A term used in the cannabis consumer marketplace to describe products with sedating, relaxing, and heavy physical effects. Indica cannabis plants are typically short in stature with broad leaves and shorter growing cycles. Indica cultivars are well-suited for growth in cooler climates due to their shorter flowering periods.
“I’m looking for a hybrid cultivar with mild indica-like effects.”
“Do indicas really deliver more of a body high?”
More About Indica: What Does Indica Mean?
In the cannabis marketplace, both indica and sativa are heavily associated with their perceived effects. The classic indica definition, which it turns out is overly simplistic, is a strain that produces a strong physical high as opposed to a more cerebral high. For most cannabis users, the term indica evokes memories of haziness, couch lock, and deep relaxation.
The industry uses this pop-culture indica definition as a way to market indica and sativa cultivars (strains), and thousands of other cannabis products. But while the effects we typically associate with indica may have originated with the plant, there is no real correlation between the effects and the physical structure of today’s cannabis plants.
The terms indica and sativa are far more useful for cultivators than for consumers. In cultivation, the terms are commonly used to describe the plant’s morphology, or physical characteristics, and its growing cycle.
The indica taxonomy begins with French Biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who identified Cannabis indica in 1785 as a separate species from Cannabis sativa, as classified by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus 32 years earlier. Lamarck primarily based his C. indica classification on morphological differences from Linnaeus’s C. sativa plant, including narrow, dark green leaves and denser branching. But he did note that C. indica was a more potent inebriant than C. sativa.
The shift from Lamarck’s C. indica to our current definition of the indica cannabis plant came in 1974 when American biologist Richard Evans Schultes applied the term C. indica to cannabis plants in Afghanistan. These plants looked different than Lamarck’s Indian C. indica plants, exhibiting a shorter stalk and wider leaves.
Schultes’ C. indica classification ended up having a huge impact on the development of our modern-day indica/sativa taxonomy, tying the indica variety to a distinct geographic origin. This would later be emulated by Florida State University biologist Loran C. Anderson, who designated Afghan plants as C. indica and Indian plants as C. sativa.
Today, we reserve the indica label for plants of Afghan heritage that express a common morphology — in other words, they look like one another. Most experts only recognize one cannabis species, and it remains highly debated whether indica is a subspecies of Cannabis sativa. Meanwhile, the consumer marketplace still recognizes two varieties, indica and sativa.
What’s the Difference Between Sativa and Indica?
As indicated above, while the popular indica definition posits a number of fundamental differences between indica strains and sativa strains, this distinction is most useful in the context of cultivation. In other words, separating indica and sativa plants according to growth traits and physical makeup is a useful, efficient cultivation practice.
The real difference between indica vs sativa plants is their observable traits during the cultivation cycle. Indica plants tend to grow short with thick stems. Similarly, the indica leaf tends to be broad and deep green in color. Indicas also mature much faster than sativas, with 35-65 day flowering times, and grow sufficiently well in cold, short-season climates. Indica buds tend to be denser and more compact than sativa buds.
Sativa plants have longer flowering cycles, fare better in warm climates with long seasons, and usually grow taller with light-green, narrow leaves. In the wild, indica THC tends to be more highly-concentrated than THC in sativa strains.
Crossbreeding has dominated the last 50 years of cannabis cultivation, virtually eliminating the possibility of encountering a “pure” indica or sativa. Classifying a particular cultivar as indica or sativa usually means that it tilts to one side or the other of the spectrum.
What are the Effects of Indica Strains?
While the indica/sativa taxonomy is efficient for cultivators, it doesn’t help consumers predict the effects of a given cannabis plant. Human intervention has dramatically changed the chemical makeup of the cannabis plant. In the days of Linnaeus and Lamarck, the effects of C. indica and C. sativa plants probably aligned more closely with their physical characteristics. Today, a plant’s appearance tells us nothing about what kind of effect it will produce.
Within the cannabis community, indica plants are often characterized as having sedative effects, which typically lead to an intense body high, while sativas are thought to be uplifting and produce more of a head high. Dr. Ethan Russo, a psychopharmacology researcher and board-certified neurologist on the forefront of cannabinoid research, explained in an interview published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, that “the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility.” In reality, the effects of cannabis are based on the unique chemical profiles of each variety rather than a genetic lineage.
For example, a landrace cultivar with indica lineage grown in a new environment could potentially produce a unique chemical profile that would cause uplifting effects.
Furthermore, cannabis effects have more to do with the makeup of a user’s individual endocannabinoid system than a plant’s genetic lineage. Individuals may have different experiences based on the way their endocannabinoid system reacts to consuming a given cannabis plant. One user may report an indica-like effect from a plant with indica lineage while another will report an uplifting sativa-like effect from the same plant.
If you go to your local dispensary today, you’ll probably be faced with product labeled either indica, sativa, or hybrid. The addition of hybrid to the cannabis lexicon is a sign that cannabis marketing is catching up to reality. All modern strains are technically hybrids.
Research has not yet caught up to the wealth of cannabis varieties in circulation today. Terpenes and cannabinoid profiles are becoming more prominent in product marketing and on packaging as the average cannabis consumer becomes more educated about the complex nature of the cannabis plant.
As Dr. Ethan Russo explains, the reason most indica strains are associated with feelings of sedation has more to do with the concentration of the terpene myrcene than it does the cannabinoid content or the structure of the plant.
The terms indica and sativa are far more valuable for cultivators than they are for consumers. Until we collectively develop a new taxonomy to give people a better idea of what effects they’re signing up for, it’s important to remember that indica plants are not guaranteed to produce indica-like effects.