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What Is Cannabis Sativa?

September 01, 2021

By now, you most likely have heard of the terms cannabis sativa, indica, and hybrid; and just like Alice in Wonderland, you might know that one brings you up, one brings you down, and one doesn’t do anything at all (just kidding, hybrids offer an abundance of complexity). 


Maybe you have that friend that swears by sativa as a creative muse, a must-have pre-workout medicine, or simply a potentiator of bubbly, sociable moods. On the other hand, you might have a friend that avoids pure sativa strains because of their potential to trigger anxiety and prefer the more “chill” effects of the Cannabis indica family. 


However, it’s worthwhile to take a few minutes and explore what Cannabis sativa really is beyond its grouping of generalized descriptors. What makes a weed plant a sativa, what differentiates Cannabis sativa vs indica, how do sativa strains affect the body, and what are some of the best and most common sativa strains? On the flip side, what are some Cannabis indica strains? These are some of the questions that this article will cover. 


Whether you use cannabis medicinally or recreationally, this article will inform you all about Cannabis sativa and serve as an informational guide for finding the strains that work best for you. 

cannabis sativa

Cannabis Sativa: The Basics

First, let’s address something basic. It might feel like a silly question, but you might be wondering, how do you pronounce Cannabis indica and sativa, anyway? Cannabis sativa is pronounced “CAN-a-biss sat-EEVAH” and indica sounds like “IN-dick-ah.” There! Now that we know how to say what we’re talking about, we can jump right in. 


A good way to understand what makes a cannabis plant a sativa is to explore the following basic question: What is the difference between sativa and indica cannabis? Sativa, Indica, and hybrids are all types of cannabis. That means they are all families of the same plant. Hybrids contain genetic combinations of both sativa and indica strains. The main thing that determines whether a plant is Cannabis indica vs Cannabis sativa is its structural appearance or phenotype. 


The Phenotype of Cannabis Sativa

Without knowing anything about a plant’s THC or terpene profile, you can tell a sativa from an indica plant just by looking at it. Whenever we are talking about the structural characteristics, we are really talking about its phenotype. Sativas are the wispy, lanky cousins of indicas. When comparing a sativa and an indica plant, you’ll notice that sativa’s leaves are long, thin, and feathery compared to the indica leaf. An indica, on the other hand, is more stout, dense, and a darker green. 


While the flowers of an indica gather around the plant’s nodes (the parts of the plant where new growth emerges), flowers on a sativa branch outward. In addition to plant thickness, the height difference between sativas and indicas is significant. Sativa plants can grow up to twenty feet, whereas indicas might only grow as much as a couple meters. 


The length of time that sativa plants take to grow also differs from indica plants. The vegetative phase of most sativa cannabis is generally a bit shorter than indicas, but sativa’s flowering period can take anywhere from ten to sixteen weeks to fully mature. By the end of a sativa plant’s flowering stage, it will look much longer and less densely flowered than the bushier, densely flowered indica variety. 


The Evolution of Cannabis Sativa

All of these attributes have to do with genetics. That is to say, sativa plants have the anatomy and behavior that they do because these features are evolutionary adaptations to the environments they originated from. Sativa plants originated in the warm, balmy climates close to the equator, where days were long. Therefore, the plants experienced extensive photoperiods. 


Because of the specific climate conditions that cannabis sativa originated from, Cannabis sativa plants could take their time during the flowering stage. The flowers did not have to rush to reproduce before the coming of the cold seasons like many ancient indica plants did. That is why it takes longer to fully mature a sativa plant than it does an indica. 


Did you know that at one point, all cannabis was considered Cannabis sativa? That means that when looking up indica strains, it would be technically accurate, for example, to call it Cannabis sativa subsp. indica’ Northern Lights’. To make things a little more complicated, there are other non-psychoactive subspecies of Cannabis sativa, which we call hemp. The fibers from this plant have nearly endless uses, including paper, clothing, and twine. Can Cannabis indica be used as hemp? Sure, it can! All weed plants have the potential to be put to use as hemp. But it would be putting to waste all of its magical, physical, and physiological effects. For reasons that aren’t quite relevant anymore, non-psychoactive hemp was originally called C. Sativa.


