A cultivar is a group of plants that carry common, distinguishable characteristics, which have been cultivated through selective breeding. The word “cultivar” is synonymous with “cultivated variety.” The term strain is often used to refer to a cultivar of cannabis, however, the term strain is not strictly correct in the field of botany, though it is used in other fields of biology.

More about cultivars

“Cultivar” is a botanical term that describes plants cultivated to have distinct, desirable characteristics, for example, apples (Pink Lady, Fuji, etc.). Notwithstanding, the term strain was adopted to describe this same concept for cannabis (Amnesia, SFV OG, Tangie, etc.). While strain does not officially indicate taxonomic rank in botanical nomenclature, it has been adopted by convention and is used extensively in popular culture and scientific literature alike.

How is cannabis classified?

The classification of the varieties present in the species Cannabis sativa has been a subject of significant debate for well over 500 years. One of the first mentions of cannabis is in an herbarium, a collection of labeled dried plant specimens, in the 16th century that describes domesticated hemp cultivated for fiber, and wild hemp postulated to exist but never observed. Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, described all variations of cannabis to exist as one species in his monumental Species Plantarum in 1753. To this day, the full scientific name Cannabis sativa L. bears his name. His mention of the plant's “habitat in India,” was a nod at the commonly held belief that cannabis was native to this area. 

French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was the first to propose that Cannabis was a genus consisting of two distinct species in 1785. He separated Cannabis sativa, non-intoxicating hemp, from Cannabis indica, the inebriating herb. It was the first time this dichotomy was put in place. The Irish physician William O'Shaughnessy, known for introducing cannabis to Western medicine, said cannabis was a single species but spread the usage of the term indica to refer to the highly intoxicating herb. 

Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

 In 1924 Russian botanist Dmitri Janischevsky in 1924 identified what he felt was a third species, Cannabis ruderalis. In the 1970s Richard Evans Schultes, an eminent botanist at Harvard University, proposed three distinct species of cannabis: C. sativa, C. indica, and C. ruderalis

A drawing depicting this interpretation was published by Harvard botanist Loran C. Anderson and has been widely distributed on the internet despite its roots in a since-disproven classification. Canadian botanist Ernest Small refuted Schultes' three-species classification scheme, and along with the famous American botanist Arthur Cronquist, introduced a taxonomical breakdown for cannabis that has been in place since it was first proposed in 1976. 

Small's and Cronquist's system defines cannabis as one species (C. sativa L.) with two subspecies: sativa and indica. However, even the renowned cannabis botanist Robert Connell Clarke at the moment still contends cannabis is divided into two separate species: C. sativa and C. indica. 

What is the difference between cultivar and hybrid?

Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are botanical terms for different cultivars. In this context, a hybrid would be a cross between the two. Nearly all modern cannabis is hybridized. Strain descriptions and cannabis labels commonly give percentages to indicate how much of a strain's genetic makeup is sativa and how much is indica.  

Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
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The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical or legal advice. This page was last updated on September 10, 2021.