“Indica” and “sativa” are two terms every budtender casually throws around. To new customers, indica is often synonymous with “downer” and sativa is synonymous with “upper,” describing the two kinds of psychoactive effects. According to popular perception, an indica will bring on couch-lock, while a sativa will get people high.
But the truth is that these descriptions are not consistent, and they aren’t set in stone.
The current naming system for cannabis goes back to the 1700s, when scientists scrambled to classify every living thing into a neat, clearly defined category. Unfortunately, those taxonomy systems are hundreds of years old. By today’s standards, biologists back then used relatively primitive classifications methods. Most of these became obsolete once we could study a plant’s genes.
“Indica” got its name from India, which is where cultivators believed that indica genetics originated. The newest gene studies tell us that this isn’t true. Rather, most strains that we call “indicas” actually came from the Kush Mountains in Central Asia; namely, Afghanistan.
The strains we call “sativa,” on the other hand, likely originated in India. Sativas get their name from the Latin sativum, which identifies a heavily cultivated plant bred for its seeds. “Sativa” is essentially code for inbred, which may explain why sativas are so finicky in the grow room.
But what’s in a name? According to the most recent science, not that much. In reality, the terms “indica” and “sativa” describe only how the plant grows. Indicas grow relatively short and bushy and produce high yields. They’re usually easier to grow, and aren’t picky eaters like sativas.
In contrast, sativas grow taller and lankier and produce lower yields than indicas. They’re notoriously difficult to grow, since they’re sensitive to feeding, watering and lighting regimens.
In reality, most commercially available strains are hybrids. These are a cross between an indica and sativa. It borrows some genetics from its parents while discarding others. For this reason, hybrids can’t be accurately described as offering an “up” or a “down” high, no matter what shape they take on after maturing.
In other words, a plant that looks, smells and grows like an indica may very well provide an alert and focused high. A sativa-dominant strain could theoretically bring on drowsiness. It’s best for dispensaries to depend on budtenders to describe to their customers what a strain will do.
Since most of today’s commercially available strains are some hybrid, then the indica/sativa distinction means very little. In a dispensary environment, these terms largely act as placeholders for “sleepy” or “uplifting” highs.
In the end, simply calling something indica or sativa doesn’t describe much. For budtenders, it’s more important to understand what truly distinguishes strains. To better assist customers, follow up with more details about a particular strain. How does it smell? How does it taste? How does the plant’s flavor and scent profiles match up with its subjective heady effects?
To gain this information, dispensaries should allow budtenders to sample the product. Only by smoking or vaporizing the buds can they intimately understand what they’re selling. This intimate knowledge is essential for properly communicating a product’s effects to the customers.
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