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What Makes Each Marijuana Strain Unique?

byhellomdMarch 25, 20165 minutes

Marijuana strains are like coffee shops or denim brands -- once a consumer finds one they love, they won't explore anything else. Unfortunately, even marijuana aficionados who have a favorite strain find the strain differs from time to time. The reason for this is that while there are hundreds of marijuana strains currently in existence, they're all uniquely informed by their environment and genetic makeup. This leads to a wide variation in taste, texture and appearance from strain to strain. Here's what consumers need to know about how and why each marijuana strain differs from the next:

The Importance of Genetics and Environment

Just like children from different families and geographical locations will look and act differently from one another, marijuana strains with different genetics grown in different environments differ from one another as well. Here are two terms all consumers interested in marijuana diversity should know:

  • Genotype. A marijuana strain's genetics are known as its genotype. The genotype informs the plant's subsequent growth and physical traits and abilities. In many ways, the genotype lays the foundation for what the plant might be, and then it is up to the environment to bring these characteristics to fruition.
  • Phenotype. A phenotype is the way that the genotype is expressed physically. In other words, "phenotype" is a word used to describe the traits a plant's environment draw from a plant's genetic code.

Taken together, genotype and phenotype inform what a plant eventually becomes, and they are two of the main reasons a specific strain of cannabis may look different depending upon the environment in which it is grown and what its genetic makeup consists of.

The Evolution of Cannabis

To understand why cannabis strains vary from one another, it's important to understand where cannabis came from. Most experts believe that cannabis originated in Pakistan's Hindy Kush region and later spread to tropical areas around the world. One thing experts agree on is that the earliest species of cannabis are known as landrace strains -- marijuana's equivalent of an heirloom or foundational variety. These landrace strains are the cornerstones of all modern cannabis varieties, and today's indicas and sativas can trace their roots back to populations of these landrace strains around the world.

The Cultivation of Cannabis

Right around the 1970s, independent farmers and enthusiasts began to exhibit interest in cultivating cannabis in an indoor environment. While farmers had been growing cannabis around the world for centuries by this time, most of the cannabis cultivation had been in an outdoor environment. By virtue of stringent laws and little cultural acceptance, however, the farmers of the 1970s were largely forced to undertake their cannabis cultivation efforts indoors. This marked a large change for cannabis and a transition from the great outdoors to carefully maintained indoor gardens, complete with enriched soil, high-intensity grow lights and hydroponic grow systems.

Today, indoor grow operations are responsible for producing the bulk of the cannabis consumed in the U.S. In 1995, approximately 50% of all the cannabis consumed in this country was grown indoors, and that number has only skyrocketed since then. While farmers have learned how to alter these operations to provide the best possible environment for the plants in question, it's widely agreed upon that indoor cultivation limits the natural potential of marijuana strains due to the fact that the phenotype of modern cannabis is largely manipulated by people rather than being left up to nature. On the same token, however, the phenotype seen in domestic plants depends greatly upon things like lighting, soil characteristics and watering -- so domestic strains of marijuana offer differ significantly from one another.

How Hybridization Has Affected Diversity

Just like the transition to indoor grow operations influenced the diversity of cannabis species, so did the hybridization revolution. Before hybridization occurred, people had a choice between indica and sativa strains. When growers began to realize that there were certain aspects of each strain they admired, however, they began mixing the two strains to create new strains that combined the effects of indica and sativa.

The advent of hybridization created a way for marijuana consumers to access a seemingly infinite selection of marijuana strains and has contributed to today's craze over developing new and exciting strains. Today's hybrids are drastically more complex and measured than the strains of yesteryear. While many people herald this as a victory for the cannabis community, however, others see it as the development that spelled death for traditional cannabis genetics.

Fortunately, some cannabis consumers are dedicated to maintaining traditional indicia and sativa strains of cannabis. In addition to preserving the rich history of cannabis, the resurrection of these strains could also have marked impacts on the medical marijuana industry by providing unique compounds and opportunities for treatment. Currently, some strains are specifically useful for pain and other medical treatments, and continued exploration into breeding practices can help expound on this for the benefit of medical marijuana consumers everywhere.

The Case for Diversity

For consumers who have a favorite cannabis strain or are simply wondering why a single cannabis strain looks or tastes different depending upon where it comes from, the answer is two-fold: genetics and environment. Traditional marijuana strains often look and taste different from today's more hybridized versions and, even among hybridized versions, things like soil type, lighting, environment and genetics play a large part in determining what the plant ultimately grows to be. With that in mind, it's easy to see how, just like people in the U.S. vary from those in China, marijuana grown in one environment from one genetic selection will vary from strains grown in other environments or from other genetic stock.

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  • Cannabis 101
  • Genetics
  • Indica
  • Sativa
  • Strains