Difference Between Sativa and Indica

If you’ve ever shopped for medical marijuana, you’ve probably come across the terms “sativa and indica.” They’re one of the most common ways we sort the many strains of marijuana. But while they’re helpful—up to a point—they can introduce more confusion into the mix. And that’s definitely something we want to avoid.

Why? The terms sativa and indica were introduced by botanists, not marijuana users. How did those terms come into use, and what do they really mean? Follow us as we dive into one of the oldest and most contentious debates in the world of marijuana! 

Sativa and Indica: An Early System for Categorizing Marijuana

The use of the term “sativa”—a Latin botanical term meaning either “for good health” or certain seed-grown crops—was first applied to marijuana way back in the 18th century, when a German botanist and physician named Leonhart Fuchs published his Herbarium, which included an entry on Cannabis sativa. Historians now believe that Fuchs was actually referring to hemp, a close relative of marijuana. This sativa was distinguished by tall, almost tree-like growth and thin, spear-like leaves.

Botanists had already suspected the existence of a wild Asian marijuana species for some, but it wouldn’t be until 1785—when a French biologist named Jean-Baptiste Lamark published his Encyclopédie méthodique—that the name Cannabis indica made its way into the books. Working off a sample brought back from India, Lamark described a plant noted for its squat and bushy appearance and its broad-bladed leaves. Most intriguingly, he also described the euphoric effects of ingesting this plant.

In the following centuries, this two-species classification of marijuana would be widely adopted. But many botanists suspected there was really only one species of cannabis. And modern-day molecular testing confirms this. Chemically speaking, there really is just one species of marijuana: Cannabis sativa L

Sativa and Indica: How They’re Used (and Their Limitations)

That said, marijuana strains are still labeled sativa and indica (or, quite often, a hybrid of the two). Can those terms help us decide which marijuana is best for our goals?

In general, sativa strains are described as being uplifting, energizing, and stimulating. By comparison, indicas are usually categorized as imparting a heavy, relaxing “body high.”

But the confirmation that all marijuana is actually a single species raises some difficult questions. Is it really the “species”—that is, sativa or indica—that’s giving a particular strain its characteristic effects? Experienced growers know that the effects of any given strain depend on such factors as the temperature, humidity, and soil characteristics where it was grown.

Here’s where Exclusive comes down on the question of whether or not the terms sativa and indica are useful. For the time being, we’ll continue to use them, because we believe they deliver value to our customers by making it easier to distinguish among varieties of marijuana. But we also want to crack open the door to new ways of understanding this fascinating plant.

One of the most useful is by calling out a given strain’s content of THC and CBD, the two most abundant cannabinoids. Another is to describe the range of terpenes—aromatic compounds that deliver medicinal benefits as well as their distinctive flavors and aromas—in marijuana strains. And as researchers continue to unlock the secrets of medical marijuana, you can expect to encounter more nuanced and accurate ways to describe the complex and fascinating marijuana plant!


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