The Difference Between Indica and Sativa

The Difference Between Indica and Sativa

The Difference Between Indica and Sativa

Where do indica and sativa come from?

To understand the origins of the indica vs sativa debate, we need to take a quick dip into botanical history. Indica and sativa have been part of the cannabis lexicon since the mid-1700s. In 1753, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus identified psychoactive cannabis plants as Cannabis sativa in his work Species Plantarum. Thirty-two years later, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified Cannabis indica as a different species while observing the physical characteristics of India’s cannabis plants. Lamarck argued that C. indica plants have dark green, wide leaves compared to C. sativa leaves, which are light and narrow.

In 1930, Russian botanist Dmitrij Janischewsky identified Cannabis ruderalis as the third subspecies. This time, it was not a result of unique physical expressions but rather unique traits in the plant’s flowering cycle. Janischewsky noticed that while most cannabis plants begin to flower as a result of changes in the available sunlight, ruderalis plants automatically began to flower 20 to 40 days after sprouting.

Now, you probably haven’t heard your local budtender suggest a great new ruderalis strain. That’s because botanists never quite agreed on a definitive cannabis taxonomy.

Another pivotal moment for our current taxonomy came in the mid-to-late 1970s when American biologists Loran Anderson and Richard E. Schultes argued there are three cannabis species: C. sativa, C. indica, and C. ruderalis. Departing somewhat from Linnaeus and Lamarck, Anderson and Schultes characterized a distinction between plants based on their ratio of the cannabinoids THC and CBD. They observed a difference between cultivars high in THC with low CBD (C. sativa), those with high THC and CBD (C. indica), and those with a high CBD to THC ratio (C. ruderalis). 

In 1976, around the time Schultes and Anderson were making their claims, Ernest Small and Arthur Cronquist argued the existence of only one central cannabis species, which they labeled C. sativa. Human intervention, they contended, subsequently created two subspecies: C. sativa (low-THC hemp) and C. indica (high-THC cannabis cultivated for intoxication).

Today, we’re still making cannabis discoveries that reshape our taxonomic framework. Since the mid-2000s, botanists have diverted from Small and Cronquist’s taxonomy, arguing that sativa and indica subspecies may have predated human intervention. We’ve also begun to recognize the importance of terpenes in shaping the cannabis experience — something previous taxonomists never took into account. 

Indica vs. Sativa: Know Your Cannabis Subspecies

With more than 1,000 strains of cannabis having been bred during the past several decades, it is critical that patients are aware of the different types of efficacy available to them in terms of cannabis medicine. Some varieties of cannabis are most appropriate for particular diseases and ailments, but not others. Choosing the right strain is critical to ensuring that patients receive the best therapy possible.

Cannabis is a species of flowering herb that is split into three subspecies: Indica, sativa, and ruderalis. Ruderalis plants are small and yield relatively little medicine; what they do provide lacks potency and is generally not appealing to patients. Because of this, ruderalis strains are typically avoided by breeders and cultivators; the focus of the medical cannabis community is on indica and sativa strains.

Indica and sativa plants differ not only in their physiological effects, but also in their appearance. Indica plants are short and stocky, featuring leaves that are broad and “chunky.” Sativa plants tend to be taller and skinnier and may even be lanky in appearance, with leaves that are thin and pointed.

Physical differences between strains

Botanists use physical differences — such as variations in height, branching patterns, and the shape of the leaves — to identify different strains of plants. This is where the names “indica” and “sativa” come from.

Indica plants are shorter than sativa plants, and they have a woody stalk, not a fibrous one. Indica plants also grow more quickly than sativa plants.

There is some disagreement regarding what caused these physical differences between strains. Some researchers say that these differences are due to humans breeding different varieties, while others say that a mixture of evolving adaptations and geographic isolation is responsible.


Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are two of the most studied and discussed elements, or cannabinoids, present in different strains of marijuana. However, researchers have identified at least  different cannabinoids so far.

THC and CBD have very different effects on the human body. Knowing whether a cannabis plant is from the indica or sativa strain does not always provide much information about the relative amounts of THC or CBD it may contain, as people tend to believe, but it can be helpful.

It is also important to note that THC and CBD are only two of the hundreds of chemicals that create the varying effects of different strains of marijuana. The sections below provide more information on these two chemicals.


THC has psychoactive properties. In other words, THC is what produces the “high” effect that people tend to associate with using cannabis.

Strains of marijuana with a high THC content may be helpful for people with pain, difficulty sleeping, and depression, though they can make some people anxious.


CBD does not create a “high,” but it can affect mood and be helpful in addressing anxiety and psychoses. However, despite its reputation for inducing calm, CBD can be a stimulant in small and monitored doses.

The Difference Between Indica and Sativa

he Difference Between Indica and Sativa

Unfortunately, there are a few myths circulating out there in the cannabis world about the difference between indica and sativa. The most popular of the myths seems to be that all indicas will produce a heavy body high, while all sativas produce uplifting, energetic highs. There is also a myth that indicas have more THC than sativas. Not true.

The Difference Between Indica and Sativa

At one point in history, you could probably make some solid claims about the different characteristics of the two. But after a few decades of hybridization and underground breeding, those days are gone. Unless you can score landrace strains, there is really such thing as a true indica or sativa anymore. Every strain available at a dispensary is really a hybrid; some are more indica-dominant, and others are more sativa-dominant.

Sativa Effects vs. Indica Effects

While there is some truth to the myth that that indica-dominant strains can produce a more body-heavy high, while sativa-dominant strains provide a more invigorating cerebral high, it isn’t always the case. What really affects the way a strain will make you feel is the combination of cannabinoids and terpenes.

So how do indica-dominant strains get their reputation for producing a “couch-locked” feeling? It’s probably because, for the most part, indica-dominant strains have higher levels of the terpene named myrcene. But why sativa-dominant strains get the reputation for being uplifting isn’t well understood.

Again, relying on indica and sativa designations to predict a strain’s effects isn’t the best way to go about it, and we will go into further detail about better methods of picking a strain later in the article. But first, let’s take a look at some of the different effects indicas and sativas have a reputation for.

The Difference Between Indica and Sativa

Indica-Dominant Effects

The most well-known effect of indicas is that they produce a heavy body-high. They are famous for promoting a level of sedation known as “couch lock.” Indicas also have a reputation for giving you the munchies and relieving physical aches and pains. A lot of people enjoy them at bedtime to help promote sleep

Sativa-Dominant Effects

Sativas, on the other hand, are known for producing a stimulating “head high.” People like to use them to help banish depression, as well as boost focus and creativity. While some use them to help reduce anxiety, other people claim that a sativa will increase their anxiety. They are famous for producing an overall sense of well-being that is more appropriate for use during the daytime.

Better Ways to Choose a Strain

Now that you know the basic differences between indica-dominant and sativa-dominant, let’s take a look at better ways to choose a strain. As we mentioned, after decades of crossbreeding, the indica and sativa designation doesn’t mean much these days. If you really want to dial-in how a strain will make you feel, you need to look beyond indica vs. sativa and focus on cannabinoids and terpenes.

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