Whether your are new to cannabis or have been enjoying it for decades, walking into a dispensary to pick out clones or flowers can be an overwhelming experience. Modern cannabis plants have a variety of colorful names such as “Dream Queen”, “Black Jack”, or even “Romulan Grapefruit”; while these names may be a lot of fun to say, they don’t always tell us much about the effects of the strain or how to differentiate them from the all of the others. Fortunately, there are ways to categorize each strain to make it easier to understand the differences between them.
Categorizing by Species
The traditional way of categorizing cannabis is by using binomial nomenclature; the Latin-language based, two-name system used in biology. Using this system, we can break the cannabis plant down into 3 basic species; sativa, indica, and ruderalis. Each of the species has it’s own physical characteristics, it’s own effects on the human body, and it’s general place of origin; each species should be researched by the aspiring cannabis grower to get a better understanding of the types of plants they want to grow.
Before growing cannabis indoors using hydroponics became the norm, cannabis sativa was the most common strain to find in the black market. Sativa originated in East Asia and tend to grow much taller (up to 20 feet!) than other cannabis species. While sativa is higher in CBD than indica, it tends to produce a more “heady” high and can keep people awake at night as it stimulates the mind. Sativa tends to take longer than other strains to grow but is also easier to grow outdoors in large quantities which makes it a favorite for first time outdoor growers. The sativa plant’s life cycle is determined how much light it gets in a day; it will switch from “vegetative growth” to “flowering” after when it get’s less than 12-hours of light a day (after the summer solstice) and be ready to harvest two and a half months later. Classic sativa-dominant strains suited for outdoor growth are “Trainwreck”, “Sour Diesel”, and “Blue Dream”; any of these will make a great choice for outdoor growers.
Indica plants have become the most popular plants in the US for two reasons; their small size is perfect for indoor growing and their sedative, relaxing properties are highly desirable for casual consumers. As the name suggests, indica plants originated in in South Asia where it is traditionally processed into hashish before consumption. Indica plants are short and stout with broad leaves and tend to be more difficult to grow outdoors than sativa plants. Like sativa, indica’s lifecycle is determined by the amount of light it gets rather than the age of the plant itself and will be ready for harvest a little before sativa plants as indica tends to mature more quickly. Indica buds tend to be more dense than sativa buds; when grown indoors, indica will produce a higher yield but when grown outdoors it’s small stature means a lower overall harvest than a sativa plant. “Northern Lights” is the classic indica that west coasters have grown up with and any strain with “Kush” in the name (ex. “OG Kush”, “Mango Kush”, “Bubba Kush”) will be an indica or at least “indica-dominant”.
While sativa and indica have become household names, cannabis ruderalis is largely unknown even amongst cannabis connoisseurs. The ruderalis plant is native to Eastern Europe and Russia and has a history of being a folk medicine but is generally not consumed for recreational purposes and is seldom cultivated. Ruderalis grows small, has a relatively small yield, and is relatively low in THC; it is the antithesis of what almost every cannabis grower is after. So, why bother learning about ruderalis in the first place? One reason; it is naturally high in CBD and naturally low in THC which makes it great for medicinal purposes. The other reason? Ruderalis is an “auto-flowering” plant which means it is not dependent on light cycles to go from vegetative growth to flowering, it switches automatically based on the age of the plant.
Categorizing by What You Find in the Club
Now that you have an understanding of the three basic strains of cannabis, it’s time to talk about what you will actually find in a cannabis club. Pretty much every cannabis club that sells clones will have a variety of sativa and indica plants for you to choose from; keep in mind that the market is geared towards indoor growers so make sure your sativa or indica is suited for outdoor growth! It is highly unlikely you find cannabis ruderalis in a club (or at least advertised as such), but you will almost certainly find a few other labels that the aspiring cannabis cultivator should be aware of.
The truth is that the overwhelming majority of plants on the market these days are hybrid plants; they don’t fall into one specific category. Most hybrids on the market will be indica/sativa hybrids with their respective percentages labeled (“Black Jack” for example, is 70% indica/ 30% sativa). Because hybrid plants can fall anywhere on the spectrum between indica and sativa, it is impossible to generalize the effects a hybrid plant will have when consumed so it’s important to research the hybrid’s “parent plants” to help predict what the effects will be (Black Jack’s “parents” are “Black Domina” and “Jack Herer”). Some hybrid plants will be easy to grow outdoors, others will be very difficult; with the sheer variety of hybrid plants it is essential that the grower researches each strain to make sure that it can be grown and will produce the desired effects.
CBD strains are hybrid plants that have been selectively bred to be low in THC with high levels of CBD. Many medicinal cannabis patients use CBD to treat pain, anxiety, epilepsy, and many other ailments but don’t want the “high” that THC provides; this is where CBD plants come. Because they are hybrids, CBD strains can be more “sativa-dominant” or “indica-dominant” but they always share the common factor in that they are low in THC and high in CBD. As a relatively new trend in the cannabis market, there is a significantly smaller section of CBD plants as compared others which means it will be harder to find strains that grow outdoors well. “Charlotte’s Web” (a sativa-dominant hybrid) is the most famous CBD strain while AC/DC is the most readily available in dispensaries.
Most cannabis plants are photoperiodic which means they switch from vegetative growth to flowering growth based on changes in exposure to light; in the case of cannabis, the plant begins to flower when it gets more exposure to darkness than light (after the summer solstice for outdoor growers); this means that outdoor growers are limited to one growth/harvest cycle per year. Auto-flowering strains of cannabis are hybrid strains that mix cannabis ruderalis with either sativa or indica (or both); the end result is a plant that flowers based on the age of the plant (the way cannabis ruderalis does) but with the higher THC levels that come with sativa or indica. Because they are not dependent on light cycles for switching from vegetative growth to flowering, outdoor growers can plant, grow, and harvest multiple times within one year! With their ruderalis heritage, auto-flowering plants tend to grow on the shorter side (great for “guerrilla” gardens in states with prohibition, not so good for legal farmers looking for high yield-harvests) and are only available as seeds. Auto-Flowering plants are ultimately an interesting biological experiment that are great for growers who need keep their gardens a secret but a waste of space for growers in legal states.
So, What Should I Get?
Selecting plants for your outdoor garden will always be a balance between the effects you want from the plant versus the practicality in actually growing it. The amateur outdoor grower needs to understand that plants that they are growing if they are to get the effect that they desire and that same grower needs to understand that they might not always be able to get ahold of that perfect strain. Most backyard growers in legal states will select from 3 basic categories: sativa-dominant, indica-dominant, and CBD; make sure you understand what each of these are before investing a year of yard work into your project! For your first few grows, stick to the well known names; these names are well known because they they have been on the market for years, they have been on the market for years because they hearty plants that are easy to grow! More than anything else, a little knowledge can go a long way when picking out plants for your garden.