Cannabis Sativa, Indica and Ruderalis

In all the talk about how cannabis works on humans, it is important to remember to talk about the biology of the plant as well. Cannabis is an extremely interesting plant, botanically-speaking. Cannabis plants are sturdy and can grow in lots of different environments. They have a multitude of uses, and can reproduce both sexually and asexually (taking cuttings and propagating them). This ability has given the cannabis a wide variation in its gene pool, and with this wide variation great complexity.

Close-up Shot of Cannabis Sativa Plant
Cannabis sativa plant up close.

There is still much debate surrounding the taxonomy of cannabis due to this complexity. We are going to go with the best method of cannabis classification we have so far, and break cannabis down into three distinct subspecies: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. Molecular analytical techniques are showing that there is a wide variation in the cannabis gene pool, and when looking at specific phenotypes and their cannabinoid and terpenoid concentrations, we might actually see more similarity between a sativa and indica than between two indicas.

This is further complicated by the fact that the environment the cannabis is grown in also makes a big difference, especially when we’ve hybridized so many sativas and indicas together. This means that the same species or strain of cannabis may grow differently in different environments. For example, it is not unusual to see the same species of cannabis from a region in India or Jamaica to grow like a sativa at lower altitudes, and as an indica at higher altitudes.

However, there does seem to be enough genetic, morphological and chemotaxonomic variation between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica to suggest that they are indeed two distinct (but related) subspecies. As for Cannabis ruderalis, the jury’s out. There doesn’t seem to be enough difference between C. ruderalis and C. sativa on a genetic level to call them separate species. Yet, ruderalis’s distinct features (autoflowering and fewer “fingers” on its leaves) lead many to believe that there is some distinctive feature about it.

So, what are the main differences and similarities between Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis? Read on …

Cannabis sativa (C. sativa)

Cannabis sativa plants flowering.
Cannabis sativa plants in full bloom.

C. sativa tends to grow tall, and the leaves tend to be narrow. C. sativa grows in sunnier climates, usually around the equator where there’s 12 hours of sunlight per day and the plant can grow rather freely. When grown in the right environment, C. sativa can produce a very high yield. Grown outside of its environment, C. sativa can be very finicky to grow and tends not to produce high yields. The flowering period tends to be between 12 – 16 weeks. The calyx:leaf ratio also tends to be higher in sativas, making them difficult to trim.

Sativa effects and side-effects

C. sativa tends to produce high amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and certain equatorial landrace sativas seem to be higher in tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) as well. C. sativa also tends to have lower concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD) in them as well. Sativa flavors tend to be fruity, spicy and some describe certain phenotypes of sativas as smelling of “cat pee”. This suggests that sativa strains might commonly contain terpenoids like caryophyllene (the peppery smell/taste), pinene (the piney smell/taste) and limonene (the citrus/lemon smell/taste).

Many people describe sativas as having an “energetic”, “uplifting”, “focused”, “alert” effect, no doubt due to the sorts of terpenes, THC and THCV they tend to contain. This makes sativas potentially useful for conditions like depression, nausea, ADD/ADHD, multiple sclerosis (MS) and chronic pain. Sativas also tend to be popular appetite stimulants, but sativas with high amounts of THCV may actually be used as appetite suppressants as well.

C. sativa’s effects can be quite strong, and for some people can induce anxiety and paranoia. This means that those who are prone to anxiety – which is often comorbid with depression – may wish to be careful with sativa strains, even though finding the right one might be extremely beneficial. Also, getting the dosage right is important as well. The right sativa strain in small amounts might relieve anxiety due to the cannabinoids’ and terpenoids’ interaction with CB1 receptors, but increase anxiety if taken in too-high amounts and the CB1 receptors are overexcited.

Cannabis indica (C. Indica)

Cannabis Indica
Cannabis indica plant.

C. indica comes from the regions of India (the “Kush Mountains”), Pakistan and Afghanistan. They tend to grow in mountainous regions at high altitude, meaning that they can usually handle colder climates. Indicas also tend to grow short and stocky – about 3 feet or under – and are quite sturdy as well in order to handle strong winds. The leaves are also broader. Some people put Cannabis afghanica into a distinct category of its own, but Afghan strains are definitely indicas and don’t necessarily have any major differences with other indicas. Flowering time for indicas are usually around 7 – 10 weeks, with some flowering in as little as 6 weeks.

