Why are there thousands of cannabis strains?

There was a time when cannabis was simply… cannabis. Today, we’re faced with a boatload of options. Blue Dream. Purple Urkle, Pinkman Goo, Thin Mint, Hog’s Breath?!

What’s the deal? 

Crazy names aside, let’s think back to high school bio class for a minute. You may recall learning about Gregor Mendel, a.k.a. “The father of genetics.” Basically, Mendel grew pea plants. He observed their various traits and experimented with what happened when he hooked them up with each other. Then he studied what happened when he bred the plants’ offspring, aka, their “kids.” In short, Mendel discovered the hereditary patterns in our genes; we call them alleles. He figured out how the alleles, based on their dominant and recessive traits, predicted the probability of the child’s physical characteristics.

At the time, everyone thought Mendel was crazy. 100+ years later, we all know that he wasn’t! Just visit the seed section of your local garden store, and you’ll see Mendel’s work in action. You wanna grow tomatoes? You’ve got over 3,000 types to consider. Some are common, some aren’t. Same goes for cannabis.

Cannabis sativa and cannabis indica: differencies and health benefits infographic

Clones vs. crossbreeds

When growing specific cannabis strains, plants are often cloned. This simply means that instead of using seeds, they’re grown by rooting the cutting of a “mother” plant and raising a new “child” that is genetically identical. As these strains have a reputation to uphold, the goal is consistency. This way, the medical cannabis patient can—in theory—rely on her choice strain to provide the same effects, time and time again. (“In theory” is a key phrase here… more on that in a bit!)

On the flip side, growers just love to create new breeds! And, just like tomatoes, there are over 3,000 cataloged cannabis strains. It’s a great thing, considering our individual preferences are ultimately unique. You say tomayto, I say tomahto.

So, when you’re loving the cannabinoid design of one plant, but the terpene profile of another, that’s where crossbred strains come in. By studying the gene patterns of cannabis plants, we can cross breed a male and female plant to yield a particular outcome.

cannabis bud We call this one “School Lunch.”

Let’s say you know you enjoy OG Kush, for example. If you’re looking to add a little variety to your toke, you might start by exploring other strains that have OG Kush lineage. Breeding OG Kush with a strain called Skywalker, for instance, will yield “Skywalker OG.” Or, there’s Banana Kush, which essentially has an OG Kush grandparent. The parent, however, was likely an OG Kush phenotype. (It’s called Ghost OG.)

Wait. Phenotypes?

Earlier we mentioned how—in theory—we could rely on the cloning process to produce consistent results. If a plant’s genetic makeup, or genotype, was the only factor at play, that would be true. Yet predictability can be easily compromised if environmental variables are introduced! A phenotype, by definition, is “a plant’s physical expression resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment.”

In other words: Genetics are only a portion of the puzzle when it comes to a plant’s traits. Just like we, as humans, are a product of nature plus nurture, the characteristics of cannabis are influenced by environmental factors.  Sometimes the genetics prevail, sometimes they don’t. When a genotype like OG Kush is exposed to new conditions, the presenting traits may vary enough to warrant its reclassification, and so is the case with the phenotype “Ghost OG.”

Hot crosses in the canna-world

Put beloved Silver Haze and Sour Diesel together, and you’ll get Super Sour Diesel, a Sativa Superstar. This one’s best for experienced cannabis consumers because of its especially potent nature.

Headband, however, is Sour Diesel’s mild child. It gets its name from the often-noted sensation it produces, like a gentle hug around the head. As a Sour Diesel and OG Kush hybrid, Headband is said to keep one focused, yet relaxed.

You may also run across Super Lemon Haze, which crosses the Super Silver Haze strain with one called Lemon Skunk to punch up those sweet n’ citrusy limonene terps. (It’s hard to keep your mouth from puckering right now, isn’t it!)

These examples are just the tip of the fan leaf. Between research capabilities and modern technologies, today we can control grow environments—and outcomes—with more precision than ever before. Crossbreeding is not only the key to creating a new strain, but also to purifying or strengthening a classic.