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How to identify indica and sativa plants

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Contents

  1. Is there really a difference between indica and sativa?
  2. Identifying sativa vs indica plants
  3. Preference of indica vs sativa
  4. Sativa vs. Indica Cultivation Considerations

For those who regularly use cannabis for therapeutic or recreational purposes, the notion of cultivating plants for personal use may be appealing. Growing cannabis can be straightforward, but as with most crops, yield and quality can be improved with awareness of the plant’s life cycle and growth requirements. When it comes to growing cannabis, the first decision is to determine whether to cultivate indica or sativa plants.

Is there really a difference between indica and sativa?

Up until recently, the cannabis plant was classified as sativa, indica, ruderalis, or the elusive afghanica, which originated in or near Afghanistan. The usefulness of this cannabis taxonomy for contemporary consumers has been questioned by experts, including Dr. Ethan Russo , who has recommended abandoning this classification system. Due to human intervention, very few modern cannabis plants are purely indica or purely sativa. Russo argues that it’s more helpful to identify biochemical compound content, such as cannabinoids and terpenes .

However, differentiating indica from sativa remains very useful for cannabis cultivators. Using morphology, or phenotype, is the most common way to classify cannabis cultivars . Indica and sativa, the most commonly recognized cultivars, have distinctive physical features and growth traits. Understanding their respective growth cycles and how to tend each plant type will help ensure optimal growth and bud output.

Hybrid strains are also commonplace, with many growers opting for plants that blend the most desirable properties of both sativa and indica. Hybrids may be indica- or sativa-dominant, like Sour Diesel. White Widow exemplifies a balanced hybrid cultivar.

Identifying sativa vs indica plants

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Identifying Sativa Plants

Sativa cannabis plants originated close to the equator, thriving in temperate regions with mild winters and long summers. Sativa strains can reach up to 10 feet tall and are characterized by sparse foliage and light-green, thin-fingered, delicate leaves. They boast a long flowering period as there is no climatic impetus to reproduce rapidly and disseminate seeds. The extended flowering period is somewhat offset by a reduced vegetative period, in which no flowers are present. Sativa is known for generally lower yields than their indica counterparts.

Sativa cultivars are not ideal for home growers hoping to cultivate indoors, or within a restricted space. These plants generally require balmy temperatures and relatively high humidity where they thrive when given have space to grow.

Identifying Indica Plants

Cannabis indica cultivars are smaller in height than their sativa counterparts with broad, dark-green leaves and a bushier appearance. Indica plants are popular among home growers due to their high yields and shorter flowering periods. They typically mature faster than sativa cultivars under similar conditions, producing flowers in as few as eight weeks.

The rapid flowering period occurs due to the biological need to reproduce and spread their genes before the arrival of harsh winter conditions. These cultivars also tend to have a different smell, perhaps reflecting a different terpene profile .

Indica plants were originally found in unforgiving dry and colder Asian climates, which resulted in their robust and more compact physical profile. Their short stature makes them ideal for indoor cultivation.

Sativa strains have light-green, thin-fingered, delicate leaves. Cannabis indica cultivars have broad, dark-green leaves. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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Preference of indica vs sativa

If you’re contemplating growing cannabis and wondering whether to grow indica or sativa, your choice will likely be guided by the kinds of effects you’re looking to experience. It’s important to note that effects have more to do with the cannabinoid and terpene makeup of the plant and less to do with its morphology. Here’s the lowdown on the differences between growing indica and sativa.

Sativa vs. Indica Cultivation Considerations

The growth cycle of any plant can be divided into the four distinct stages of germination, seedlings, vegetation, and flowering. While harvest doesn’t represent a formal phase, it does constitute a significant phase for the grower.

Germination

Some home growers elect to grow cannabis from feminized seeds, which produce exclusively female plants. This ensures none of the female flowers are pollinated by male flowers, which would cause them to produce seed, reducing the cannabinoid yield. Seeds can be easily germinated within paper towels dampened (not wet) with distilled water.

