Indica – Sativa – Hybrid: What Are These?

When you walk into a dispensary or are browsing an online cannabis catalog, things can sometimes feel a little overwhelming. With so many strains available, choosing the right product to address your individual needs can be challenging. Luckily, cannabis researchers have long been studying and documenting the effects of different strains based on cannabinoid content. Knowing the qualities of a strain can help you to choose the product that will be of most benefit to you. 

The Three Sisters

There are three main varieties (or species, or subspecies) of cannabis: cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. Sativa and indica are highly psychotropic. They are the varieties most often found in the recreational and therapeutic markets. Sativa and indica are often cross-bred to form a category of strains called hybrids. 

The terms sativa and indica were coined in the 18th century. The name cannabis sativa was used to describe a hemp plant in Europe and the Middle East that was grown for its fiber and seeds. The fiber is used to make durable canvas, ropes, and other highly useful items. The name cannabis indica was used to categorize the more intoxicating cannabis varieties discovered in India, where it is cultivated for fiber, seeds, and hashish production. 

What is Sativa

Cannabis sativa plants grow tall and thin, and when grown outdoors they prefer warm, tropical environments. Sativa strains are associated with producing a cerebral  “head high.” Increased alertness and energy, focus, creativity, upliftment, and euphoria are all qualities associated with sativa use. Many people who use cannabis in the mornings or throughout the day prefer to use sativa at these times as it is stimulating vs. sedating. Sativa can lend itself to productivity and motivation, making it an ideal ally for completing tasks or projects. Some well-known sativa strains include Sour Diesel, Durban Poison, and Lemon Haze.

What is Indica?

Cannabis Indica plants grow shorter and bushier with large, broad fan leaves. When grown outdoors they prefer a cooler environment, such as high-elevation mountain climates. Indica strains are associated with more of a physical “body high.” Sedation, relaxation, and pain-relief are some of the qualities linked with indica varieties. Because of these characteristics, indica strains are popular for evening and nighttime use. Indicas can be helpful for stress-relief and to combat fatigue associated with overwork. Because indica isn’t stimulating, many people find it helpful for insomnia. Indica can stimulate the appetite, making it the perfect smoke to enjoy before dinnertime. After eating, indica can contribute to a state of “rest and digest”, creating the perfect buzz to prepare your nervous system for sleep.  Some popular indica strains include Granddaddy Purple, White Rhino, and Bubba Kush. 

Hybrid strains explained

Often sativa and indica-descended strains are bred together to create what is known as a hybrid strain. In fact, it’s very rare to come across a strain that is pure sativa or pure indica. However, strains usually display dominant characteristics of either sativa or indica depending on the strongest genetics of a parent strain. This allows for the strain to be categorized into one of these two groups accordingly. Strains that display a somewhat equal amount of characteristics of both varieties are valuable and fit under the hybrid category. 

Cannabis Ruderalis and auto-flowering strains 

The third type of cannabis, cannabis ruderalis, is a low-THC variety that is considered by some scholars to be its own cannabis species. This is because it contains characteristics and phenotypes that differentiate it from sativa and indica. There is a debate as to whether it is only a subdivision of sativa. The current consensus among plant databases is to consider it cannabis sativa var. ruderalis. 

Because ruderalis contains very little psychoactive cannabinoids, it is uncommon for use in recreational and medicinal cannabis production. It does contain CBD which makes it valuable therapeutically. 

Ruderalis has a much shorter production time than the other two varieties. Because of this, cultivars have crossbred ruderalis with both sativa and indica to create “auto-flowering” strains which finish in half the amount of time it takes to produce either indica or sativa varieties. This allows for outdoor cannabis producers to harvest two or three crops per outdoor season as opposed to just one. 

The importance of cannabis science

All of the claims about sativa vs. indica and head high vs. body high are anecdotal. Indica and sativa are botanical terms only.  More studies are needed before we can truly determine the psychoactive differences between the two. 

Cannabis research determines that the effects of a specific strain is based on cannabinoid and terpene content. The two most prolific cannabinoids, THC and CBD, produce significantly different effects. Most strains contain both cannabinoids and it’s the ratio between the two that determines the overall effect. Our endocannabinoid system is vast and complex. Individual cannabis tolerance and body chemistry also play an important part in how you will feel after using specific strains. 

Terpenes are compounds found in many plants that produce unique and therapeutic aromas. Aroma has a direct effect on neurochemistry. Aromatherapy is an effective way to treat many physical, mental, and psychological ailments.

Cannabis terpenes are secreted by the same glands that produce cannabinoids. Different terpenes are responsible for creating a wide range of cannabis aromas. Citrus, evergreens, berries, and fuel are some of the different aromas created by terpenes in the cannabis plants. Aromatherapy research could potentially reveal varying physiological effects of the different cannabis aromas, further contributing to the vast health benefits of cannabis. 


What are the three subspecies of cannabis?

Cannabis has three subspecies: cannabis sativa, cannabis indica and cannabis ruderalis. 

What is cannabis sativa?

Cannabis sativa is a subspecies of cannabis that grows tall and thin. It is commonly associated with producing a “head high” and contributing to alertness, focus, creativity and euphoria. 

What is cannabis indica?

Cannabis indica is a subspecies of cannabis that grows short and bushy and produces large, broad fan leaves. It is commonly associated with producing a “body high” and contributing to relaxation, sedation and pain relief. 

What are hybrid strains?

Hybrid strains are cannabis strains whose parent strains contain both indica and sativa varieties. Most modern strains are actually hybrids. However, many strains have dominant characteristics of one of the two subspecies, allowing them to be classified as either sativa or indica. 

Get to know the strains

Because the differing effects of sativa vs. indica are still anecdotal, it is important to learn about individual strains so that you can make the right choices when shopping for cannabis. Reading blogs, articles, and research papers online is a great way to start learning. Keeping a personal weed journal could be a way to document and reference your experiences when trying out new strains. The best way to learn is to ask professionals. The experienced staff at The Green Dragon CBD are happy to answer any cannabis questions and help to guide you towards the best products for your needs. Contact us here to learn more about cannabis strains. 


Jennifer Olson is a copywriter with a deep knowledge of the cannabis industry. She was born and raised on an island in BC, Canada and currently resides in the Slocan Valley, BC. She is passionate about science and research and could potentially bore you with talk of mycelium, neurochemicals, you name it. Connect with her on Instagram or read other posts by Jen.

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