strains, purposefully discarding those with high CBD levels. When you crossbreed different types of cannabis, the result is a plant with a new genetic makeup: a new strain. With that in mind, we understand that most of the strains on the market are what we call hybrids:

In the current market pure sativas or pure indicas don't really exist. Once you start breeding cannabis and alter the genetic lineage of the plant, you cannot claim that it's pure. Instead, we will describe it as being sativa dominant or the opposite based on the shape of the plant and the effects on the user.
Richard Zeliger,
Assistant grower at Greentone

Where do the names come from?

So now that you’ve created this new genetic, all that is left to do is to call it a funky name, and there you have it: a new strain. Today we count thousands of them. Some have gained a reputation for their effects, their taste, and look. When it comes to naming strains, there is an informal convention. Usually, the breeder will call the strain to evoke its look (Purple Haze, White Widow), its aroma (Sour Banana Sherbet, Skunk), its effects (Trainwreck), and even after its breeder (Neville Haze).

With so many declinations, it’s a puzzle to classify all the strains. As cannabis entered the regulated market, a new classification system will be necessary to help the consumer choose the right strain for their needs. The future of cannabis strains will require a more structured breeding process. Indeed, being a forbidden substance for years, cannabis does not have meticulous breeding programs as we have with tomatoes and apples. Standardizing this process over time will ensure that the customer knows exactly what he’s buying.