Indica effects and side-effects

Many people seem to think that C. indica has low amounts of THC in it, and high amounts of CBD. Indicas usually do contain less THC than sativas, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the amount of THC in them is low, per sé. However, the amount of CBD in indicas is usually higher than the amount to be found in most sativas. Now, this is a generalization and there are definitely sativa strains that have plenty of CBD in them, but there is definitely some broad pattern. Hybridization has blurred the lines somewhat, and it is possible for different phenotypes to produce more CBD.

Indicas are said to have “sleepy”, “relaxing” and “couch locked” effects. Although indicas and sativas share many of the same sorts of terpenoid profiles, there are some that are found in indicas more often or in greater concentration than in sativas, like myrcene (the hoppy/fuelly smell/taste), linalool (the lavender smell/taste) and bisabolol (the sweet, fruity, berry-like/floral smell/taste). The fact is, it is these terpenes and their interaction with cannabinoids that produce indicas’ “down” effects, and not necessarily any specific THC:CBD ratio. Myrcene seems to change THC’s energizing effects into a more sleepy, downtime effect!

The high amounts of CBD mixed with the “relaxing” terpenoids makes indicas a great choice for anxiety, chronic pain, appetite stimulation, arthritis, chemotherapy side-effect, beating nausea and inflammation. The higher CBD and slightly lower THC tends to make the psychoactive effects of C. indica a little less overwhelming, but some have suggested that the CBD helps the effects last longer as it competes (or compliments – nobody knows the precise mechanism as of yet) with THC to some extent at the cannabinoid receptor sites.

Interestingly enough, well-balanced indicas are often used for social situations, where sativas might prove to cause too much anxiety when used in public. The “gentler” effects of indicas tends to make them the strain-of-preference for many people, or at least a sativa that is “tempered” with some amount of indica genetics in order to “tone down” the sometimes extreme “rushiness” and euphoric effects of sativas.

Cannabis ruderalis (C. ruderalis)

Picture of a Male Cannabis ruderalis plant.
Male Cannabis ruderalis plant.

C. ruderalis is an interesting subspecies of cannabis. Some people suspect that it is a subtype of C. sativa, but some have postulated that it shares traits with both indica and sativa and ought to be considered as a mixture between the two. C. ruderalis is thought to originate from south/central Asia, and then moved to Russia and Eastern Europe.

C. ruderalis tends to grow in places where there has been significant disruption due to human activity. Therefore, you can often find ruderalis growing near roadsides and on farmland. Ruderalis grows short in stature – around 1 – 1.5 feet – and contains little if any THC (although there is some CBD in C. ruderalis). In some regards, this puts ruderalis quite close to hemp, and some consider it to be a kind of European hemp. C. ruderalis can grow in relatively cool/cold climates, and its autoflowering attributes mean that it doesn’t need to go through a vegetative stage – C. ruderalis can start flowering regardless of the light cycle. C. ruderalis matures in about 6 – 8 weeks.

Ruderalis effects and side-effects

Due to the lack of/low concentration of cannabinoids in C. ruderalis, it tends not to have any major medical uses (at least, not directly so). C. ruderalis does, however, have some major uses for breeding and growing. C. ruderalis has been crossbred with indicas and sativas in order to reduce the amount of time and space it can take to grow marijuana, and has proven to be especially useful for those growing cannabis in colder climates.

Some have claimed that autoflowering strains tend to lack the potency of their indica and sativa counterparts, but there is no definite evidence behind this, and the lack of potency can be avoided by selecting for the attributes you’re looking for and buying seeds/clones from a reputable breeder. The genetics mean that sativas and indicas crossed with ruderalis may be more predisposed to producing CBD, meaning that a good autoflowering strain might be ideal for those looking to grow at home for medical reasons.

Indica Cannabis Plant - Northern Lights
Northern Lights – an Indica Cannabis strain.

Hybridization has caused there to be a lot of overlap between C. sativa and C. indica strains, leading many to think that the distinction is arbitrary at best, at least when it comes to judging for their respective effects on the human body. After all, it shouldn’t matter if the THC is coming from an indica or sativa plant – it’ll have the same effects. The key to understanding cannabis’s medical effects is to look at the entourage effect and cannabinoid-terpenoid interaction.

However, for the purposes of botany and plant classification, it does seem that there are some distinct differences between C. indica and C. sativa. The problem is, are these differences natural, or do they occur because we have bred certain traits into them? There is, after all, considerable evidence that humans have purposefully bred cannabis for different uses. Nevertheless, it is likely that determining the appropriate taxonomy for cannabis will take some time, and there will be considerable debate on the way there. In the meantime, we have medical marijuana recommendations and cards and some degree of trial-and-error.

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Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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