Cannabis consumers today face more variety of choices than ever before. While there's a cultivar for every occasion, all strains of cannabis available today can be genetically traced back to a handful of varieties, known as landrace strains.
Landrace strains are cannabis cultivars that have never been crossed by breeders, evolving stable genetics over centuries of natural selection and long-term exposure to their home environment. Cannabis is a highly adaptable plant and as generations of mankind spread throughout the world, so too did cannabis, becoming a “native” of numerous regions in the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, and Asia.
Where do landrace strains come from?
Cannabis is one of the oldest crops in history. The plant was first referenced in historical documents in 2900 B.C. by the Chinese emperor Shen-Nung. Known as the Father of Chinese Medicine, Shen wrote of cannabis in his encyclopedia of plant medicines called the Pen Ts'ao. Further archaeological evidence of hemp rope imprints on broken pottery indicates cannabis was already in use during the Neolithic period in China, about 10,000 B.C.
Botanists trace all cannabis genetics back to a single plant first developed in the Hindu Kush region of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. This first wild cannabis variety was used in everything from ropemaking and clothing to medicinal and spiritual practices.
Ancient Greeks and Romans transported the highly useful cannabis plant west, toward the Middle East and Russia. Later, Germanic tribes brought it farther west while the Ottomans delivered the plant south to the African continent. In 1545, African cannabis species crossed the Atlantic with the earliest colonial expeditions, arriving in the Caribbean and Central America where it was used for rope, animal feed, oils for painting, and many other uses.
The highly adaptable cannabis plant flourished in many of these regions, naturally developing growth characteristics best suited to the diverse environments of Asia, Africa, and Central America. These were the first landrace strains, named after their country or region of origin, and distinguishable by the characteristics suited for their specific growing environments.
Why are landrace strains hard to find?
Original landrace strains are tricky to find outside of their home environment. Cannabis breeders in the 1970s and 80s began experimenting with hybridization, crossing landrace strains to create the first hybrids such as Skunk #1 and Chemdawg. Many breeders wanted to create the best strain possible, and the cultivation of new generations of cannabis diluted the original landrace genetics.
The term landrace is also complicated because many of what we call landrace strains all descend from a single genetic origin. Technically the only real landrace strain is the variety grown in the Hindu Kush region where man first discovered cannabis.
Yet, the word landrace simply means “a local variety of a species of plant or animal that has distinctive characteristics arising from development and adaptation over time to conditions of a localized geographic region,” according to Merriam Webster. This makes it difficult to produce an Afghan landrace strain in Southern California, for example, as the growing conditions are entirely different.
When seeds from landrace strains grow outside the zone in which they evolved, they produce phenotypes, versions of the plant with similar genetics but characteristics determined by the growing environment. These differences can be seen in an heirloom cannabis plant's stature, development, and chemical makeup. It may result in variations in flowering times, cannabinoid profiles, and terpene content. To continue the above example, while an Afghan landrace seed may still be from the original plant, Southern California's dryer and sunnier climate will produce a very different phenotype than one grown in the Hindu Kush Mountains.
Heirloom cannabis strains are landrace strains with stabilized genetics that have been cultivated by humans for at least 50 years outside of the landrace's original environment. Phenotypes of landrace strains become heirloom when they have reached genetic stability in their new growing environment.
The distinction between heirloom and landrace strains is sometimes muddled in the cannabis community, which makes finding genuine landrace strains even more difficult. Angola Red, for example, is a Latin American heirloom bred from a cultivar found originally in Africa, even though many consider Angola Red to be Latin American landrace cannabis.
How to identify landrace strains
Landrace strains are typically named after the region in which they developed. They are easy to identify based on how each variety has developed characteristics suited to its growing environment.
For example, strains such as Acapulco Gold (South America) and Durban Poison (Africa) grew close to the equator in warmer, drier climates. These plants grow to huge heights with large, dense fan leaves and longer flowering periods that take advantage of the plentiful sunlight. Cultivars such as Afghan (Middle East) or Hindu Kush (Asia) develop shorter plants with broad fan leaves that respond better to higher moisture levels and altitudes with limited sunlight.
Popular landrace strains
Many landrace strains still exist on the cannabis market today, both as seeds from reputable breeders and in consumable form in dispensaries.
Latin American landraces such as Acapulco Gold, Colombian Gold, and Jamaica's Lamb's Bread are taller plants with elongated buds, high calyx-to-leaf ratios, and abundant lateral branching. These strains typically have higher levels of caryophyllene and limonene, giving them a peppery, lemon aroma.
Middle Eastern landraces such as Afghan and Hindu Kush feature small, stocky plants with wide leaves and thick, fat buds notable for high resin levels. These strains give off the signature Kush aroma of pepper and pine due to their caryophyllene and pinene content.
The most well-known African landrace strain, Durban Poison, originated in South Africa where it was cultivated by indigenous tribes. Durban Poison grows to medium height with long, fluffy buds. Known for its sweet, fruity flavor, the strain has high levels of myrcene and limonene, as well as high THC content.
Asian landraces such as Thai and Nepalese also grew close to the equator, forming tall plants with dense branches; long, serrated leaves; and fluffy buds covered in resin. These aromatic cultivars feature high levels of caryophyllene and humulene, creating sweet and peppery smells.