Indica vs Sativa: The Truth Behind Cannabis

by greenrush
indica vs sativa

Indica vs Sativa: Out of all the discussions around cannabis, this is probably the most misunderstood.

In this post, join us as we take an in-depth look at the differences between cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. We’ll teach you all there is to know about either species, including their individual appearances, origins, and medical properties.

So strap yourself in, get comfy, and enjoy.

Disclaimer: This is a very controversial topic and our understanding of both indica and sativa strains is still in its infancy. The information in this article is based on rigorous research and the general consensus among cannabis professionals and users, but there is still much more for us to figure out about this topic.

An Introduction to The Cannabis Genus

indica vs sativa: understanding the differences

Before we begin exploring the similarities and differences between sativa and indica plants, it is important to go over some basics.

Scientists are still debating how to properly classify cannabis plants. In 2006 George Watts, science editor at The BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal) said:

“Debates about cannabis are not confined to its value as a medicine or to its possible hazards as a recreational drug. Something much more fundamental has been engaging the experts for years: its taxonomy. Are all plants belonging to the genus Cannabis mere varieties of a single species—or is it correct to recognise at least three separate species?”

However, for the purpose of this article, we’ll pretend this debate isn't happening and that the cannabis genus can be divided into three species: sativa, indica, and ruderalis.

The first, sativa, can be further divided into two subspecies: cannabis sativa and cannabis sativa L. While it might seem like a flimsy little detail, this is actually really important.

Cannabis sativa has a high concentration of psychoactive compounds (mainly THC) and is used to produce marijuana (the thing we all love to smoke, vape, or eat).

Cannabis sativa L., on the other hand, lacks a high concentration of psychoactive compounds and is therefore used to produce things like cloth and oil. This plant is commonly referred to as hemp.

Cannabis indica, the second species of the genus, also has psychoactive properties and, like cannabis sativa, is used to make marijuana.

The third species, cannabis ruderalis, doesn’t get as much attention as it’s siblings. We still have much to learn about this plant, but we’ll share what we know later on in this article.

Now that you understand the basics of the cannabis genus, let’s take a look at the differences between cannabis indica and sativa.

Please note: For the purpose of this article we will only be discussing the psychoactive sativa strain. Where necessary, the non-psychoactive strain will be reffered to as cannabis sativa L or hemp. 

The Differences Between Indica and Sativa

Appearance and Growth Cycle:

indica vs sativa: appearance and growth cycle

One of the simplest ways to differentiate indica and sativa cannabis plants is through their appearance.

Cannabis indica plants naturally grow short and bushy, usually only reaching about 2-4 feet in height. They are very densely branched and, due to their size, are ideal for growing indoors. Their leaves are wide and boast a rich, dark green color.

The buds from indica plants usually grow in thick clusters around the nodes of the stem and branches. They are dense and heavy, and usually give off a very potent odour.

Cannabis sativa plants, on the other hand, grow tall, reaching heights of over 20 feet. They are loosely branched and are best suited for growing outdoors. Their leaves are narrow and light green in color.

The buds from sativa plants grow along the branches of the plant and are usually larger than indica buds. However, they are also less dense and tend to weigh less.

Another major difference between indica and sativa cannabis plants is their growth cycle.

Indica plants have a shorter growing season compared to sativas and can flower within 45-60 days, according to Sensi Seeds. Sativa plants, on the other hand, usually have a flowering time of roughly 60-90 days. Indica plants also tend to provide higher yield than their sativa counterparts.

It is important to note that, like any other plant, cannabis can be “taught” to grow in specific ways. Growers are constantly learning and experimenting with new ways to make plants grow shorter or taller, flower faster, or produce higher yields.


[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="3888"]indica vs sativa: the origins Wild cannabis plants in Nepal.[/caption]

Apart from having distinct physical appearances and grow cycles, it is also suggested that indica and sativa plants may have different geographic origins. However, there is no solid evidence confirming the birthplace for either of these species.

