hemp and cannabis indica vs sativa plant

Indica Vs Sativa: Is There Really A Difference?

If you have any experience with cannabis, then you’ve surely heard this a million times already: indica strains produce a sleepier body high, while sativa strains give users a more cerebral and energetic experience. Budtenders, consultants, and black market dealers have been repeating some form of this most basic of marijuana truisms for years, but is it actually true? What if everything you know about weed is a lie? Is there actually a difference between sativas and indicas?

How To Tell Cannabis Sativa And Cannabis Indica Apart

First off, it’s important to note that there are some clear and tangible variances between the physical appearance of indica and sativa strains.

The leaves on cannabis sativa plants have distinctly narrow “fingers” that protrude out from their base. In fact, every part of a sativa plant is somewhat long and skinny. They grow taller, allowing for more space between leaves. Sativa buds tend towards the lighter side, and often appear elongated. The stalks protrude outwards as if they’re reaching for something. 

In contrast, indica plants are on the shorter and stubbier side. Their fan leaves have thicker fingers that don’t extend as far as sativa leaves. The buds they produce are much denser and wider—think pinecone shaped here. Plus, the plants on the whole just don’t grow as tall as the sativa variety. 

The reason for this noticeable visual distinction has to do with native climates. Sativas come from areas with lots of sunshine, like Mexico or Vietnam, and so in order to deal with the heat, they expanded, which helps them combat humidity. On the other hand, indicas are native to mountainous areas like India or Nepal where the climate is much dryer and colder. The compactness of the indica plant helps it survive difficult winters. 

History Of Cannabis Taxonomy

In the 1700s, long before the dispensaries were slinging weed, French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck split the cannabis plant into the two sub-species, sativa and indica, based on the visual distinctions we just discussed. A few hundred years later, this would be further complicated when Russian botanist Dmitrij Janischewsky determined there to be a third strain—cannabis ruderalis. Unlike the sativas and indicas, there’s no discernible visual difference that makes ruderalis unique. Instead, ruderalis plants get their distinctions from their flowering cycle, which are not dependant on available sunlight.

These terms were coined by botanists for botanists, and the potential psychoactive effects of consuming the plant’s flowers were never taken into account. 

How Cannabis Taxonomy Is Used Today

In the modern world of cannabis, however, the sativa-indica classification gets used by marketers to classify cannabis into daytime and nighttime categories. Sativas give users a head high that won’t leave you feeling couch-locked in the middle of the day, while indicas produce the body high and promote drowsiness. Or at least that’s what everyone says.

In reality, there isn’t really any hard evidence to support the theory that sativa and indica strains contribute to different highs. Dr. Ethan Russo, the cannabis researcher famous for discovering the entourage effect, believes it’s much more likely that the distinction in cannabis’ psychoactive effects can be more likely attributed to terpene and cannabinoid profiles. In an interview, Russo said,

“There are biochemically distinct strains of Cannabis, but the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility. One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology. The degree of interbreeding/hybridization is such that only a biochemical assay tells a potential consumer or scientist what is really in the plant. It is essential that future commerce allows complete and accurate cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles to be available.”

They’re All Hybrids Anyway

In any case, it’s extremely rare that you would come across a pure indica or sativa at your local weed store anyway. Hybridization allows cultivators to create more potent and desirable strains of cannabis, and they’ve been doing it for decades. Plants get classified based on which way they lean, and they’re not necessarily straight sativa or indica, regardless of what it says on the shelf.