So, if this is the phenotype for sativa, then what is cannabis indica


The phenotype of Cannabis Indica

Just like Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica’s phenotype directly results from the evolutionary processes that the plant underwent to adapt to its environment. In fact, the terminology we use today came directly from botanists and historical scientists who were specifically interested in delineating strains according to their evolutionary morphology. 


And that brings us to Cannabis Indica, or Cannabis Indica Lam, as many have called it--after Jean Baptiste Lamarck. While Cannabis sativa was thought to grow largely in the Western hemisphere, Cannabis indica was named for its propensity to grow wild in India. Even more specifically, across the mountainous area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. 


In the 1700s, Lamarck differentiated Cannabis indica lam from sativa because he noticed distinctive differences in the plant. Since scientists know that cannabis has been around since at least 3000 BCE, Cannabis indica may trace its beginnings to the Siberian and Mongolian steppes regions. Tectonic shifts in the earth could have spawned the adaptive traits of sativa and indica, as they developed characteristics uniquely useful to their new environments. 


As mentioned before, the indica plant is much sturdier than the sativa. It has a woody stem rather than a more flexible, fibrous stem. The indica leaf is darker green, with fan-shaped fronds that are wider than sativa’s. When fully mature, an indica plant has more mass than a sativa. 

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Growing Cannabis Indica

If you’re an aspiring grower, you might be wondering: how much cannabis can an indica plant produce? Up to a whole pound! And it flowers much more quickly than sativa. If sativa plants take longer to mature, how long does cannabis indica take to grow? Well, its flowering period takes about 8 weeks. Its vegetative, or growing phase, lasts about 4-6 weeks. So, to determine how long from seedling to flowering phase for indica cannabis, add the time together. You’re looking at about a 10-14 week cycle altogether.


Botanists and historical scientists infer that this shortened cycle happened because the anatomy of the indica plant is much more suited for colder climates with less sun or shorter photoperiods. Therefore, indica plants needed to reproduce quickly to beat the oncoming frosts. All of this information is the main reason why Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica got the names that they do today. 



THC and Terpene Profile of Cannabis Sativa

It’s good that we know some history, but we still need to know the effects of sativas and indicas and what kinds of uses they have. The way that Cannabis sativa makes us feel has nothing to do with its physical characteristics. Instead, it is determined by THC and terpene content.  


While many types of terpenes are found in cannabis, limonene and pinene take center stage for the most popular sativa strains. How will you know if your weed will uplift you? Smell it. The citrusy, piney aromas wafting from a fresh bud will tell you that you are most likely holding a sativa or sativa-dominant strain. The way that terpenes interact with cannabinoids in your weed is what creates the psychological and physical effects. Some say that any strain with over fifty percent limonene is a sativa. 


On the other hand, a predominance of that familiar earthy, skunky scent probably indicates that you are holding an indica. That rich, musky scent is attributed to myrcene, the terpene most associated with the effect of “couch-lock” - that feeling of being so relaxed you can barely get off the sofa. A strain with fifty percent or more of myrcene is considered an indica. These are the simplest and most identifiable ways to differentiate sativa from indica. 


Additionally, people often associate a higher THC ratio and a lower CBD with sativas while associating a higher CBD content to indicas. Research to investigate the claims that sativas are higher in THC say this is true, but not by a significant amount. This means that the THC and CBD contents in sativas and indicas can vary, which ultimately means that sativas and indicas can’t be locked into airtight categories. It is also important to mention that there’s been plenty of crossbreeding throughout the thousands of years of cannabis’ existence. Almost every strain, whether called “sativa” or “Cannabis indica,” is some form of hybrid. 


