A term often used in the cannabis consumer marketplace to describe a cannabis product with uplifting, cerebral, and energetic effects. Though as research evolves, it’s become clear that cannabis effects are more complex than sativa vs. indica, with the former offering a more energizing experience and the latter providing more relaxation. Cannabis sativa cultivars feature long, thin fan leaves and tend to have long flowering times. The slender sativa leaf can have as many as 13 fingers. Sativas flourish in warmer climates and can naturally grow up to 12 feet tall in a season.
“I’m looking for a hybrid cultivar with mild sativa effects.”
“Is this sativa oil really as uplifting as people say?”
What Is Sativa?
To the consumer, both sativa and indica are heavily associated with their perceived effect profiles. Most cannabis users will hear the term sativa and think of an energizing, uplifting, and cerebral experience.
The industry uses this association as a way to market sativa and indica cultivars, and thousands of other cannabis products. But the effects we typically associate with sativa aren’t always produced by sativa plants, nor do indicas always deliver indica-like effects. In fact, effects share no connection with the physical structure of today’s cannabis plants.The terms sativa and indica are far more useful for cultivators than for consumers. In cultivation, sativa is commonly used to describe a plant’s morphology, or physical characteristics, during growth. Sativas tend to be taller than indicas and have long, thin leaves, while indicas are much shorter and contain broad, short leaves. Sativas also take much longer to mature during the flowering stage, with flowering times of up to 100 days.
The term sativa is a derivative of the Latin botanical adjective sativum, meaning cultivated. The earliest recorded usage of sativa as a cannabis term comes from English herbalist William Turner’s The Names of Herbes (1548), in which Cannabis sativa is the scientific name given to cultivated hemp.
Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus ascribed the name C. sativa to what he considered the only species of the genus Cannabis in 1753. Thirty-two years later, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified Cannabis indica as a separate species from Cannabis sativa, arguably cementing the foundation of our current sativa/indica taxonomy.
Lamarck primarily based his C. indica classification on physical differences from Linnaeus’s C. sativa plant, including narrow, dark green leaves and denser branching. He also noted that C. indica was a more potent inebriant than C. sativa, marking the earliest instance of relating the plant’s effects to its type.
The shift from the Linnaeus’ C. sativa and Lamarck’s C. indica to our current definition of sativa and indica came in 1974 when American biologist Richard Evans Schultes applied the term C. indica to cannabis plants in Afghanistan. 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 Loran C. Anderson, who designated Afghan plants as C. indica and Indian plants as C. sativa.
Today, we reserve the sativa label for plants that share common physical profiles. Most countries only recognize one species, Cannabis sativa, and it remains highly debated whether indica is a subspecies. Meanwhile, the marketplace still recognizes two varieties, sativa and indica.
What Is the Difference Between an Indica and a Sativa?
Separating sativa and indica plants according to growth traits and physical makeup is a useful, efficient practice for cultivators.
The real difference between today’s sativa and indica plants is in their observable traits during the cultivation cycle. Sativa plants grow taller than indicas and have thinner leaves. Sativas also mature much more slowly than indicas, which tend to flower within 45-65 days as opposed to sativa’s 100 days.
Sativa plants have longer flowering cycles, fare better in warm climates with long seasons, and usually grow taller with narrow, light-green leaves. In landrace cultivars, sativas tend to produce higher concentrations of THCA relative to CBDA than indicas.
Crossbreeding has dominated the last 50 years of cannabis cultivation, virtually eliminating the possibility of encountering a pure sativa or indica. Classifying a particular cultivar as indica or sativa usually means that it tilts to one side or the other of a sativa/indica spectrum.
What Are the Effects of a Sativa?
While the sativa/indica 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 cannabis. In the days of Linnaeus and Lamarck, the effects of C. sativa and C. indica plants may have aligned more closely with their physical characteristics. Today, a plant’s appearance tells us nothing about what kind of effect it will produce.
Is Sativa an Upper?
Within the cannabis community, the cannabis sativa plant is often characterized as having uplifting effects that produce a head high, while indicas are thought to be sedative and typically lead to an intense body high. Dr. Ethan Russo, a psychopharmacology researcher and board-certified neurologist on the forefront of cannabinoid research, explained in an interview published in the peer-reviewed 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 interacts with a given profile of cannabinoids. One user may report feeling sedation and relaxation from a plant of sativa lineage while another will report an uplifting effect from the same plant.
If you go to your local dispensary today, you’ll probably be faced with product labeled either sativa, indica, or hybrid. The addition of hybrid to the cannabis lexicon is a sign that cannabis marketing is catching up to reality. All modern cultivars are technically hybrids.
Research has not yet caught up to the wealth of cannabis varieties in circulation today. Terpene and cannabinoid profiles are becoming more prominent in product marketing as the average cannabis consumer becomes more educated about the complex nature of the cannabis plant — and more sophisticated in their purchasing choices as a result.
As Dr. Ethan Russo explains, predicting the effects of a cannabis cultivar requires us to “quantify the biochemical components of a given Cannabis strain and correlate these with the observed effects in real patients.” If a cultivar delivers sativa-like effects, it will have more to do with terpene content than plant structure or possibly cannabinoid content. For example, cultivars high in limonene, whether sativa or indica, are very likely to facilitate an uplifted mood.
The terms sativa and indica are far more valuable for cultivators than they are for consumers. Until we collectively develop a new taxonomy to give consumers a better idea of what effects they’re signing up for, it’s important to remember that sativa plants are not guaranteed to produce sativa-like effects.