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Cannabis Strains Guide: Getting Oriented

A 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.

Types of Marijuana: 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.

A Closer Look at Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid Strains of Marijuana

Before we dive into our cannabis strains guide, we should take a moment to discuss the concepts of indica, sativa, and hybrid strains.

Back in the 18th century, when the cannabis plant was first categorized by European botanists, the names “sativa” and “indica” had very different meanings. “Sativa” referred to the hemp plants grown primarily in Europe and Eurasia for their fiber and their seeds. “Indica” was used to describe the plants with psychoactive properties grown in India and Central Asia.  

Today, sativa and indica are more commonly used to differentiate between different cannabis strains subjective effects, as well as the plants’ physical characteristics. Sativa plants—often called trees, as they can reach heights of 20 feet—produce thin-bladed leaves that are spaced far apart from each other. Subjectively, many people describe the effects of sativa as “energizing” or “stimulating.” That’s one reason they’re favored for daytime use, or for times when a heavier psychoactivity might not be desired.

By comparison, indica plants are often called bushes owing to their squat profiles. Compared with sativas, the plants are shorter and the leaves are broader, and typically more closely spaced. In terms of indica’s subjective effects, it’s often described as imparting a heavy body-centered psychoactivity. While it can be profoundly relaxing on the physical level—especially if you’re trying to counteract muscle soreness or chronic pain—the experience isn’t generally suited to high productivity. That’s one reason indicas are often favored for taming troubles with sleep.

Many strains of cannabis on the market today are known as hybrid plants, meaning they’re genetic crosses between sativa and indica species. It’s not uncommon to see cannabis strains labeled as “sativa-dominant,” “indica-dominant,” or “balanced” hybrids. These descriptions are based on the phenotype, or physical characteristics the strain inherited from the two parent plants.

What do Cannabis Strain Names Mean?

With that introduction to sativas and indicas out of the way, let’s focus more intently on the topic of individual marijuana strains. How do they get their names? It turns out that growing location, color, experience, and lineage can all play a role.

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 cannabis 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.

Types of Marijuana: What Makes a Strain Unique?

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, occur in varying proportions from strain to strain. These unique combinations set strains apart from one another. Here’s a closer look at each:

  • Cannabinoids, sometimes known as phytocannabinoids, are a family of more than 100 compounds found in cannabis. The cannabinoid family includes a couple you’ve probably heard of, namely tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is responsible for the cannabis plant’s distinctive intoxicating “high,” but it does much more than that. Studies suggest THC helps relieve pain and may help treat insomnia. By comparison, CBD isn’t intoxicating (though some people describe a gentle cerebral “lift”). Thus far, studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in treating pain and inflammation, anxiety, certain types of seizures, and more. 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 given marijuana strain is that the proportionality of the compounds plays a key role. For example, just because a strain such as 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.” 

Cannabis Strains Guide: How to Choose a Strain for Your Needs and Goals

  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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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 Marijuana 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 are plenty of strains to try; your perfect match is out there!

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