Almost immediately upon their inception, the terms indica and sativa were used to identify cannabis plants based on the shape and size of their main leaves and the amount of fiber they produced. Today’s cultivators use them for roughly the same purpose.
Growers use indica, sativa, and hybrid to categorize plants based on their growth traits and resulting chemical profiles. Retailers may then market cannabis to consumers by categorizing strains under these terms.
The terms indica and sativa are both widely used and hotly contested. Whether you are new to weed or a long-time cannabis consumer, it is highly likely you have heard about the supposed “body high” of an indica, the “cerebral rush” of a sativa, or the varied effects of a hybrid.
Is there really a difference between indica and sativa?
Up until recently, the cannabis plant was classified as sativa, indica, or ruderalis. The usefulness of this cannabis taxonomy for contemporary consumers has been questioned by experts, including Dr. Ethan Russo, who has recommended abandoning this classification system.
Due to human intervention, very few modern cannabis plants are purely indica or purely sativa. Russo argues that it is more helpful to identify biochemical compound content, such as cannabinoids and terpenes.
However, differentiating indica from sativa remains very useful for cannabis cultivators. Using morphology, or phenotype is the most common way to classify cannabis cultivars. Indica and sativa, the most commonly recognized cultivars, have distinctive physical features and growth traits. Understanding their respective growth cycles and how to tend each plant type will help ensure optimal growth and bud output.
Hybrid strains are also commonplace, with many growers opting for plants that blend the most desirable properties of both sativa and indica. Hybrids may be indica- or sativa-dominant.
Indica vs. Sativa plants
Spotting the difference between indica and sativa plants can be difficult for inexperienced growers. However, once you know what to look for, indicas and sativas become pretty easy to tell apart.
Identifying Indica Plants
The cannabis indica plant is also known for producing comparatively higher yields, denser buds, and more pungent aromas. Originating from the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, it adapted itself to harsh climates and first-time weather conditions by growing faster, flowering earlier, and producing thick layers of protective resin.
Cannabis indica cultivars are smaller in height than their sativa counterparts with broad, dark-green leaves and a bushier appearance. Their short stature makes them ideal for indoor cultivation. They develop a thick, woody trunk to support the weight of future buds. Indica plants are popular among home growers due to their high yields and shorter flowering periods.
Indica strains flower more rapidly than sativa, forming flowers after 7-9 weeks on average. They continue flowering for up to 12 weeks. The rapid flowering period occurs due to the biological need to reproduce and spread their genes before the arrival of harsh winter conditions. These cultivars also tend to have a different smell, reflecting a different terpene profile.
Identifying Sativa Plants
Cannabis sativa is native to warmer, tropical climates and can be found growing naturally in Thailand, Vietnam, Colombia, Mexico, and even parts of Africa.
In order to deal with the long, hot, and humid summers, sativa plants adapted by growing tall, with larger internodal spacing, wispy buds, and narrower leaves. This naturally helps the plants stay protected against threats like mold or pests.
The sativa vegetative period starts slowly, with the stem elongating more rapidly later in the cycle. The stem of the sativa plant is fibrous rather than woody. Because sativa plants tend to be taller, they are typically better suited for outdoor growing.
Sativa strains can reach up to 10 feet tall and are characterized by sparse foliage and light-green, thin-fingered, delicate leaves. Sativa uses less chlorophyll during the vegetative cycle than indica, resulting in a lighter color of green.
Depending on their genetics, sativa strains can take 10-16 weeks to mature. They boast a long flowering period as there is no climatic stimulus to reproduce rapidly and disseminate seeds. The extended flowering period is somewhat offset by a reduced vegetative period, in which no flowers are present. Sativa is known for generally lower yields than its indica counterparts.
Do indicas smell different than sativas?
Some cannabis enthusiasts also claim that sativas and indicas smell different. Terpenes are what give cannabis its unique and complex aromas, and some research shows that indicas and sativas may indeed have different terpene profiles.
Research by Fundacion Canna, for example, analyzed the chemical profiles of 99 different cannabis strains. It was found that myrcene was the dominant terpene in almost every strain, but the study also highlighted that there were some stark differences in the terpene profiles of indica and sativa varieties.
The researchers found that the indica-dominant varieties in their trial had higher relative concentrations of camphene, myrcene, and limonene. The sativa varieties, on the other hand, contained higher relative concentrations of sabinene, carene, alpha-Phellandrene, cineole, and terpinolene.
Below is more information about these individual terpenes and how they might affect the smell of different strains of cannabis.
- Camphene: commonly found in dill, caraway, hyssop, and fennel, and has a camphor-like odor.
- Myrcene: commonly used in cleaning products and fragrances and has a kind of musky, earthy aroma.
- Limonene: found in citrus peels and has a strong citrus aroma.
- Sabinene: can be found in many plants including black pepper, basil, spruce, and more. It has a woody aroma and flavor.
- Carene: can be extracted from bell peppers, grapefruit, citrus peels, and more. It has a sweet, pungent, citrusy-pine aroma.
- alpha-Phellandrene: can be isolated from some eucalyptus species. It has a minty-citrus aroma.
- Cineole: also known as eucalyptol, can also be extracted from eucalyptus, camphor laurel, bay leaves, rosemary, and more. It has a fresh, minty aroma and a cool, menthol-like taste.
- Terpinolene: can be isolated from a variety of plants and has a floral, slightly herbaceous aroma.
The different concentrations of these terpenes may give indica and sativa strains notably different aromas. Make a habit of smelling your cannabis and trying to spot the different aromatic properties of different strains.