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Unravelling Cannabis Strains

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Comprehending cannabis strains is a complex and rather contentious topic, complicated by vast differences in common vernacular and scientific plant classification, known as botanical nomenclature. As with most things in society, the language we use surrounding cannabis- both medical cannabis and recreational cannabis – informs the actions of individuals, industry and cultural beliefs. Many researchers and industry thought leaders believe the confusion surrounding cannabis strains and the resulting variability in products is a detriment to the integrity of the industry and patient outcomes.

Untangling key terms: species, cannabis strains and cultivars

Historically there has always been confusion surrounding methods for classifying plants, until Carl Linnaeus formalised naming conventions in the 18th Century, different regions utilised different approaches. Over time many Latin binomials for plants that denote their genus and species (eg. Cannabis sativa) have been reclassified or renamed as botanists gain a deeper understanding of their phytochemical and genetic profile – further fueling confusion.

The story of strains entwines with that of species, so let’s start there given species rank higher in taxonomy. In the case of cannabis, even after years of research, the consensus on species within the cannabis genus is still expressed differently by various botanists and cannabis researchers.

Does all medical cannabis derive from Cannabis Sativa?

Some prescribe to the theory that all cannabis- both medical cannabis and recreational cannabis –  derives from the Cannabis sativa species. The concept that all other species (indica, ruderalis) are subspecies of Cannabis sativa was proposed in 1976 by Earnest Small and Arthur Conquist and is now the generally accepted convention.

Within this, Cannabis sativa is classified as the sole species, with subspecies further divided as follows:

  • C. sativa subsp. sativa var. sativa (low THC, with domestication traits)
  • C. sativa subsp. sativa var. spontanea (low THC, wild-type traits)
  • C. sativa subsp. indica var. indica (high THC, domestication traits)
  • C. sativa subsp. indica var. kafiristanica (high THC, wild-type traits)

Indica vs Sativa

While many in the scientific and botanical community prescribe to this method, there are others, such as cannabis botanist Robert Connell Clarke, that still believe the indica/sativa species paradigm to be accurate.

Prominent cannabinoid researcher Ethan Russo believes the common vernacular describing denoting indica/sativa is “total nonsense and an exercise in futility”, he encourages the medical cannabis scientific community and the wider public to abandon the indica/sativa paradigm for detailed understanding of phytochemical profiles.

How do you name cannabis strains?

Moving now from species to strains, there is no scientific convention for naming cannabis strains, nor is there a taxonomical rank within botanical nomenclature. Without diving too much further into plant taxonomy, comparable instances with plants that might be called ‘strains’ in the medical cannabis and ault-use landscape, would be classified as varieties.

For instance, tomatoes come under the binomial Solanum lycopersicum, yet it is the varieties that give us a range of different tomatoes ie. Roma or Black Russian tomatoes.

So it has been through human design, plants have been hybridised and bred for specific cannabinoid profiles or growing conditions, creating cultivated varieties or cultivars. Thus cannabis strains are more accurately scientifically labelled by the interchangeable terms of cultivar or variety.

Resources like the Phylos Galaxy give good visual examples of how many varieties there are available and how they are genetically connected.