Cannabis Sativa, Indica and Ruderalis

With all the talk about how cannabis works on humans, it is important to keep the biology of the plant in mind. Cannabis is a fascinating plant, botanically speaking. Cannabis plants are sturdy and can thrive in many different environments. They have many uses and can reproduce both sexually and asexually (taking cuttings and propagating them). This ability has given cannabis a wide variation in its gene pool and, with this wide variation, great complexity.

Close-up Shot of Cannabis Sativa Plant
Cannabis sativa plant up close.

This complexity has caused decades of debate surrounding the taxonomy of cannabis. As such, this article elaborates on the best method of cannabis classification we have so far, breaking cannabis down into three distinct subspecies: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis

Molecular analytical techniques reveal such wide variation in the cannabis gene pool, that when looking at specific phenotypes and their cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles, we might actually see more similarity between a sativa and indica than between two indicas.

The complexity piles up thanks to how the environment in which a cannabis plant grows hugely contributes to its traits, particularly when breeders have combined so many sativas and indicas. The same species or strain of cannabis may grow in different ways in different environments. For example, it is not unusual to see the same species of cannabis from a region in India or Jamaica grow like a sativa at lower altitudes and as an indica at higher altitudes.

However, there seems to be enough genetic, morphological and chemical variation between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica to suggest that they are indeed two distinct (but related) subspecies. As for Cannabis ruderalis, the jury’s still out. There doesn’t seem to be enough difference between C. ruderalis and C. sativa on a genetic level to call them separate species. Yet, ruderalis’s distinct features (autoflowering and fewer “fingers” on its leaves) lead many to believe it deserving of its own group.

So, what are the main differences and similarities between Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis? Read on.

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What is Cannabis sativa (C. sativa)?

Cannabis sativa plants flowering.
Cannabis sativa plants in full bloom.

C. sativa tends to grow tall and produce narrow leaves. C. sativa favors sunnier climates, usually around the equator where there’s 12 hours of sunlight per day and the plant can stretch freely. When grown in the right environment, C. sativa plants can produce very high yields of flower. Grown outside of its environment, C. sativa can be finicky to grow and produce smaller yields. The flowering period tends to be between 12 – 16 weeks. The calyx-to-leaf ratio also tends to be higher in sativas, making them more difficult to trim at harvest.

Sativa effects and side-effects

C. sativa tends to produce high amounts of THC and certain equatorial landrace sativas seem to be higher in tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) as well. C. sativa also tends to have lower concentrations of CBD in them. Sativa flavors tend to be fruity and spicy, with some describing certain phenotypes of sativas as smelling of “cat pee”. This suggests that sativa strains might commonly contain terpenes like caryophyllene (the peppery smell/taste), pinene (the piney smell/taste) and limonene (the citrus/lemon smell/taste).

Many people describe sativas as having an “energetic,” “uplifting,” “focused,” and “alert,” effect, no doubt due to aforementioned components. This makes sativas potentially useful for conditions like depression, nausea, ADD/ADHD, multiple sclerosis (MS) and chronic pain. Sativas also tend to be popular appetite stimulants, but sativas with high amounts of THCV may also be used as appetite suppressants. Such sativas may be useful for managing weight and sugar levels, helping treat diabetes.

C. sativa’s effects can be pretty strong, and for some people, can induce anxiety and paranoia. Those who are prone to anxiety – which is often related to depression – may need to be careful with sativa strains, though finding the right one might be extremely beneficial. Also, correct dosing is important and plays a role in the individual’s response. The right sativa strain (or more accurately, variety) in small amounts might relieve anxiety due to the cannabinoids’ and terpenes’ interaction with CB1 receptors, but increase anxiety if taken in too-high amounts and the CB1 receptors are overstimulated.

What is Cannabis indica (C. Indica)?

Cannabis Indica
Cannabis indica plant.

C. indica comes from the regions of India (the “Kush Mountains”), Pakistan, and Afghanistan. They tend to grow in mountainous regions at high altitudes, meaning that they can usually handle colder climates. Indicas also tend to develop short and stocky – about three feet or under – and are quite sturdy as well to handle strong winds. The leaves are also broader, to capture more sunlight in colder regions. Flowering time for indicas are usually around 7 – 10 weeks, with some flowering in as little as six weeks.

Indica effects and side-effects

Many people assume that C. indica has low amounts of THC in it and high amounts of CBD. Indicas usually contain less THC than sativas, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the amount of THC in them is low, per sé. And though the amount of CBD in indicas is usually higher than the amount to be found in most sativas, there are definitely sativa strains with plenty of CBD in them. Hybridization has blurred the lines, and different phenotypes can produce more CBD, regardless of their “sativa” or “indica” label.

