How to Identify Sativa and Indica Strains

Do you know how to tell the difference between Indicas and Sativas? Often, one must rely on more than just the name on the package to be sure they are getting the medicine they need.
Smokable flowers on the market today contain moderate to high levels of THC (not including CBD strains). However, variations in levels of individual cannabinoids and terpenes can make significant differences in effects.
Buds are either a pure strain of sativa or indica, or a hybrid—a combination of the two. Let’s take a look at each, and their specific properties.
Sativa strains originate from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Northeast India. They grow best in warm, humid climates. Typically, Sativas can take late into the fall season to flower and they grow tall with thin leaves and wispy, fluffy buds—a protective trait that helps the plants stay drier and avoid mold and mildew contamination.

Sativas produce a more alert-feeling high, and this is largely in part to the tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) compound produced by these strains. When THCV mixes with THC, the memory impairment caused by THC is blocked and a nice, clear-headed high can be enjoyed. On its own, the THCV compound produces no psychoactive effects. Sativas are known for their floral and citrusy aroma, although sometimes they’re too subtle to distinguish.

Indica originated in the dry climates of Central and Southeastern Asia, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Indicas flower sooner than sativa strains, normally around early to mid-October. This is also an evolutionary trait that protects them from the wet, moldy season that arrives later in the year.
Indicas grow well in both hot and cold temperatures, but when grown in the cold, the leaves and buds develop different shades of purple and burgundy. Indicas grow short and wide with thick leaves and heavy, dense buds.

Indica strains have more sedative properties. They’ll give you couch lock if you’re not careful with them. But on the bright side, they might help you sleep. Indicas are typically very low in cannabidiol (CBD), and they have higher amounts of compounds known as sesquiterpenes, which include caryophyllene and humulene. These terpenoids produce that famous skunky scent that wafts out of the jar and makes you feel like you can get high just from the smell alone.

There are now thousands of strains which are hybrids of sativas and indicas. Hybrids can take on some of the aspects of both sativa and indica. A strain that has equal amounts of sativa and indica generally won’t be as sleepy as a pure indica or as heady as a pure sativa. And there are many, many strains in between that tend more toward one or the other. Hybrids are quite popular as they have been bred with balances of cannabinoids and terpenes which provide enhanced aromas, flavors, and effects. A good hybrid has the best of both. There’s something for everyone.
How to tell strains apart
It takes some practice to be able to tell a sativa bud from an indica bud. And identifying a hybrid can be even more challenging. But here are some guidelines to help you become a weed connoisseur.

It’s not easy to tell an indica from a sativa if you’re looking at ground up flower. Having whole buds handy makes it much easier.
Indica buds generally tend to take on a more round shape and often times are much denser than sativa buds. Sativas are often longer and skinnier than indica buds with thinner stems.

Indicas also tend to have more color variegations (that’s a fancy word that means a mixture of colors in a pattern). Indicas generally have some darker shades and brighter colors, and more pronounced patterns, while sativas tend towards lighter shades of green, tan, gold, and orange.

The little hairs you see on the buds are called pistols. They are the part of the tiny flowers that receive pollen. On indicas (assuming the buds were not harvested too early) the pistols will tend toward bright orange, darker red and even purple colors, whereas with sativas, they tend more toward orangey hues. If you’ve got the challenge of trying to identify powdered or ground flower, the pistils might be a possible indicator.

If you’re dealing with pure strains, it makes it a little easier to tell them apart since the smells are quite distinct.

As mentioned above, indicas have dank, skunky, musky, spicey smells. They can also sometimes have overtones of gasoline or diesel fuel. Sativas, on the other hand, have more sweet, fruity, piney aromas.

The best way to get a good whiff of a bud is to give it a good squeeze—especially if the bud is old and dry as the terpenes on the outside of the bud have had time to evaporate. Squeezing or breaking open the bud releases some of the terpenes from inside.

Knowing whether or not a strain is an indica or sativa dominant hybrid is less important that knowing what its effects will be. Because of the strong scent, terpene content is easier to identify than the cannabinoid content and will give you a good indication of the origin of a strain, as well as its effects.

For instance, a strain that is high in a terpene called limonene will have a citrus-like smell and have a more uplifting effect on mood, whereas as a strain high in a terpene called pinene will have a piney scent and a more euphoric effect. Mercyne has a musky, earthy scent and has a sedative effect. Linalool has a flowery scent and a calming effect. And the spicy-scented caryophyllene has pain reduction properties. There are many more, but these are the most common.

These are just guidelines. A lot more can be said on this subject. Over time you’ll get better and better at identifying the medicinal characteristics of a particular bud. Each time you have some bud of a known strain in hand, take some time to really get familiar with the smells and looks. Soon, identifying the properties of your buds will become second nature.

For reference, Leafly has provided a fairly exhaustive chart of the various terpenes found in cannabis and their effects, as well as the strains that typically are high in each. You can view here.

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