Sativa vs. Indica: Differences Between the Two Cannabis Plants

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Distinguishing between sativa vs. indica strains is the most common categorization method for many people. Both species are different in terms of the origins, appearance, growth habits, and effects. However, it’s been oversimplifying things for a long time.

Classifying cannabis strains by species — sativa or indica — is standard practice in the cannabis industry.

Ask your average weed smoker and they’ll tell you right away that you can either get sativa, indica, or hybrid strains. They’ll tell you that sativa makes you feel uplifted and energized, while indica induces powerful munchies and even stronger couch-lock.

While there’s some truth to this, the distinction is oversimplified — there’s a lot more to cannabis than that.

We’re going to blow this argument wide-open and discuss what the real differences between these plants are in terms of both their growth habits and effect profile.

Let’s get started.

Sativa vs. Indica: Know Your Cannabis Species

Although both sativa and indica come from the same type of plant, they originated in various parts of the world and are different in terms of their characteristics and effects.

Here are some basics facts these cannabis species.

Overview of the differences between sativa and indica.

Cannabis indicaCannabis sativa
1. OriginTurkey, Morocco, AfghanistanColombia, Mexico, Thailand
2. AppearanceShort branches, broad leaves, bulky budsTall branches, thin leaves, fluffy buds, soft seeds
3. Cultivation/Growth HabitsGrows up to 6 feet, better suited for indoor cultivation, smaller yields with more resinous buds, takes 40-50 days to be ready for harvest after floweringGrows up to 25 feet, better for outdoor cultivation, need up to 90 days to be ready for harvest after flowering, but they give greater yields.
4. Effect ProfileComplete relaxation, sedation, pain relief, appetite boost, better for evening useStimulation, euphoria, productivity, chattiness, improved focus, better for daytime use
5. Medical UsesCan be used to treat anxiety, inflammation, chronic pain, and sleep disorders.Can be used to fight lethargy, fatigue, anxiety, depression, cognitive impairments, and attention-deficit disorders.

 

1. The Origins of Cannabis Sativa vs. Indica

Both cannabis species — sativa and indica — come from different parts of the planet. Their characteristics change according to the climate they evolved to endure.

Cannabis sativa plants originated from countries near the equator (Colombia, Mexico, Thailand). You can also find some signs of sativas in Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines.

Cannabis Indica plants were first discovered in colder areas, even higher altitude, mountainous regions. Cannabis indica probably originated from Turkey, Morocco, and Afghanistan. Many indica strains have the “kush” suffix in their name because this type of cannabis comes from the Hindu Kush region of the Middle East.

2. Appearance of Cannabis Sativa vs. Indica

Cannabis sativa plants usually grow very tall, reaching up to 20 feet in height; some strains can even reach 25 feet. Sativas are characterized by thin, narrow leaves and tall branches. They also produce very soft seeds compared to other Cannabis indica.

Cannabis indica usually grow bushier and wider. They’re shorter and smaller than sativa strains, reaching only 6 feet in height. These plants have broad leaves and grow more like a bush than a tree. This helps support the dense resinous buds, which have a much better bag appeal than most sativas.

3. Cultivation of Cannabis Sativa vs. Indica

Cannabis sativa plants grow taller than their indica counterparts, they’re better suited for outdoor cultivation. They need a little bit more time to grow than other cannabis varieties — ready for harvest within 60 to 90 days from flowering.

Cannabis indica plants can are more easily cultivated indoors as they grow shorter than sativas and flower faster. The apparent downside is that they produce smaller yields than sativas, but then again, their buds tend to be more dense and resinous. Indica plants can be harvested within 40 to 50 days after they start flowering.

4. Effects of Cannabis Sativa vs. Indica

Before we elaborate on the differences between the effects of sativa and indica strains, please note that this is a very generalized classification. You can use this division as a general point of reference, but there are many factors at play here.

The ratio between THC and CBD, other cannabinoids, terpenes, your body’s unique chemistry – they all matter.

Sativas and sativa-dominant hybrids are believed to induce a stimulating, energizing cerebral type of high, which is why they’re widely recommended for morning and daytime use.

