Weeducation: What really is the difference between Indica and Sativa?

Indica and Sativa, everyone who has consumed cannabis more than once knows what these are. These are the words to describe the two different types of major cannabis chemovar, which differ mainly in the smells and type of high we experience while using these products. While we all have our preferences between them, what specifically are the differences that make them what we love to consume?

In a study recently published as of October 14th, 2021, by the Canada’s Dalhousie University and the Wageningen University & Research collaboration, they broke cannabis down to its genome structures to take a look at the cold hard data that differentiates these two categories. Now like with all scientific studies this one is very wordy, so I will break this down into bite size chunks so that we without scientific degrees can understand the information these scientists have come up with.

The first point we will look into is the differences between the Indica and Sativa strains on single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) specifically, meaning the variation in a single base pair in a DNA sequence. Of 137 strains of marijuana ranging from full Indica to full Sativa and all major hybrid percentages in between, for which Principal component analysis (PCA(Shown in Graph below)) showed no major clustering or consistency for Indica or Sativa which you would expect between what is marketed as uniquely different as a customer. What this means is that these chemovars are minimally unique, on a genealogical scale, across strains.

PCA Graph showing SNP data

This is something that is not uncommon in plants however, and does not mean that these plants provide a different high experience between them. It simply means that cannabis is just that, cannabis. A comparison would be coffee beans. Coffee, much like cannabis, grows all around the world. Anyone who has had coffee can tell that there are aromatic, taste, and effect differences between different types of coffee. Personally, I prefer coffee from South America, specifically sourced from Peru, as it has a much lighter taste to it that darker beans such as Arabica. While these two will have distinct taste and smell, they are also near identical on a genealogical scale, despite this they provide entirely unique drinking experiences.

Now, back to cannabis. Well now that we know that cannabis is the same on a genome scale, what are the differences? Terpenes, the natural chemical compounds that determine the smell of the flower, and the taste when you smoke it. Across the board are iconic smells that people identify with strains of their preference. For Sativa, these can be described as fruity or sweet smelling, whereas Indica will likely be described as earthy or herby. These characteristics are distinctly correlated to the specific terpenes that are found in marijuana, which can be seen in the graph below.

Graph showing major terpenes found across Indica/Sativa strains

As shown by the data, these chemovars are vastly different from one another when it comes to major terpene profiles. The most prevalent terpene in Indica strains is Myrcene, which is the active sedating principle of hops and lemongrass, among other plants. This terpene’s smell characteristic is earthy, fruity, and clove-like. Sounds a lot like what some real fire Indica smells and smokes like, doesn’t it? Sativa on this graph shows that Bergamotene was the most prevalent terpene found in this study, which can be described as smelling peppery or citrusy. This terpene also found in the oils of some plants, such as carrots, lime and more.

Great so they smell different but how does this make the high that I get from an Indica or Sativa unique? A study on the “Therapeutic and Medicinal Uses of Terpenes” published by several research teams collaboratively determined that under heat stress, these chemical compounds activate and release in the smoke, which their data suggests directly influence your high. Thus we’ve found what makes our preferences realized in actuality.

So what this means for you, a cannabis consumer, is that you can continue to rely on the labels Sativa and Indica to be able to tell which products you prefer from your favorite farms. These words are a communication tool that you can use to describe to a budtender here at our House what kind of high you prefer, just like always. In the future, as more consumers become aware of the differences that terpenes provide, we can continue to serve you at higher levels of service, until you can walk in and name a terpene that is your favorite, and get a product with that as it’s major terp.

Even if this article is more than the amount of information you want to commit to memory, you’ll always be able to get what you’re looking for using just the terms Indica and Sativa. So, strapped with new knowledge and confidence, come on in and talk with your budtender, describe what type of smells tastes and terps you prefer from your weed to have the best experience possible. We look forward to seeing you here at your House of Cannabis.

-Kyle Heiderich
Article Author

Sources and Citations

Cannabis labelling is associated with genetic variation in terpene synthase genes
Watts, S., McElroy, M., Migicovsky, Z. et al. Cannabis labelling is associated with genetic variation in terpene synthase genes. Nat. Plants 7, 1330–1334 (2021).

Gary Richter, … Alexandros Makriyannis, in Nutraceuticals (Second Edition), 2021

The Terpenes Of Cannabis, Their Aromas, And Effects

Therapeutic and Medicinal Uses of Terpenes
Guest Editor (s): Nirmal Joshee, Sadanand A. Dhekney, and Prahlad Parajuli
Agricultural Research Station, Fort Valley State University, Fort Valley, GA USA
Department of Agriculture, Food and Resource Sciences, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Princess Anne, MD USA
Department of Neurosurgery, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI USA

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