Difference between Indica and Sativa

Difference between Indica and Sativa

Published: 18.04.2023 (Updated: 14.07.2023)
Reading time: Min.
Dr. Harald Stephan
Dr. rer. medic. Harald Stephan
Health expert

If you read up on cannabis strains, you will usually come across three sub-types: Indica, Sativa and Hybrid. Consumers use this subdivision in particular to describe their effects. However, it is precisely this distinction according to effects that is questioned by experts. Instead, they relate the differences to the size, shape and flowering phase of the plants. In this article, we take a closer look at the characteristics of the different cannabis varieties.

Indica - what is it and how does it work?

Indica is a term often used to describe cannabis strains with sedative and strong physical effects. Botanically, indica cannabis plants tend to be small in stature, with wider leaves and shorter growth cycles than their sativa counterparts. Due to their shorter flowering time, indica strains are thus well suited for cultivation in cooler climates.

Consumers associate cannabis indica and cannabis sativa mainly with their perceived effects on the human body. If one takes a look at the classic definition, indicas tend to produce a strong physical high, as opposed to a more cerebral (psychic) high from the sativa plant. For most marijuana users, the term indica evokes memories of a couch-lock and deep relaxation.

The industry uses these definitions to market cannabis strains and a variety of other cannabis products. It is true that the effects typically associated with indicas originate in the plant. However, there is no real correlation between the effects and the physical structure of today's cannabis plants. The division into indica and sativa is thus far more useful for growers than for consumers. After all, in cultivation, the terms are usually used to describe the physical characteristics and growth cycle of the plant.

Cannabis-Züchter; Hanf-Pflanze kontrollieren

The history behind cannabis indica

The word indica goes back to the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He identified Cannabis indica in 1785 as a separate species from Cannabis sativa, which the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus had classified 32 years earlier. Lamarck based his classification primarily on external differences.

The transition from Lamarck's classification to today's common definition occurred in 1974, when the American biologist Richard Evans applied the term indica to marijuana plants in Afghanistan. These plants looked different from Lamarck's Indian plants - they had a shorter stem and also broader leaves. Today we use the term Indica for short, broad, bushy plants of Afghan origin.

Jean Baptiste Lamarck; Cannabis-Biologe; Hanf-Biologe

Sativa - what is it and how does it work?

For the user, both sativa and indica are strongly associated with their perceived effect profile. Most cannabis users therefore think of the term sativa as an uplifting, stimulating and cerebral experience.

In cultivation, the term sativa is commonly used to describe the morphology or physical characteristics of a plant as it grows. Sativas are usually taller than indicas and have long, thin leaves. They also take much longer to mature in the flowering phase, with a flowering time of up to 100 days.

The history behind Cannabis Sativa

The term sativa comes from the Latin botanical adjective sativum, meaning 'cultivated'. The first record of the term being used for cannabis dates back to the work "The Names of Herbes" (1548) by the English herbalist William Turner. He used the term Cannabis sativa as the scientific name for cultivated hemp.

In 1753, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus assigned the name C. sativa to what he considered the only species of the genus Cannabis. Thirty-two years later, the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified Cannabis indica as a separate species from Cannabis sativa. He thus laid the foundation for our current division into sativa and indica.

Lamarck based his classification of C. indica primarily on the physical differences from Linnaeus' C. sativa plant, including narrow, dark green leaves and denser branching. He also noted that C. indica was a stronger intoxicant than C. sativa, making the earliest connection between the plant's effects and its species.

The transition to our current definition took place in 1974 when the American biologist Richard Evans Schultes applied the term cannabis indica to cannabis plants in Afghanistan. He thus associated the indica variety with a specific geographical origin. Following this principle, Loran C. Anderson referred to Indian plants as Cannabis sativa.

Hanf-Blüte; Blütezeit

Indica vs. Sativa - no difference in effect?

As already mentioned, the distinction between indica and sativa is more important for the grower than for the consumer. Thus, the classification is of little use in predicting the effect of a particular marijuana plant. Human intervention has dramatically changed the chemical composition of cannabis. In the days of Linnaeus and Lamarck, the effects of the two varieties probably corresponded more to their physical properties. Today, the appearance of a plant no longer says anything about what effect it will have.

