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A Guide to Cannabis Strains

One visit to a cannabis dispensary is a crash course in just how many options you have. Not only are there several product types to choose from, but each category contains products derived from different “strains,” also known as cultivars, of cannabis. Whenever you hear a name like “Grandaddy Purp” or “Sour Diesel” attached to your cannabis product, that’s the name of a strain. 

The difference between one strain and the next can be rather significant, and strain names help keep them organized. The difference between strain names is more than just skin deep, though. Understanding the differences between strains can help you choose the best cannabis product for your needs.

What are strains?

Cannabis strains are different varieties of the cannabis plant. Different strains have unique genetic and physical characteristics, which can typically be observed in the way the plant grows and in its specific chemical profile. They are created through intentional breeding between cannabis plants. There are thought to be nearly 800 strains of cannabis and counting, with breeders developing new varieties of cannabis all the time. Many strains have been bred strategically to enhance certain traits in the resulting plant, such as increased cannabinoid production or a unique terpene profile.

Many strains of cannabis on the market today are known as hybrid plants, which are genetic crosses between the sativa and indica species. Today, we mainly refer to plants as “sativa-dominant,” “indica-dominant,” or “balanced” hybrids, and the appearance of each can vary depending on the phenotype, or physical characteristics the strain inherited from its parent plants. 

What do strain names mean?

Location, color, experience, and lineage all influence how a cannabis strain is named.

Strain names can be based on the geographic region in which the strain originated. For example, Maui Wowie is a strain that originated in Hawaii. It is known for its tropical flavor and aroma, as well as an uplifting and energetic experience that won’t cloud your thinking. 

Strains are also commonly named for their parent strains. For example, Purple Kush is a cross between the strains Hindu Kush and Purple Afghani. In this example, the naming convention is also influenced by appearance. “Purple” strains often display vivid blues and violets throughout the flower of a mature plant.

Other strains still are named for their purported consumption experience. Trainwreck is named for its elevated THC content – as high as 25% — and associated intoxicating qualities. Similarly, Strawberry Cough is named for its fruity flavor.

What makes a strain its own?

Genetically, strains differ from one another in two critical ways: cannabinoid profile and terpene profile. These compounds, found within the resin of a mature cannabis plant, are found in varying proportions from strain to strain. These different combinations set strains apart from one another. Here’s a closer look at each:

  • Cannabinoids, or phytocannabinoids, are the more than 100 compounds found in cannabis, such as Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). The proportions of cannabinoids found in a given strain plays a big role in how that strain affects your overall consumption experience. Cannabinoids influence a wide range of bodily processes through a series of receptors and internally produced chemicals known as the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS).
  • Terpenes are volatile compounds found in many plants throughout the world, including cannabis. Terpenes are aromatic and flavorful, which directly influences the way a strain of cannabis smells and tastes. Researchers believe the proportions in which terpenes are present in a strain also influences your overall consumption experience. 

What’s important to note about the cannabinoid and terpene profiles of a strain is that the proportionality of the compounds is key. For example, just because a strain like Maui Wowie contains myrcene does not mean all myrcene strains are uplifting or energizing. Instead, it is the unique combination of all cannabinoids and terpenes found within a strain that creates the unique experience associated with each one. Researchers are still examining the exact nature of this relationship, which has been dubbed “the entourage effect.”

How to choose a cannabis strain

  1. Consider your goals: You can’t know what strain is best for you unless you know what you’re after. Consider your goals carefully: Are you looking for an energetic, creative experience that won’t leave your thinking cloudy? Do you want something that will help you destress after a long day? Maybe you prefer something that can take the edge off persistent back pain? There are undoubtedly many strains that could fit each of these use cases, but it’s best to know your objectives before making your selection.
  2. Ask your friends: If you have friends who consume cannabis, tell them what you want and ask if they’ve ever had a strain that fits the bill. Some people swear by one strain, while others like to change it up. Leverage the knowledge of cannabis consumers in your circle to establish a good jumping off point in your search.
  3. Do some homework: There is a wealth of information from reliable sources on various cannabis strains online. Websites like Leafly often have a breakdown of individual strains, including cannabinoid content, terpene content, and consumers’ reported experiences and reviews. Research some of the strains on your list and see what others are saying about them. Once you have a shortlist of strains that could be right for you, search your area to ensure the strains you’re after are available. Tools like Weedmaps make finding strains of cannabis and other products in your local market simple. 
  1. Visit a dispensary: Many dispensaries always have a wide range of available options. Ask the budtender or pharmacist on staff for any recommendations based on your goals. Don’t hesitate to ask questions – the staff is here to help guide you.
  2. Trial and error: Not every strain will be a home run, and that’s OK. It’s all part of the cannabis exploration experience. Consider keeping notes on the strains you try and using that feedback to refine your selection next time you visit the dispensary.

Understanding cannabis strains can inform your decision-making

Understanding the difference between strains is much more than just memorizing some unusual names or the way cannabis flower differs in appearance from one product to the next. At the core of a strain is a unique chemical fingerprint that offers its own set of effects, flavors, and aromas. 

The strain that is right for you is dependent largely on personal preference and your reasons for consuming cannabis in the first place. Determining which strains you prefer and which you’d rather avoid is a process. As your preferences and goals shift over time, you might find that a strain you once loved is now second fiddle to a new discovery. Luckily, there’s plenty of strains to try out; your perfect match is out there. 

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