Cannabis indica was first described by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785 based on plant specimens he collected in India.

Cannabis sativa, on the other hand, was first classified by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753. He also claimed the plant’s origin to be from India but was working and describing samples of cannabis sativa L., or hemp, grown in Europe in the 1730s.

Research suggests the act of using cannabis to alter one’s state of mind originated in India. In an 1981 article published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, former Harvard University research assistant Mia Touw writes:

“Of course the greatest Central Asian "borderland," as far as psychotropic use of cannabis is concerned, is India. It was there that cannabis came into its own both as a narcotic and a medicine, largely because its association with religion gave it all the virtues conferred by holiness.”

This, coupled with the fact that indica plants seem to thrive in cooler temperatures and at high altitudes, leads us to believe that cannabis indica has its origins in the Indian sub-continent, most likely around the southern borders of the Himalayas.

The origin of sativa plants, however, is not so clear. According to an article on Leaf Science, this species thrives in warm climates close to the equator such as Thailand. Given cannabis’ long history in this area, it is possible that sativa plants originated in Southeast Asia.

Effects and Medicinal Properties:

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="640"]indica vs sativa: effects Image corutesy of[/caption]

For patients and recreational users, the most obvious difference between sativa and indica is likely to be their differing effects on the mind and body.

Cannabis indica is renowned for providing a strong “body high,” characterized by:

  • A strong feeling of sedation, both after small and large doses.
  • Body tingling or “couch lock.”
  • Less determined thoughts.

Cannabis sativa, on the other hand, is treasured among patients for providing a lighter, more cerebral high, usually characterized by:

  • A feeling of alertness after small doses, followed by sedation after large doses.
  • Clear, more determined thoughts.

These qualities have determined when patients medicate as well as what strains they use to treat their conditions. Indica, for example, is most commonly smoked at night and used to treat conditions such as:

  • Insomnia.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Nausea.

Sativa strains are generally considered a “daytime smoke” and are commonly used to treat the following conditions:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • ADHD.
  • Appetite loss.


The Importance of Cannabinoids and Terpenes

indica vs sativa: cannabinoids and terpenes

While the species of cannabis definitely influences how marijuana affects our bodies and how we use it to medicate, it is important to realize that it is not the only factor.

The concentration of different cannabinoids, for example, is another major player contributing to how we feel when we use cannabis.

Is is generally true that sativa strains have a higher ratio of THC to CBD and that indica strains have a higher ratio of CBD to THC. These differences can lead to notably different effects, or highs, in a user.

There are over 80 different cannabinoids in cannabis and we are a long way away from understanding them all. However, in a recent article on High Times, Nico Escondido (star of Grow Like A Pro) suggests we should also be looking at terpenes for answers on why specific strains affect us in different ways.

“For years, cannabis patients, growers, doctors, and recreational users attributed the effects of cannabis to varying ratios of cannabinoids, but we now know that terpenes also play a central role in determining these effects,” says Nico.

“A theory known as the “entourage effect” was published a few years back in O’Shaughnessy’s that shed light on how terpenes and cannabinoids combine to produce cascading effects within the user. On top of that, there is research that suggests these effects may also vary from user to user because each human has their own chemotype that blends with these chemical compounds,” he says.

As is true with various aspects of the cannabis industry, more research is needed in order for us to completely understand the how cannabis affects our bodies. This is literally only the tip of the iceberg.

Hybrid Strains

Hybrid strains are simply crosses between indica and sativa. They aim to combine the medicinal properties of both species and can either be indica-dominant, sativa-dominant, or 50-50. For more information on these super strains, check out our previous post on cannabis crossbreeding.

Cannabis Ruderalis

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="600"]indica vs sativa: guide to cannabis Cannabis ruderalis plant.[/caption]

Cannabis ruderalis is a rare species of cannabis first discovered in Russia in 1942 and is believed to be indigenous to Southern Siberia. It is the least popular of the three cannabis sisters.