More and more experts in cannabinoid research are coming to this conclusion. They link the effects of marijuana primarily to the unique chemical profiles of each strain rather than to a genetic lineage. For example, a landrace with indica ancestry grown in a new environment could produce a unique chemical profile that produces uplifting effects.

Furthermore, the effects of cannabis have more to do with the nature of the user's individual endocannabinoid system than the genetic lineage of the plant. Depending on how a person's endocannabinoid system reacts to the consumption of a particular marijuana plant, this can lead to different effects. For example, one consumer of a plant with indica ancestry may report indica-like effects, while another may have an uplifting sativa-like experience with the same plant.

Herein lies the real difference between indica and sativa.

So distinguishing the two strains by growth characteristics and physicality makes far more sense, especially in terms of cultivation practice. Because the real difference between indica and sativa strains lies in the observable characteristics during the growing cycle.

Indica varieties tend to grow into short plants with thick stems. Likewise, Indica plants tend to develop wide and deep green leaves. With a flowering time of 35 to 65 days, they also ripen much faster than sativas and can be grown without problems even in cold climates with short seasons. And the two varieties also differ in their flowers. With cannabis indica, these are usually denser and more compact than those of sativa plants. Popular indica varieties include Northern Lights, Girl Scout Cookies, Hindu Kush and Blueberry.

Let's move on to the sativa plants. These usually have longer flowering cycles and do better in warm climates with long growing seasons. They usually grow taller and have light green, narrow leaves. Popular sativa varieties include, for example, Super Silver Haze, Jack Herer, Amnesia Haze and Sour Diesel.

Wchstumsphase Cannabis; Blüteprozess Hanf Illustration

What is it about hybrids and cannabis ruderalis?

Besides the factors mentioned above, there are several others that make it difficult to distinguish between indica and sativa. These include, for example, the long history of cross-breeding and genetic modification of different strains. This has virtually eliminated any pure Indica or Sativa strain. Instead, there is a rapidly growing number of new varieties to which the term hybrid is more appropriate. This is then divided between Sativa-dominant and Indica-dominant varieties.

The creation of hybrids offers several advantages to growers. They are able to breed strains that emphasise different traits, produce different effects and produce specific concentrations of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids. For example, some of these new strains focus on producing a specific ratio of CBD to THC to achieve the desired medicinal effect.

Furthermore, cannabis ruderalis complicates the traditional distinction between indica and sativa. It is generally accepted in academic research institutions and in the industry that ruderalis strains are a distinct plant species and not a subspecies.

What distinguishes ruderalis plants from the indica and sativa genera is their very low THC content. Since they have no psychoactive properties, these plants are not used for recreational use. This is because despite the low THC content, ruderalis plants often have high CBD levels. This makes them potentially suitable for medical patients seeking CBD without THC.

Conclusion: Cannabis indica vs. cannabis sativa

Cannabinoid profiles are becoming increasingly important in product marketing. After all, cannabis consumers want to know more about the complex nature of the cannabis plant. However, the strict division between indica and sativa varieties is rather problematic in practice. Whereas at the time of the discovery of the varieties it still seemed sensible to divide them up, today's breeding means that hybrids in particular are available on the market. The reason why most indica varieties are associated with a feeling of sedation thus has more to do with the concentration of the terpene myrcene than with the cannabinoid content of the plant. Ultimately, the terms indica and sativa are far more valuable to breeders than to consumers.

Hanf-Feld; Hanf-Zucht

    Dr. Harald Stephan
    Dr. rer. medic. Harald Stephan
    Graduate Biologist, Medical Information Processing Officer and Doctor of Health Sciences
    About the author

    After studying in Saarbrücken, Dr Harald Stephan worked in research and teaching at the Universities of Marburg and Bochum as well as at the University Hospital in Essen before becoming a self-employed publicist in 2016. He sees acquiring and passing on knowledge as his life's work.

    In addition to his publications on cell biology and tumour research in renowned specialist journals, hundreds of his articles on health topics can be found on the internet. In them, he explains the causes of diseases, laboratory values, diagnoses as well as traditional and novel therapy options.