If you’re growing sativa strains from seed, aim for an optimal temperature of 75 F (24 C) to encourage germination within three to seven days. Lower temperatures will delay the emergence of the radicle (the part of the plant that develops into the root).

If you’re growing indica plants from seed, expect a slightly shorter germination period. Like sativa seeds, indica seeds require a warm temperature to germinate (approximately 71 to 75F or 22 to 25C).

Seedlings

When the beginnings of the tap root and a leaf or two appear, the seedling can be carefully transplanted. Both indica and sativa plants require special care and benefit from proper soil composition, climate control, and lighting as they are establishing root systems. The seedling stage lasts from 1-3 weeks.

Vegetation

The vegetative phase is characterized by the growth of the stem and leaves. The length of time a sativa or indica plant remains in the vegetative state depends entirely on its exposure to light. Sativa and indica plants move into the vegetative state after three to six weeks.

The vegetative phase is characterized by the growth of the stem and leaves. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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The sativa vegetative period starts slowly, with the stem elongating more rapidly later in the vegetative cycle. The stem of the sativa plant is fibrous rather than woody, and the leaves develop as narrow fingers. Throughout the duration of the vegetative cycle, seven to twelve leaf pairs form in a certain pattern . The first leaf pair comprises a single leaflet. The second pair has three leaflets. The third pair has five leaflets, and so on. Sativa uses less chlorophyll during the vegetative cycle than indica, resulting in light-green leaves.

Indica strains do not undergo the same stem elongation as the plant focuses on developing a thick, woody trunk to support the weight of future buds. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of cannabis indica plants is their leaves. Indica’s unmistakeable fat, forest-green fingers help to soak up light and accelerate growth. Outdoors, indica plants are unlikely to grow taller than six feet (two meters), and indoor plants usually grow three feet (one meter) or less. Indica strains tend to spread out wide like a bush, with vigorous branching.

Flowering

In both strains, pre-flowers can be easily mistaken for new branches. If you haven’t used feminized seeds, the pre-flowering period is the time to separate male plants from female plants. Males must be removed immediately to avoid pollinating females unless the intention is to produce seeds. The first male pre-flowers appear as a small sac, while female plants produce a structure called a cola that looks similar to a hair and will later become a flower or bud.

Flowering occurs when the days shorten, or when the plant receives 12 hours or less of continuous daily light. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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Flowering occurs when the days shorten, or when the plant receives 12 hours or less of continuous daily light. You can force flowering by reducing the hours of light exposure or photoperiod, signaling to the plant that the nights are becoming longer.

Sativa strains can take 10 to 12 weeks before the flowers are ready to harvest. These plants continue to grow tall and fast throughout their life cycle and can double in height even after they’ve entered the flowering period. The overall life cycle for sativa can last up to six months, resulting in a more extended growth-period than that of indica.

Indica strains flower more rapidly than sativa, forming flowers after seven to nine weeks on average. They continue flowering for up to twelve weeks. Many indica slow their upward growth as they begin flowering, and instead become bushier, with branches and leaves fanning out. Their life span is three to four months.

Harvest

Sativa buds are ready to harvest when the majority of the trichomes, or resinous glands on the buds, appear milky-white with only an occasional clear trichome in the mix. Sativa bud structure is frequently elongated and thin, with an appearance similar to spears. However, the flower buds of sativa can also form foxtails, when the calyxes, or nug groupings, of the female buds stack up on each other.

Indica buds are tightly packed and tend to grow in a more chunky formation than those of sativa. Indica trichomes that are ready to harvest can take on a milky-translucence as well, but often appear more amber in color.

Sativa buds are ready to harvest when the majority of the trichomes appear milky-white with only an occasional clear trichome in the mix. Indica trichomes that are ready to harvest can take on a milky-translucence as well, but often appear more amber in color. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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Beginner’s Guide to Marijuana Strains

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Cannabis use is on the rise in the United States. A 2018 study notes that, while cannabis use among teens has decreased, American adults are increasingly using cannabis on the daily.

According to Forbes, the global cannabis industry is estimated to be worth $7.7 billion. It’s projected to hit $31.4 billion by 2021.