The Effects of Cannabis Sativa

People reach for sativa strains to feel invigorated, uplifted, inspired, and energized. Known for having a distinctly “cerebral” effect, sativas are popular among artists. Many find that sativas stimulate the creative unconscious. For those who take cannabis in the mornings, that first toke or edible will most likely come from a reliable sativa strain that encourages them to greet the day. Or, to put it another way, sativa is a great “wake and bake” choice.


Athletes often love taking some kind of sativa before or during a workout. Many athletes claim the high allows for a meditative focus without the sedating effects of many indicas. On the other hand, some folks attribute strong sativas with increased anxiety. Focus, activity, acuity, creativity, socialization, and stimulation are buzzword descriptors of Cannabis sativa. 


So why does sativa have these effects in comparison to indica? The answer has everything to 

do with terpenes, and of course, the THC content. 


Effects of Cannabis Indica

As beloved as sativa is for its uplifting effects, Cannabis indica is just as much so for its relaxing and medicinal value. In A Chapter from the History of Cannabis Indica, Edward Granville Browne writes about the myriad ways that Cannabis indica has been woven into the fabric of human life since ancient times. Human beings have interacted with this plant for so long that there are seemingly endless Cannabis indica medical uses.


With its prominent myrcene profile, Cannabis indica is known to sedate and provide a more prominent body-high than Cannabis sativa. It promotes sleep, tranquility, and relief from pain. Remember, it’s the magical myrcene terpene that is most likely responsible for these effects. Myrcene also allows indica to promote appetite, or what’s commonly called “the munchies.” 


Indica is widely used medicinally to promote sleep. When purchasing for this reason, one might wonder, how long will a person sleep using indica cannabis? Because everyone’s system is different, the effect will vary. However, when taken as an edible or tincture, the effects will stay in the body longer than when smoking. So, when determining how many drops of a Cannabis indica tincture to use at bedtime, remember to be patient and take it slow at first. Most will suggest one full tincture or about five drops. 


Medical Uses for Cannabis Indica Oil

Because of the high potential for Cannabis indica medical uses, you are likely to see indica strains put into various forms besides just straight flower. Can a cannabis oil be sativa or indica? Of course, it can! Both can be turned into oils. So it’s important to ask your budtender which kind it is if you are trying to buy specifically indica oil.


Cannabis indica oil is a popular form for patients because it can be easily mixed into food or taken as a Cannabis indica tincture, which is useful when suffering from nausea. How does the indica cannabis oil calm you down? The cannabinoids preserved in the oil cross your blood-brain barrier and absorb into your system. On the other hand, you can also get non-psychoactive Cannabis indica essential oil if you are looking for just the scent of the terpenes.


It’s always good to check in with your medical provider when taking advantage of Cannabis indica medical uses. Try to find a provider that understands how your cannabis affects your medications. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like, “how does indica cannabis oil interact with Xanax?” It’s important to mention here that there are no known dangerous side effects of THC. However, there are a few Cannabis indica side effects to look out for: dry mouth, red eyes, increased appetite, and sedation. 

sativa strains

Cannabis Sativa Strains 

Jack Herer: 

This classic strain gets its name from one of cannabis’s most famous activists, otherwise known as the “Emperor of Hemp.” He’s also the writer of the seminal tome, The Emperor Has No Clothes. Jack Herer is a sativa dominant hybrid, which combines the energetic uplift attributed to sativas with an earthy balance. At around 18% THC, Jack Herer is pretty strong, so it’s a good idea for first-timers to start slow. 


Sour Diesel: 

Popular since the 90s, the terpenes in this sativa dominant hybrid give it the distinctive smell of gasoline. A little musky, a lot sour, its aromatic profile is hard to miss. Sour D is powerfully energizing and a great choice for mornings before a run. Medicinally, this strain is frequently used to treat depression and stress. Use this strain to tap into your creativity and to keep motivated with your projects. 