Ruderalis generally grows to only 2 feet in height and matures in roughly seven weeks. It contains low concentrations of THC but is apparently high in CBD, which means it could still harness some strong medicinal properties.

Unfortunately we do not know much about this species, but as research into cannabis grows more plentiful and advances, we expect we’ll uncover many unique benefits to using this plant.

Indica vs Sativa: Picking The Right Strain for You

So, you’re an expert on the whole indica vs sativa topic now, but how do you go about choosing the right cannabis strain for you?

This is a question we hear often, and the answer is multi-tiered.

First of all, you need to work with your clinician to get a full understanding of your medical condition and what aspects of it you want to treat with cannabis. This will help you narrow down what medicinal properties to look for in a strain.

Next, you need to keep an open mind. As we said at the beginning of this post, the whole indica-sativa discussion is far but over and new research is constantly providing us with more insight. Don’t rule out either of the species just because of the general consensus about their effect; there’s always an exception to the rule.

Finally, you need to build a strong, reliable relationship with your budtender. A well-trained budtender should have expert knowledge on all the products he/she stocks and will be able to guide you in the right direction.

This may involve trying a few different strains and cannabis products like concentrates, flower, and even edibles to find something that suites your needs.

If you are planning to try various cannabis strains, here are some popular strains that you might want to check out:

Popular Indica Strains

  • Grandaddy Purple: Boasts sweet berry aromas and a relaxed, sleepy, yet happy high. Great for relieving stress, pain, and symptoms of insomnia.
  • Northern Lights: An iconic strain with a sweet, earthy-pine aroma. Offers a relaxed, euphoric, and slightly sleepy high, and is great for treating pain, insomnia, and even symptoms of depression.
  • Bubba Kush: A notorious strain for being somewhat of a tranquilizer, Bubba Kush boasts a really pungent earthy aroma and produces a classic, happy but sleepy high. Great for treating stress, soothing pain, and even boosting appetite.
  • Blueberry: As the name suggest, this strain has a deliciously sweet blueberry aroma. Produces long lasting euphoria and relaxation, and is great for treating stress, insomnia, and symptoms of depression.

Popular Sativa Strains

  • Sour Diesel: An extremely popular strain with a very pungent diesel aroma. Produces a very uplifting, euphoric, and energetic high and is great for treating stress, depression and, when used in small doses, fatigue.
  • Jack Herer: Created in The Netherlands in the 90s, this strains boasts a strong, earthy/woody pine aroma. It produces a very creative and uplifted high, and is perfect for treating symptoms of depression, stress, fatigue, and more.
  • Durban Poison: Originating in the South African port city of Durban, this strain has a wonderfully sweet smell and produces a creative, euphoric, and blissful high. Great for treating stress and pain as well as loss of appetite.
  • Lemon Haze: As the name suggest, this strain boasts a wonderfully sweet citrus aroma. Producing a relaxed, euphoric, and creative high, this strain is great for treating stress, signs of depression, and helps to boost appetite.

Popular Hybrid Strains:

  • Blue Dream: A legendary West Coast strain boasting a lovely, sweet berry aroma. Provides full body relaxation combined with cerebral invigoration, making it a great strain for treating stress, depression, and lack of appetite.
  • Girl Scout Cookies: Another legendary strain, particularly popular in California. With a sweet, earthy aroma and a chemical profile that provides a lot (and we mean, A LOT) of euphoria, this strain is great for treating stress, depression, and pain.
  • AK47: With a pungent, earthy, and somewhat sweet aroma, this strain is renowned for leaving users relaxed and mellow. Perfect for boosting appetite, cutting down stress, and battling symptoms of depression.
  • White Widow: A mix of South Indian and Brazilian landrace strains, this iconic hybrid is renowned for boosting creativity and conversation while leaving you happy and energetic. Great for treating pain, lack of appetite, and symptoms of insomnia.

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