Indica, sativa, or hybrid? How to read a cannabis leaf

While there are countless strains of cannabis to choose from, there are only four known “types” of cannabis: the well-known indica and sativa, along with the lesser-known ruderalis, and finally the hybrid, which is a combination of the others. Each has its own physical characteristics that make it identifiable to growers. Most notably, the leaf.

In this guide to reading cannabis leaves, you'll learn how to identify each type of leaf just by looking at them. We'll also share insider tips on the different ways you can use marijuana leaves.

What does an indica leaf look like?

First named in 1785 for a kind of marijuana that grows in India, the indica leaf is short and stout, possessing between seven and nine wide, finger-like structures. 

Steven Somoza of Hydroponics, Inc. in Los Angeles, California, has more than eight years of cannabis cultivation experience and shared with Weedmaps, “Indica-dominant strains tend to have a stocky bush-like appearance, typically developing fat and wide leaves.” 

The indica leaf's short stature makes it a good choice of cannabis to grow indoors. You can spot an indica leaf if you pay attention to color, as indicas are a deep shade of green, which signifies a high chlorophyll content. Pure indica strains may include Hindu Kush, Purple Kush, and Afghani Kush, but pure strains of any kind are rare and challenging to find.

The indica leaf is short and stout, possessing between seven and nine wide, finger-like structures. The slender sativa leaf has more fingers than the indica leaf, sometimes as many as thirteen.

What does a sativa leaf look like?

In contrast to indica plants, sativa plants fare better outdoors due to their exceptional height (up to 12 feet). The slender sativa leaf also has more fingers than the indica leaf, sometimes as many as thirteen. 

In contrast to indica leaves, sativa-dominant genetics “typically grow lengthy, can take longer to mature, and develop skinnier leaves” according to Somoza. 

Besides size and finger differences, you can distinguish between an indica and a sativa leaf by the latter's lighter shade of green. Pure sativa strains may include Jack Herer, Panama Red, and Durban Poison, but connoisseurs debate whether these strains are truly pure or simply sativa-dominant. Jack Herer, for example, may be 80% sativa and 20% indica depending on the plant.

What does a ruderalis leaf look like?

Originating in Russia and Central Asia, ruderalis is a separate species of autoflowering cannabis that grows in the wild. It is shorter than sativa and indica, sometimes only reaching a foot or two tall. Ruderalis leaves are thin and each plant only exhibits three to five delicate fingers. Russian Auto CBD is one of the only known pure ruderalis strains, as most that contain this species are hybrids.

What is a hybrid cannabis leaf?

Finding pure marijuana strains is no easy task these days and hybrids are ubiquitous. Hybrid leaves tend to be harder to identify as they may favor their parent strains in different ways. White Widow, Cannatonic, Blue Dream, Gorilla Glue, Chemdawg, and Sour Diesel are some of the many popular hybrid weed strains available. 

Why is it important to know the difference between cannabis leaves?

The ability to distinguish between cannabis leaves, particularly the indica and sativa varieties, is a useful tool for both new and seasoned growers. For starters, knowing how to read cannabis leaves gives cultivators insight into how well (or how poorly) their plants are flourishing. 

Somoza elaborated, “A new grower must learn to 'read' these leaves as just one of many ways to get a feel for the plant's health. Most deficiencies and problems will show at the leaves with quick enough onset: drooping, tip-curling, leaf spotting, pest damage, etc.”

To assess the health of your cannabis plants, do a quick, daily check-up to see if any of those signs are present. Somoza also advised, “Get in the habit of rubbing your leaves and turning over and inspecting leaves when you defoliate.”

Keeping a watchful eye on leaves during all stages of growth can help familiarize you with what makes a healthy cannabis plant and what constitutes a struggling one.  

What can I do with cannabis leaves?

Raw cannabis leaves are versatile and valuable, so be mindful the next time you trim them from your plants. First, let's identify the two types of cannabis leaves that you'll encounter whether you're growing an indica or sativa-dominant strain:

Sugar leaves: Coated in white trichomes, sugar leaves are small and grow from the buds. Somoza explained the process of sugar leaf development this way: “As cannabis matures, the bracts or buds of the plant will swell and develop 'sugar' that will grow and fall on surrounding leaves. These sugar leaves are loaded with cannabinoids and are still useful when trimmed off during or after harvest.” 

As a rule of thumb, indica strains produce more resin glands which yield a greater amount of trichomes. Therefore, indica strains tend to have more sugar leaves than sativa strains. 

Fan leaves: Bearing a smaller amount of trichomes, these larger and broader leaves are easily seen protruding from marijuana plants. Like sugar leaves, fan leaves are also useful, as Somoza revealed, “I find that fan leaves are great for composts or a compost tea that goes right back into your garden.”

cannabis cbd
Both sugar leaves and fan leaves have an array of uses and benefits in the kitchen and in the medicine cabinet.
Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Both sugar leaves and fan leaves have an array of uses and benefits in the kitchen and in the medicine cabinet. Here are a few things you can do with cannabis fan leaves and sugar leaves:

  • Make a raw cannabis juice from the leaves. Just pop a handful into the blender and sprinkle in other healthful ingredients, such as spinach, kale, apple juice, ginger, or maybe even almond milk if you want to experiment with a marijuana milkshake!
  • Whip up some cannabutter that packs a punch with powerful cannabinoids. Sugar leaves make a great basis for cannabis leaf butter which you can spread on bread like any other special herb butter.
  • Infuse coconut oil with raw cannabis leaves and use in recipes for baked goods like cookies and brownies. You can also use cannabis coconut oil on the skin.
  • Chop up the leaves and toss into a romaine salad with your favorite superfood fixings like blueberries and flax seeds.
  • Brew a potent cup of cannabis leaf tea and squeeze in some fresh lemon juice for an immunity boost.
  • Compost any leftover cannabis leaves to ensure that not one part of the plant goes to waste.

Health benefits of cannabis leaves

Besides adding a flavorful twist to your recipes, cannabis leaves carry many potential health benefits. Cannabis is a plant and as such contains essential nutrients and antioxidant properties as any other leafy green would. 

Raw marijuana also boasts heart-healthy "good fats" in the form of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. You may incorporate omega-rich avocado or salmon into your diet to derive skin benefits, but raw cannabis leaves can offer some of the same perks. If you need more fiber in your diet, raw cannabis leaves are excellent sources and can aid with digestive issues including constipation.

Further, cannabis fan leaves and sugar leaves are abundant in aromatic terpenes that may have antibacterial, antiviral, and even anti-tumor properties. Researchers have conducted numerous studies on the possible anti-tumor effects of cannabis terpenes, some of which have yielded encouraging findings. For example, myrcene, the most abundant terpene in cannabis, has demonstrated the potential to kill human breast cancer cells in a 2015 study published in the Journal of the Korean Society for Applied Biological Chemistry. Another study, published in 2012 in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that the terpene cedrene, as an essential oil ingredient, might contribute to killing tumor cells in human tissue.  

Whether your cannabis leaves end up in the compost pile to nourish the earth or in your body to nourish you, they can be nutritional powerhouses.

Was this article helpful? Give Feedback

has been subscribed!

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 December 8, 2020.