Maybe you’ve heard of ‘terpenes’ and the ‘entourage effect’, or maybe you just know there’s a lot of different strains out there, and want to learn a little more about the cannabis plant.
Let’s talk a little bit about what cannabis is and go over some of the terminology you may or may not have heard. We need to start somewhere and this is as good a place as any.
Cannabis is actually not a species name, but a genus of the plant family cannabaceae. Depending on who you ask, the genus includes three species, cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis, or all three of those are actually subspecies of cannabis sativa.
If the names Indica and Sativa are familiar to you, it’s for good reason. Those are the two varieties that have been cultivated to have a high content of tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. THC is the chief psychoactive ingredient that induces a high when cannabis is consumed, but it isn’t the only one.
Different species and subspecies of cannabis have different ratios of THC to cannabidiol (CBD), as well as the dozens of other active cannabinoids. More than 100 of them have been identified in the plant. These ratios, along with another set of compounds called terpenes, are thought to be what differentiates the effects and flavor of each strain.
To be clear, a strain is the industry and consumer term for a variety of cannabis. Variety is the botanical term for the rung on the taxonomic ladder below species and subspecies. Strains are generally classified as being indica, sativa, or a hybrid. Hybrids mix indica and sativa genes to bring out specific traits in a strain.
Discussions of hybrid strains might also bring up autoflowering strains, which include the ruderalis genes that allow the plant to flower independent of season. To understand why that’s important, we need to talk about the life cycle of cannabis plants.
Cannabis starts its life like any other plant, as a seed that germinates. Given light and moisture and proper feeding, the seed will grow to a seedling within three to seven days. If a seed is having trouble germinating, this can be encouraged by carefully scratching the seed to unclog the micropyles which allow water to enter the seed.
Auxin-based rooting hormones like naphthaleneacetic acid (NAA) can also be used to aid in germination. These are particularly useful when reproducing cannabis plants by cloning, another important technique for growers to know. In cloning, a branch is cut off from the ‘mother’ plant, dipped in rooting hormone, and planted in the ground. Within 5 to 20 days, the branch develops roots, and a clone of the mother plant is born.
At the seedling stage, the plant has its first two leaves, called cotyledons, and is relying on air light and soil for energy, rather than the stored energy supplied by the seed. Seedlings don’t need the same volume of light as more mature plants, so some growers will use fluorescent or low-voltage LEDs for this stage of growth, which can last anywhere between a week and a month in length.
From there, the plant enters the vegetative stage, which is where it does most of its growing. Cannabis in the vegetative stage will need much more water, light, and nutrients than seedlings, and if growers are going to transplant, they will often do so at the start of this stage. This stage lasts between one and two months and ends when the seasons signal their change, primarily through a smaller photoperiod, or longer hours of darkness.
When the plant gets less light, it enters the pre-flowering stage, and the pistil and calyx of the female plants will develop, while the males will grow pollen sacs. Male cannabis plants also tend to be taller. Unless you intend to breed your crop, the males should be removed in this one to two week period.
That’s because the part of the plant we’re most interested in harvesting is the bud of the female. The females stop putting energy into growing their buds’ size and potency once they have been pollinated, so a single male can wreak havoc on a whole harvest if allowed to stay.
In the two-to-four-month flowering stage, female cannabis plants that are sinsemilla (without seed, in Spanish) will grow large, resin-covered buds in an attempt to catch male pollen blown by the wind. It is in this stage that the different cannabinoids are produced, so when a grower chooses to harvest, it can affect the effect and potency of the buds.
Right before harvest, some growers will flush their plants with pure water. This removes some or all of the nutrients which can leave a chemical taste in the finished bud and encourages the plant to use its last reserves in bud production. However, there are risks to the process, and if performed incorrectly, flushing can reduce the quality and yield of the harvest, so some growers aren’t willing to take the risk.
Left to their own devices, healthy female plants will produce one main terminal bud, or cola, at the top of the plant, and several smaller buds around the outside. There are a number of different techniques growers employ to encourage cola growth, or to grow multiple colas. The buds will be coated with trichomes, hairs coated with terpene-laden resin that gives cannabis its distinctive smell.
In autoflowering strains, flowering occurs independent of season, and the plant starts growing buds when it reaches a certain age and size. That may sound more convenient for growing, but there are trade-offs to consider. Cannabis ruderalis, a progenitor of all autoflowering strains, produces very little THC, about as much as hemp, resulting in less potent cannabis. The bud size per plant is also smaller than other strains.
You may also see some strains referred to as ‘landrace’ or ‘heirloom’ strains. Landrace refers to strains which are historically indigenous to a specific geographic region. These strains have not been hybridized by breeding with other strains. Heirloom strains refer to the landrace strains which were collected by cannabis-focused world travelers, and grown in the U.S., primarily in Hawaii and Northern California.
There is a multitude of cannabis strains out there, and the genetics of cannabis strains and plant breeding is the subject of its own article. Suffice it to say that there are enough similarities between strains of cannabis and vintages of wine that Mendicino County, California, has divided up the county into different appellations for cannabis growing.
It might be possible to run a cannabis cultivation business without knowing about its different effects and what causes them, but where’s the fun in that? Whether you’re growing to sell, growing for personal use, or growing to give it all away to friends, it doesn’t hurt to be knowledgeable about your end product.
As we already mentioned, cannabis has different effects based on the ratios of THC, CBD, and other active cannabinoids, but this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cannabis biochemistry. Very little is known for certain because the barriers to research are significant. Even if those disappeared tomorrow, it would be years before a solid scientific consensus could be gathered on the health effects of the main actors and most common combinations.
So when you hear claims made about the medicinal effects of cannabis, be aware that those claims may be based on studies of mice or studies of a very small number of humans. In the years to come, those initial studies may help compose a body of evidence on the health effects, but for now, everything has to be taken with a grain, or even a tablespoon, of salt.
That said, there are a few claims that seem like safe bets. CBD seems to have a hand in relieving pain and preventing convulsions, while cannabinol (CBN) seems to put people to sleep. Often, cannabis compounds work at cross-purposes, like THC and THC-V. THC seems to stimulate appetite, and THC-V seems to suppress appetite. What’s also clear is that all these chemicals are synergistic, meaning that different combinations emphasize different properties, so strain has a unique cocktail of effects.
This synergy makes cannabis fundamentally different from the active ingredients of other drugs. Humans have been consuming tobacco leaves, coca leaves, poppy seeds and coffee beans for thousands of years, and the effect of each can be replicated almost perfectly with an extract of the active compound. However while nicotine, cocaine, morphine, and caffeine can mimic the effects of their parent plants quite neatly, THC does not.
Stripped of its entourage of cannabinoids and terpenes, pure THC is a very different experience from most cannabis consumption. Dronabinol, the generic pharmaceutical name for pure THC, is generally less preferred by patients than other forms of cannabis that use the whole plant. Without the rest of its entourage, THC can be overpowering, and its side effects are more pronounced.
This entourage effect has a few important consequences for growers. One, it will take a long time to unlock all of cannabis’ medical secrets. Two, most of the current body of knowledge on the effects of different strains is found in the community of cannabis consumers. Three, there will always be consumers interested in consuming the whole plant, rather than extracts or synthesized medicines.
That’s why it’s valuable for growers to keep up to date on cannabis biochemistry and the latest in strain developments. Cannabis will evolve at the direction of cultivators and researchers, and those who track that evolution will have the latest knowledge on what the cannabis plant can do.