The industry is booming in part because cannabis can be a versatile form of medication. A number of research studies have found that cannabis has the potential to help with a variety of medical conditions, including anxiety, chronic pain, and epilepsy.

But, as any recreational or medical marijuana user can tell you, not all cannabis is created equal. Different strains of cannabis produce different effects, and thus can be used for different reasons.

If marijuana is legal in your state and you’re looking to try it, but not sure which strains best suit your needs, we’ve got you covered. Check out our guide to marijuana strains below.

If you’ve read a little about marijuana, or if you enter most dispensaries, you might see the words indica, sativa, and hybrid. Generally, most people divide marijuana into these three categories.

Indica, which originates from the Hindu Kush mountains of India, is believed to have a relaxing effect on the user. Sativa has a more energizing effect, while hybrid is a combination of the two.

Many industry experts, however, are reconsidering the indica, sativa and hybrid categories. According to Amos Elberg, head of data science at Confident Cannabis, these terms are more or less meaningless.

“We see samples of all cannabis products tested through our partner labs, and when we look at all the data, particularly of the chemical makeup of flower, we see no identifiable characteristics that are consistent with indica, sativa, or hybrid,” he explains.

“Essentially people are using these terms as catchalls for effect, but they’re not all consistent with those effects. Some indica makes some people wired, not couch-locked, for instance.”

In other words, people shouldn’t be alarmed if a reportedly energizing sativa strain has more of a mellowing effect, or if an indica strain makes them feel more bubbly and excitable.

Beyond indica, sativa, and hybrid, dispensaries might divide the types of cannabis they have into strains. Strains are essentially different breeds of cannabis, and they’re bred to have specific effects on the user.

But if the terms indica, sativa, and hybrid are essentially useless categorizations, are strain names also meaningless?

Not exactly, says Elberg.

“Not all seeds that are sold under the same name are genetically identical, or even necessarily related. Some producers may choose to create a strain name essentially as a branding exercise, or to identify their product with an existing name because they believe the product matches characteristics the market expects from product sold under that name,” Elberg explains.

There are, however, still consistencies among product sold under specific strain names, Elberg adds.

“In general, for the less common names, product sold by different vendors tends to be pretty consistent,” he notes. “For the most common strain names, however, a wider variety of different products are sold.”

If you purchase product from a quality source, the strains should be more or less consistent. Bear in mind, however, that every person reacts differently to cannabis.

The strain you choose depends on what effect you desire. As mentioned earlier, cannabis has a range of medical uses, but some strains are better for certain conditions than others.

It’s also worth researching the potential adverse effects of the strain. Many of the more common strains, which you can find below, list dry mouth, dry eyes, and dizziness as possible side effects. Marijuana also has the potential to interact with medications you might be taking. Do not operate machinery when using marijuana.

According to user reviews on Leafly, here’s what people might expect from a few of the most popular marijuana strains.

Acapulco Gold

Originating from Acapulco, Mexico, Acapulco Gold is a well-known and highly praised strain of cannabis. It’s noted for its euphoria-inducing, energizing effects. It’s said to reduce fatigue, stress, pain, and even nausea.

Blue Dream

Blue Dream is relaxing and soothing, but it isn’t a total sedative. This makes it perfect for easing pain, cramps, or inflammation for when you can’t afford to fall asleep. Plus, it’s said to lift your mood and give you a feeling of euphoria.

Purple Kush

Purple Kush is great for inducing a state of bliss so that you feel relaxed, happy, and sleepy. It’s often used for reducing pain and muscle spasms. Its sedating effects means it can be used to reduce insomnia.

Sour Diesel

A highly energizing, mood-lifting strain, Sour Diesel is great for giving you a burst of productive energy. It also has notable destressing and pain-relieving effects.

Bubba Kush

Bubba Kush is a relaxing, sleep-inducing strain. It’s perfect for helping you fight insomnia and get some shut-eye. It also offers pain-reducing, stress-relieving results.

