Indica, Sativa, Ruderalis – what are they? Well, the cannabis plant is incredibly diverse. It grows in every continent of the world except for Antarctica – and in different areas of the world, the local plants appear different, as they have evolved to deal with specific local environmental conditions. In different regions, distinct types have evolved, which have been named Cannabis indica, C. sativa and C. ruderalis.
Cannabis originally comes from Asia. It’s not known exactly where it comes from, but researchers over the years have pointed to a region of central Asia that covers parts of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. No surprise that some of the world’s best hashish and weed come from these areas!
Sativa vs Indica vs Ruderalis: What’s What?
In the more southerly reaches of India (as well as Thailand and much of SE Asia), where it’s hot and tropical, we find a type that we traditionally call Cannabis sativa. A thousand kilometers or so north of that, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we find a type that we call Cannabis indica. And even further north of that, in the cold steppes of northern Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, we find a type that we call Cannabis ruderalis.
Now, let’s explain a little more about those types. First off, what do they look like?
Cannabis Sativa: Child of the Tropics
Cannabis sativa is the tall, graceful sister. Often growing to a height of three meters or more, she has long, widely-spaced branches and narrow, slender leaves. Her flowers grow in clusters along her branches.
Lower-yielding varieties usually finish with small, delicate buds dotted along the branches. Higher yielders end up with massive flower clusters that can be as long and thick as your arm! This growing pattern allows airflow through branches and flowers, which helps the plant endure the hot, humid temperatures and avoid mold.
Cannabis Indica: Rugged Mountain Queen
Compared to sativa, Cannabis indica is the short, thick sister – and no less attractive by any measure! She grows to just one meter or so and has tightly-spaced branches and fat, wide leaves. Her flowers grow in tight, fat nugs, and she produces a huge amount of resin – great for making hashish or cannabis extracts!
Her compact, tightly-packed structure protects her from the cold, windy conditions common in her mountainous homeland. She is aggressively seasonal and starts flowering as soon as the days become short enough to indicate that winter is approaching.
Cannabis Ruderalis: Wildling of the Frozen North
Lastly, Cannabis ruderalis is the wild, mysterious sister with unique hidden gifts. She is much smaller and thinner than her two big sisters, and her sparse flowers do not produce much resin at all – but her unique ability to autoflower is what makes her essential to many breeders worldwide. This ability again is an adaptation to local conditions – she lives in regions with summers so short that plants must flower automatically to finish in time.
Now that we’ve discussed the appearance of these three types of cannabis in a little more detail let’s talk about the flavors, aromas and effects they possess, and their usefulness for medicinal and recreational users.
Cannabinoids & Terpenes: Potency, Flavor & Aroma
In all varieties of cannabis – indica, sativa, ruderalis – certain compounds contribute to the strain’s aroma, flavor and potency. Arguably the most important of these compounds are the cannabinoids, including THC, CBD, CBG and so on. Also extremely fundamental are a set of molecules based on carbon and hydrogen – the terpenes, which determine the aroma and flavor.
Terpenes don’t just determine the aroma and flavor of cannabis, but may also interact with cannabinoids to produce enhanced psychoactive and medicinal effects.
One way to look at it is this: THC percentage determines how potent the strain is, while CBD works against the THC to reduce the strength of the psychoactive effect. But the subtle differences that make one cannabis strain sedative while another is uplifting may be more to do with terpene profile than with cannabinoids. Let’s see how that works…
Indica: Sedative, High in CBD & Myrcene
To begin with, Cannabis indica varieties are well-known for causing a more sedative effect in the user. They’re useful for medical users with chronic pain, insomnia, stress, and panic attacks, among other illnesses. This fact was long thought to be related to differing levels of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids – but now, research is showing that this may not be the whole story.
In very general terms, Cannabis indica strains have higher levels of CBD compared to sativa strains, which contain almost no CBD. This may indicate that CBD is responsible for the more sedative effect of THC – but in fact, research is showing it’s not so simple.
Two commercial strains with “indica” type appearance and effect may actually contain surprisingly different ratios of THC and CBD, but will often contain very similar terpene profiles. In particular, one terpene that keeps coming up in tests of indica strains is myrcene. Further tests have shown that myrcene and THC interact to produce a high that is more sedative and “couch-lock” than THC alone.
Sativa: Uplifting, High in THC, Limonene & Pinene
Compared with Cannabis indica, sativa varieties have higher THC content and much less CBD. They are generally much more uplifting and cerebral than their indica sisters and are particularly useful for fatigue, depression, and many other conditions. Their uplifting nature could well be a direct result of their high THC levels – but as well as THC, sativas contain terpenes that interact with THC to produce even more stimulating effects, such as limonene and pinene.
Ruderalis: Low in Cannabinoids, Some Fragrant Terpenes
Ruderalis varieties often have higher levels of CBD and very little THC compared to their southerly sisters. But overall, they don’t have high levels of cannabinoids at all, and may not have an enjoyable taste! However, they contain relatively high levels of myrcene and caryophyllene, two aromatic, floral-smelling terpenes.
Just One Last Thing…
Within the industry, there is great confusion surrounding the names for sativa, indica and ruderalis. This probably won’t make much difference to most consumers, but it’s always good to stay up to date with the research.
According to an essential recent taxonomic analysis, the type found in India should be named Cannabis indica rather than Cannabis sativa. Cannabis indica should be named Cannabis afghanica, to reflect both countries of origin correctly.
Lastly, what we now call Cannabis ruderalis should be named Cannabis sativa. “Sativa” means “cultivated” in Latin, and it’s likely that most hemp-like populations found growing wild in Europe and Asia descend from cultivated crops.