Tangie: 

Inspired by its older cousin, Tangerine Dream, this strain smells deliciously citrusy. Tangie grows tall, making it perfect for outdoor growing. Its compact buds are beautifully dusted in orange hairs and frosted with heavily resinous trichomes. Its strong, refreshing tangerine aroma makes for a delightful pick-me-up during the day. A relatively balanced hybrid, this strain is great for uplifting mood, stimulating appetite, and relieving nausea.  


Strawberry Cough: 

This sweet n skunky strain is a powerful sativa dominant hybrid with low CBD content. At about 80% sativa, Strawberry Cough can be smoked throughout the day without landing you on the couch or slowing you down. As the name suggests, it tastes distinctly like strawberries, and its mouth-pull is known to make even frequent fliers cough a little.  


Green Crack 

This strain is so potent that Snoop Dogg himself renamed it from its original “Cush” to Green Crack. If you’re a little put off by the name, you can also seek it out as Cush or Green Cush. Have no fear; this strain is nothing but fun and innocent THC happiness. This hybrid might look like an indica, but its myrcene content gives this tangy bud an earthy aroma while still landing solidly in the sativa category. It has a smooth, pleasant feel and a tint of mango for the aftertaste. For beginners, too much of this might cause some anxiety, so it’s best to take it slow.


These are just a few of the more prominent Cannabis Sativa strains out there. For the sake of comparison, here are some Cannabis indica strains: 


Cannabis Indica Strains


Northern Lights

When people think of Cannabis indica, they think Northern Lights. A cherished favorite among Cannabis indica aficionados, this pure indica strain is famous for its medicinal uses. Known for relieving pain, stress, and insomnia, Northern Lights is frequently crossbred with other strains. It has a spicy-sweet smell and produces beautiful purple and crystalline buds. Indoor growers can harvest a mature Northern Lights strain in as few as 50 days. 


Grandaddy Purple

 Some might call Granddaddy Purp the king of couch lock. Rich in myrcene, THC, and CBD, this strain delivers an ultra calming effect. It produces gorgeous purple buds with a luscious berry aroma. 


Bubba Kush 

Yet another heavy-hitter, this myrcene rich indica is widely known for its dreamy, deeply relaxing effects. This pure indica strain is thought to have originated in the Hindu Kush mountains, and it may be the result of some kind of crossbreeding with Northern Lights. Heavy with both myrcene and caryophyllene, this is a great strain to cuddle up with under soft blankets and descend into a gentle sleep.


Hindu Kush

Otherwise known as Hindi Kush, this strain is widely popular with hash makers because of its decadent coating of trichomes over its buds. Its name comes from the region across Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the plant is believed to have originated. A pure Cannabis indica strain, this strain has powerful medicinal effects. It is long-lasting with a gradual onset and is popular for treating chronic pain, cramping, nausea, inflammation, and insomnia. 


sativa vs indica

What is the Difference Between Sativa and Indica Cannabis

The strains we just covered are some of the most prominent examples of the effects of cannabis sativa vs indica. Although you can see that Cannabis Sativa is clearly associated with energizing and uplifting effects, the difference between the two is much more complicated than the question of “does indica cannabis speed you up or slow you down.” 


As we’ve mentioned earlier, the structure of the plant is a surefire determinant of whether something is Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica. While these plants are very generally known to be uplifting vs. sedating, the truth is - everyone’s cannabinoid receptors are different. That means a Northern Lights Cannabis indica that puts your friends right to sleep might just keep your mind racing. The important thing is to pay attention to how a strain’s THC, CBD, and terpene content affect your mind and body. 


Overwhelmingly, the question most often asked when offered a hit of weed is, “Is it indica, or is it sativa?” Instead, the question you should be asking is, “what is its THC and terpene profile?” It’s okay if that seems a little too nerdy for you. The point is this: the experience you get from your cannabis depends much more upon the entourage effect of your weed’s cannabinoids and terpenes than on the physical traits of the plant itself. Take your time and experiment! You might find that you love both Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa equally. 

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