Granddaddy Purple

Granddaddy Purple is another highly relaxing strain. It’s often praised for its insomnia-fighting and stress-reducing results. Users also note that it can make you feel euphoria and increase hunger, which is great if you’re experiencing a lack of appetite.

Afghan Kush

Originating from the Hindu Kush mountains near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Afghan Kush is super relaxing and sleep-inducing. This, too, can help you feel hungry if you’re experiencing a lack of appetite, and can relieve pain.

LA Confidential

LA Confidential is another relaxing and sleep-inducing strain that is often used to soothe insomnia. It’s also said to have noticeable anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing effects, which makes it a favorite among people with chronic pain.

Maui Wowie

Maui Wowie can help you feel super relaxed, yet energetic and creative. It reduces fatigue, too, making it great for days when you need to be productive.

Golden Goat

Golden Goat is notable for making users feel euphoric and creative. It’s also great for reducing fatigue and stress while lifting your mood.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights is another relaxing, sleep-inducing strain. It’s also known for its mood-lifting effects, and it can be used to relieve insomnia, pain, stress, and depression.

White Widow

White Widow improves your mood, gives you energy, and relaxes you all at once. It’s said to help reduce pain and stress, as well as feelings of depression. If you’re feeling fatigued, White Widow might help you stay energized and alert.

Super Silver Haze

Another energizing strain, Super Silver Haze is said to produce feelings of euphoria, relieves pain and nausea, and lifts your mood. This makes it excellent for stress relief.

Pineapple Express

Made famous by the 2008 eponymous movie, Pineapple Express has a pineapple-like scent. It’s relaxing and mood lifting, but is also said to give you an energetic buzz. This is the sort of strain that could be great for productivity.

Fruity Pebbles

Fruity Pebbles OG, or FPOG, is associated with inducing euphoria and relaxation, which could make it great for stress relief. It often makes users feel giggly, helps reduce nausea, and increases appetite.

If marijuana is legal in your state and you’re interested in trying — or even growing — different types of cannabis strains, there are a number of products that can make your life a little easier.

Volcano Vaporizer

Some people might prefer inhaling cannabis over smoking it through a pipe, bong, or joint. This desktop vaporizer heats up cannabis and expels the vapor into a balloon. The person then inhales the air from the balloon.

The vaporizer can be used with dried herbs or liquid concentrates, and can be purchased here.

Magical Butter Kit

Cannabutter — or cannabis-infused butter — is the basis of many edibles. Unfortunately, making cannabutter can be a lengthy and labor-intensive process.

This butter kit, however, makes it easy to infuse herbs into butter. It has its own heating unit and thermostat, which ensures that the product and butter are at the ideal temperature throughout the process.

tCheck Dosage Checker

The tCheck Dosage Checker tests the strength of cannabis-infused liquids — like alcohol-based tinctures. It can also test cannabis-infused olive oil, ghee (clarified butter), and coconut butter, which will help you determine how strong your edibles are before you indulge.

Unfortunately, it only checks liquids, not dried herb.

Palm Mincer

Grinding up cannabis can be time-consuming, so the Palm Mincer can be quite useful. It fits perfectly into your palm, and it can be used to chop up cannabis quickly and efficiently. What’s more it’s dishwasher safe, so it’s easy to clean off the sticky cannabis resin. You can buy it I here.

Harvest Starter Kit

If you want to start growing your own cannabis, this convenient starter kit contains everything you need to harvest it.

The grow kit includes a trimming tray, a microscope for examining the buds to determine whether they’re ready for harvest, three types of pruning shears, a disinfecting spray for your tools, a drying rack, and gloves.

Note: Even if marijuana is legal in your state, it continues to be illegal under federal law.

Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer and journalist based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing covers issues relating to social justice and health. You can reach out to her on Twitter.

Last medically reviewed on September 26, 2018

Not all cannabis is created equal. Different strains of cannabis produce different effects, and thus can be used for different reasons. If marijuana is legal in your state and you’re looking to try it, but not sure which strains best suit your needs, we’ve got you covered with this beginner’s guide.