Sativas also come in handy for creative work, physical activities, and social gatherings. They’re well-loved for their ability to promote a euphoric state of mind, chattiness, and laughter.

As for the effects of indicas and indica-dominant strains, they usually trigger a heavy body high and a significant boost of appetite. Since indica buds are mostly sedative, they can make for a perfect herbal nightcap or to tone your inner volume down after a long and stressful workday.

On top of that, indica strains may also induce a heavy couch-lock effect, especially when consumed in large amounts, so if you’re an inexperienced user, try not to go overboard with this type of greens.

5. Medical Benefits of Cannabis Sativa vs. Indica

Both sativa and indica strains may offer a range of medical applications.

Because of the uplifting and energizing nature of Cannabis sativa strains, they’re a good option for treating anxiety, depression, cognitive impairments, ADD/ADHD, fatigue, and more.

Cannabis indica strains, on the other hand, may be a great choice for those suffering from chronic pain, anxiety, inflammation, epileptic seizures, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, PTSD, or lupus.

Aside from strictly medical benefits of indicas, they come with some recreational benefits, too. Since they induce heavy body relaxation, using indica before sleep is an ideal choice if you’re looking for something to get rid of stress and tension after a long day at work.

The Truth About Indica vs. Sativa Effects

The above system of predicting cannabis effects is, without a doubt, convenient, especially for new users entering the rich world of weed strains.

This may be a good point to start your adventure with cannabis, but as it turns out, there are so many contradictions to these guidelines that predicting the effects of a strain by its species isn’t as reliable as you might think.

In fact, the sativa vs. indica classification should have no bearing on your strain selection.

Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist and highly esteemed expert in the cannabinoid field, was one of the first people to question this system.

“The way that the sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense,” said Russo in his interview with Leafly. “The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs. short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.”

Dr. Russo is not alone in his opinion. Another expert, Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., a chemist who launched the first independent testing lab to examine cannabis terpenes, agrees with his colleague, stating:

“There is no factual or scientific basis to making these broad sweeping recommendations, and it needs to stop today. What we need to seek to understand better is which standardized cannabis composition is causing which effects, when delivered in which fashions, at which specific dosages, to which types of [consumers].”

Long story short, not all indicas will make you bodily relaxed and sleepy, and not all sativas will uplift your mood and provide you with a jolt of energy.

You may notice a pattern for the sativa strains to be energizing or for the indica strains to be sedating, especially when you expect to feel certain effects. Still, there’s no hard evidence that would support the consistency of the sativa vs. indica classification.

This, in turn, brings us to the most important question about differentiating between sativa vs. indica.

If Indica vs. Sativa Isn’t the Indicator of Effects, What Is?

The nature of the cannabis plant is more complex than we believe it to be.

That being said, the effects of any given marijuana strain will depend on a range of different factors, such as:

  • The strain’s chemical profile
  • Your body’s unique chemistry
  • Your cannabis tolerance
  • The dose and consumption method

Let’s start with the most important determining factors.

1. Cannabinoids

The cannabis plant contains over 113 cannabinoids that create a unique synergy of effects. THC and CBD are the two most prevalent and thoroughly researched cannabinoids; they’re also responsible for triggering cannabis’ medical and recreational effects.

Let’s briefly discuss the main two cannabinoids in Cannabis indica and sativa:

  • THC (delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol)
  • This cannabinoid makes the user feel “high”, which includes feelings of euphoria, utter relaxation, hunger, and relieves symptoms like stress, pain, nausea, and inflammation.

  • CBD (cannabidiol)
  • CBD is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid. It won’t make you high, but it can alleviate inflammation, anxiety, pain, seizures, and other health conditions.

    So, instead of choosing a strain based on its indica vs. sativa, consider basing your choice on the following classification instead:

  • THC-dominant strains
  • These are the most popular among consumers seeking psychoactive effects, but they’re also selected by patients struggling with anxiety, insomnia, depression, or cancer. Keep in mind that these strains work well for people who can handle the psychoactive effects of THC. If you’re not one of those people, consider trying a strain with greater CBD content.

