A landrace is a term you have probably heard quite a bit in cannabis over recent years, but what does it mean? And how might they be the key to unlocking the true potential of the humble plant, Cannabis Sativa L?
A Landrace plant species or sub-species is a domesticated, locally adapted, or traditional variety that has naturalized over time by adapting to its environment and climate. Thus resulting in the presentation of unique traits, characteristics, and behaviors often not found in other similar varieties.
Over the years, we have identified landrace varieties of cannabis with Lamb’s Bread in Jamaica, Acapulco Gold in Mexico, Durban Poison in South Africa, and Panama Red in Central America, to name a few. Although we consider these cannabis varieties to be ‘indigenous’ to these regions, that isn’t entirely true and doesn’t tell the whole story.
So what is a cannabis landrace? To answer that, we will need first to understand how cannabis became so prevalent and ubiquitous worldwide. Cannabis Sativa L is believed to have first appeared around 25 million years ago on the Tibetan Plateau when it diverged from Hops.
Cannabis remained pretty unchanged for millennia and was populated at the whim of the changing seasons and climate. That was until early humans discovered its multifunctional utility and began selectively domesticating it. They bred varieties of the crop for a plethora of uses – long skinny plants for fiber and short resinous plants for oil and hashish production.
As human exploration ramped up, so did the spread of these preferential cannabis varieties. Over time these plants adapted, acclimatized, and naturalized to their new environments resulting in the expression of unique traits, characteristics, and somewhat distinct cannabinoid and terpene profiles.
The plants that best suited their new habitat were then continuously cultivated, crossbred, and selected by local farmers to produce the distinct landrace cultivars we know today. However, wide landrace varieties have cast off the shackles of domestication and escaped to thrive in the wild.
There are also heirloom varieties of cannabis. Still, unlike landraces, they are not exclusively identified by their geographical origins and lineage. Growers deliberately scrutinized, selected, and crossbred these distinct varieties to establish cultivars that thrive in all environments (predominantly indoor).
The fruity, gassy, and skunky flavors we enjoy about cannabis today are only possible because of these landrace varieties around the world. For example, the ever-popular and often maligned cultivar Skunk #1 is a mix of three landraces Afghani (Afghanistan), Acapulco Gold (Mexico), and Columbian Gold (Columbia), and results in that unique skunky odor.
Although, it is not just the unique smells, flavors, and high that these varieties produce that should excite you. While many of these landrace varieties have some relatively rare terpenes, flavonoids, and cannabinoids in often unseen ratios, they also have some rather exciting and idiosyncratic characteristics.
So why are landrace varieties important beyond their obvious consumable benefits? Well, given modern-day breeding practices and the THC arms race created by western ‘legalization,’ we are starting to see genetic bottlenecking. This has resulted in a greatly diluted gene pool, a weakening of genetic immunity, and a general narrowing of the resulting terpenoid profile of plants.
In recent years there has been growing consensus that these landrace varieties are likely to come from the same lineage and region. Where that exactly remains a continuing point of controversy and ongoing dispute but is thought to be somewhere in and around the Tibetan Plateau, as mentioned above.
I was recently made aware of Landrace Warden, a project in the tribal regions of Balochistan (Baluchistan), Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, investigating the origins of these landraces, heirlooms, and wild varieties and what potential these ancient cannabis plants may have locked away within them.
The project was founded and is run by a man from the Sindh Province of Pakistan who was first inspired to hunt and document landraces after visiting the Hindu Kush mountains in Tirah Valley five years ago.
Working directly with indigenous populations, local cannabis farmers, and tribal elders, they hope to “preserve landrace and heirloom genetics, protect biodiversity, empower indigenous cultivation groups, and give back to the superintendent of ancestral cannabis origin.”
The farmers working with Landrace Warden are well respected and compensated for their diverse genetics, vast experience, and traditional expertise. The project’s founder does a lot of good in the region, volunteering and donating to local NGOs and helping to give out food and supplies.
Landrace Warden also hopes to establish a thriving ‘hemp’ cannabis market within the tribal regions to empower the indigenous populations and improve people’s daily lives traditionally focused on cultivating plants for hash and oil production.
The Balochi people comprise many tribes with different cultures, languages, and traditions that originate from the Daryā-ekhizr’s bay next to the Alborz mountains in Iran. In the 16th century, they were forcibly relocated to the Makran (modern-day Pakistan) by the Mughals. They bought many cannabis varieties they had been growing – although it is likely that those genetics originally came from varieties found in the area they were now stipulated to reside anyway.
After the fall of the Mughal Empire, around 150 Balochi tribes united to form the region of Balochistan. The aristocratic rulers of the Baloch were noted as being “profoundly filled with the enthusiasm of cannabis.1” These individuals were so influential, and their expertise so valued that their selected varieties were considered far superior plants. These prized varieties were then widely cultivated by tribal farmers across the region using the same techniques they still use today.
To help achieve its mission, Landrace Warden, in collaboration with the Scottish company Holistic Highland Hemp is launching four special collector packs of some of its most exciting and distinct varieties from these tribal regions.
By closely studying and learning from expert local farmers, each cultivar has been carefully selected for its unique traits and attributes. It gives us a glimpse at the potential diversity of the cannabis types and varieties found in the region.
The first variety its releasing is the only one not to come from the tribal region of Balochistan. As its name suggests, the Hindu Kush variety comes from the Hindu Kush mountain range in northern Pakistan. The lush green Tirah Valley this variety originates from is home to many independent farmers cultivating hash-type indica and sativa-type hybrids for lamp oil, animal feed, therapeutic use, and hash production.
Local farmers use the colder climate in the late season to enable the trichomes to be easily broken off when sieving to make hashish. So popular is the hash in this region that there’s a weekly hash carnival where farmers meet up to sell and exchange their diverse wares.
In contrast, the other three varieties they release all reside in northern Balochistan, one of the driest places on earth, and often sees just one or two rainfalls per growing season. This harsh desert climate has resulted in varieties that can tolerate extreme drought-like conditions and require much less water to cultivate. This is a vitally important trait to reintroduce to the modern gene pool, especially given the wasteful practices of some western producers in western nations.
The first variety of the Balochistan genetics, Kalat, is named after the Khan of Kalat, one of those aforementioned cannabis enthusiast aristocrats. This indica-type variety smells like phenol and burnt rubber and tastes like creamy, rich roasted coffee beans. It is prized for its extreme drought resistance, tight node spacing, and resin-covered flowers.
The Quetta City variety was collected on the border of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This ancient unrefined indica-type expresses an array of striking purple hues and produces a pungent aroma of gasoline, sour grape, and sandalwood. It comes from a small 100-plant farm that has produced and sown its seed for generations using traditional methods.
The final variety this international collaboration is releasing is Dasht Desert. Discovered in a cultivated site in the desert about 40km outside of Quetta City, it was given its name because of its geographical location and its exceptional drought resistance. It produces a fruity, spicy smell like basil with low gassy tones and is valued for its low feed requirement and ability to grow in highly alkaline soil.
This is just phased one in this exciting joint project between Holistic Highland Hemp and Landrace Warden. They are now looking to undertake genomic analysis of these varieties and others to hopefully better understand their evolutionary path and begin to unlock the mystery and true potential of these ancient varieties.
So although the claim is often made that all the landraces are gone, I think it’s evident from this project that they are very much alive and thriving – being grown using traditional techniques handed down from generation to generation alongside other medicinal and food crops in regions around the world.
1) Baluchistan Pakistan Cannabis Varieties document provided by Landrace Warden.