Indicas are said to have “sleepy,” “relaxing,” and “couch-locking,” effects. Although indicas and sativas share many of the same  terpene profiles, some are found in indicas more often or in greater concentration than in sativas, like myrcene (the hoppy/fuelly smell/taste), linalool (the lavender smell/taste) and bisabolol (the sweet, fruity, berry-like/floral smell/taste). In fact, these terpenes and their interaction with cannabinoids produce indicas’ “down,” effects, and not necessarily any specific THC: CBD ratio. Myrcene seems to change THC’s energizing effects into something more relaxing.

Higher amounts of CBD mixed with the “relaxing” terpenes make indicas a great choice for anxiety, chronic pain, appetite stimulation, arthritis, chemotherapy side effects, beating nausea, and inflammation. The higher CBD and slightly lower THC tends to make the psychoactive effects of C. indica less overwhelming, but some have suggested that the CBD helps the effects last longer as it interacts with THC in the endocannabinoid system (ECS). A 1:1 CBD:THC ratio is certainly less psychoactive than cannabis high in THC and low in CBD, but even 1:1 THC:CBD ratios can produce psychoactive effects in higher doses.

Interestingly enough, well-balanced indicas are often used for social situations, where sativas might prove to cause too much anxiety when used in public. The “gentler” effects of indicas or indica-tempered sativa strains tend to make them the strain of preference for many people.

What Is Cannabis ruderalis (C. ruderalis)?

Picture of a Male Cannabis ruderalis plant.
Male Cannabis ruderalis plant.

C. ruderalis is an interesting subspecies of cannabis. Some people suspect that it is a subtype of C. sativa, but others postulate that it shares traits with both indica and sativa and ought to be considered a mixture between the two. C. ruderalis is thought to originate from South or Central Asia, and later moved to Russia and Eastern Europe.

C. ruderalis tends to grow in places where there has been significant environmental disruption caused by human activity. Therefore, you can often find ruderalis growing near roadsides and on farmland. Ruderalis grows short in stature – around 1 – 1.5 feet – and contains little if any THC (although there is some CBD in C. ruderalis). In some regards, this makes ruderalis similar to hemp; some even consider it to be a kind of European hemp.

C. ruderalis can grow in relatively cool/cold climates and its autoflowering attributes mean that it doesn’t need to go through a vegetative stage. C. ruderalis can start flowering regardless of the light cycle and matures in about 6 – 8 weeks. This makes ruderalis varietals an excellent choice for those looking to grow hardy cannabis plants in environments where you might not otherwise be able to grow.

Ruderalis effects and side-effects

Due to the low levels of cannabinoids in C. ruderalis, it tends not to have any major medical uses (at least, not directly so). C. ruderalis is, however, used for breeding and growing hybrid strains. C. ruderalis has been crossbred with indicas and sativas in order to reduce the flowering time and space requirements to grow marijuana and has proven to be especially useful for those growing cannabis in colder climates.

Some have claimed that autoflowering strains tend to lack the potency of their indica and sativa counterparts. Still, there is no definite evidence for this and consumers can avoid the lack of potency by selecting for the attributes you’re looking for and buying seeds/clones from a reputable breeder. Their genetics mean that sativas and indicas crossed with ruderalis may be more likely to produce greater amounts of CBD, meaning that a good autoflowering strain might be ideal for those looking to grow at home or outdoors for medical reasons.

Indica Cannabis Plant - Northern Lights
Northern Lights – an Indica Cannabis strain.

Hybridization has caused a lot of overlap between C. sativa and C. indica strains, leading many to think that the distinction is arbitrary at best, at least when it comes to judging their respective effects on the human body. After all, it shouldn’t matter if the THC is coming from an indica or sativa plant – it’ll have the same effects. The key to understanding cannabis’s medical effects is to look at the entourage effect of cannabinoid-terpenoid interaction, as well as consumers’ unique ECS.

However, for botany and plant classification purposes, it seems that there are some distinct differences between C. indica and C. sativa. Are these differences natural, or do they occur because we have bred certain traits into them? There is, after all, considerable evidence that humans have purposefully bred cannabis for different uses for thousands of years. Nevertheless, determining the appropriate taxonomy for cannabis will likely take some time, with considerable debate on the way there. In the meantime, we have medical marijuana recommendations and cards and some degree of trial-and-error.

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Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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