  • CBD-dominant strains
  • These strains boast high levels of CBD with only small amounts of THC. They’re widely used among people who are particularly sensitive to THC or patients looking for the therapeutic benefits of cannabis while avoiding the high.

  • 50/50 strains
  • Some strains, both indica or sativa, come with balanced levels of CBD and THC. Such flowers offer mild euphoria accompanied by symptom relief. If you’re new to the world of cannabis and seeking an introduction to marijuana’s signature high, then evenly balanced hybrids will be your best bet.

    2. Terpenes

    Terpenes are aromatic compounds released by plants and fruits to lure us with their scents. They can be found in hops, pepper, lilacs, lavender flowers, and of course, cannabis.

    But terpenes are also responsible for the unique effect profile of a given strain. If you’ve ever used herbs for aromatherapy, you probably understand the basics of terpenes.

    As Dr. Raber underlines, terpenes seem to be major factors in driving the energizing or sedating effects in cannabis.

    “Which terpenes cause which effects is apparently much more complicated than all of us would like, as it seems to [vary based on specific] ones and their relative ratios to each other and the cannabinoids,” said Raber.

    The sativa vs. indica morphology doesn’t necessarily determine the aromas and effects of cannabis. As mentioned, there is no consistency among this classification.

    We can, however, find this consistency among individual strains based on their terpene profile.

    Strains high in Pinene tend to be more alerting; on the other hand, those varieties that scored high for the presence of linalool have more relaxing properties.

    For example, the Pineapple Express strain delivers a distinctive exotic aroma – giving you an energetic buzz and stirring creativity — while Blue Cheese never fails to deliver the signature odor of pungent cheese, and its effects are sedative and promote introspection.

    This is how some people are choosing their strains. If they smell it and they like the aroma, then it’s considered an indicator that the strain will be a good match for their bodies’ unique chemistry.

    In time, your inner self, as well as the knowledge of cannabinoids and terpenes, will guide you to your favorite cannabis strains.

    3. Unique Genetics (Hybrids)

    Hybrid cannabis strains are created by cross-breeding two (or more) different parent strains.

    These varieties fall somewhere between the indica-sativa spectrum, depending on the genes they inherit from their parents.

    In fact, pure sativa and pure indica strains are in the clear majority. Most strains available on the market are considered hybrids.

    We can categorize hybrid strains into three groups:

    • Sativa-dominant hybrids
    • Indica-dominant hybrids
    • 50/50 hybrids

    Finally, there’s one more thing to take into consideration when trying to predict the effects of a cannabis strain.

    4. Consumption Methods

    The way you consume cannabis can affect your experience with the herb, too.

    For instance, smoking dried buds will produce more of a heavy high and is easy to overindulge. That being said, a user is more likely to trigger adverse reactions caused by THC.

    Vaporization, on the other hand, only heats the weed to certain temperatures without combusting the plant material. As a result, more cannabinoids and terpenes are released in your body, which provides stronger and longer-lasting effects; the high is also clear-headed and more energetic because of the lack of smoke.

    If you want the effects to last a long time, consider buying some weed edibles (or make your own). This consumption method guarantees that cannabinoids will be released at a much slower pace, which is a great option for people struggling with chronic conditions.

    Nonetheless, when using cannabis edibles, remember to start with a low dose, as overdosing on green goodies is one of the major causes of emergency room visits among cannabis users.

    Summarizing the Differences Between Indica and Sativa

    While the sativa vs. indica classification can be useful for determining a plant’s growth habits, potential yields, and genetic lineage, it is, by no means, a predictor of its physical and psychological effects.

    Next time you check with your budtender for different cannabis strains, make sure to ask them about the THC/CBD ratio, as well as the terpene profile. This way, you will be able to personalize your experience with the herb to the letter.

    Do you pay attention to what cannabinoids and terpenes are present in your buds?

    James Reed

    James is our in-house cannabis expert and foodie. He earned a Bachelor of Health Sciences with a focus on pharmacology several years ago and has since been working as a writer and editor for cannabis-related blogs and e-commerce brands. In his spare time, he enjoys exploring the landscape around his Crescent City home with his dog Gus.

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