Cannabis is a fascinating plant, which has its roots deep in the history of human civilization. One of the first-ever domesticated crops, cannabis has long provided nutritious seeds and valuable fiber to humanity. As a result, early scientists took keen interest in the plant and sought to categorize it into existing taxonomic systems, making it easier to study and discuss.
Today, cannabis users regularly employ the terms “indica,” “sativa” and (to a lesser extent) “ruderalis” when talking about types of weed — but what do these terms actually mean, and do they remain realistic categories for the cannabis culture of tomorrow?
Though humanity’s use of cannabis dates back before written history, it wasn’t until the enlightenment era of the 18th century that scientists (then called philosophers) took an interest in the plant. By this time, cannabis was used around the world for its fibers; more than 90 percent of all clothing derived from hemp, and hemp provided the cloth for ship sails — in fact, the term “canvas” is a derivation of “cannabis.” Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the father of the modern system of naming organisms, determined that all cannabis fell into one category, which he named Cannabis sativa.
At this time in history, some cultures were using cannabis for its psychoactive properties. A number of peoples in West Africa smoked water pipes as religious rites, and large populations in India and China drank cannabis beverages and created cannabis cuisine for spiritual practice.
It is through these sources that French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck determined that there must be another variety of cannabis that inspires “a sort of drunkenness that makes one forget one’s sorrows and produces a strong gaiety.” Plus, Lamarck noted that cannabis plants can grow differently, with one variety being tall and thin and the other short and stocky. The latter, a newer discovery, he named Cannabis indica, for it was in India that he first sampled the drug.
Fast forward 150 years, and we reach the final distinction in cannabis varieties. In 1924, Russian botanist D.E. Janischewsky determined that there is a third type of cannabis, this one of the “ruderal” variety. In botany, ruderal plants are those that grow despite the inhospitableness of their environment; Janischewsky observed that throughout Russia and Central Europe, this cannabis variety — which is much smaller than indica and sativa varieties — grew almost anywhere, like a weed.
As a result, today, cannabis enthusiasts widely utilize these three categories of cannabis in cultivation, sale and use. Even the wild-growing ruderalis has been introduced in grow operations to diversify genetics and add new characteristics to hybrid strains. Cannabis experts continue to rely particularly on indica and sativa to describe their strains, as demonstrated on sites like Weedmaps, and most dispensaries label their goods with these terms, as well.
Though Linnaeus, Lamarck and Janischewsky categorized these varieties of cannabis using primarily their physical traits — tall vs. short, thin-leafed vs. broad-leafed, etc. — cannabis enthusiasts in the 20th century have adopted the terms to describe different types of psychoactive effects. For instance, weed strains with sativa genetics are believed to inspire energy and creativity, to have highs limited to the head that leave the body uninhibited. Meanwhile, indica strains are more associated with deep body relaxation, which can cause sleepiness and pain relief. Ruderalis is rarely used on its own; often, it is associated with non-psychoactive hemp.
Unfortunately, it seems that the foundation of cannabis taxonomy is essentially a major misunderstanding. Modern genetic research has demonstrated that, despite physical differences, indica, sativa and ruderalis plants are more or less identical, and that any variation in psychological effects stems less from the ancestry of the plant and more from slight variation in cannabinoid and terpene content.
In light of this research, some dispensaries are opting to shift their nomenclature to more accurate terminology. Posting cannabinoid content and dominant terpenes for each strain can give users a greater sense of what a strain will do — if users are familiar with the effects of specific cannabinoids and terpenes. Considering that indica and sativa are rapidly becoming outdated and meaningless terms, cannabis cultural leaders should work to educate the masses with regards to cannabinoids, terpenes and other factors that can affect the experience of being high, so every user can get exactly what they want.