By Emily Ledger
To many people, cannabis may be split into two categories: Marijuana, known to cause psychoactive effects, or a ‘high’, and hemp, which has extremely low levels of the psychoactive compound THC and is often used for industrial uses. However, cannabis plants can actually be separated into three distinct varieties: Sativa, Indica, and Ruderalis.
Cannabis plants have been around for thousands of years and have been utilised by humans for much of this time. Different varieties of the plant are often used to different ends, including recreational, industrial, and nutritional purposes. In this article, we’re going to take a look at the three different varieties and highlight the differences between them.
A Brief History of the Cannabis Plant
Cannabis plants were utilised by humans for practical purposes long before recreational uses for the plant were discovered. The earliest evidence of cannabis as we know it today dated back to 8,000 BC and was discovered in China. Early uses of the plant included processing the fibre for weapons and clothing.
Later, the plant became a staple in traditional medicines in ancient societies such as China, Egypt, and India. For much of the plant’s history, it has also been used recreationally, with the earliest physical evidence of this dating back to at least 2,000 BC.
The cannabis plants we are familiar with today are in fact related to hops, as both plants belong to the Cannanibacae family. The plants are thought to have begun to change millions of years ago, evolving into the plants that grow today. However, both hops and cannabis still contain some of the same compounds. That’s why you might notice that your bottle of beer has a vague ‘weed’ smell to it!
The Three Cannabis Varieties
Of the three recognised varieties of cannabis plant, there are two which enjoy the most attention – Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica. The third variety of cannabis is Cannabis Ruderalis.
The three varieties have different features that make them easily distinguishable. They usually experience different growing seasons and harvest lengths, grow to often significantly different heights, and display leaves of differing sizes and shapes.
Cannabis Sativa is an extremely diverse plant and is used for recreational, medicinal, and industrial purposes. The industrial form of the plant is traditionally known as hemp and often contains low levels of cannabinoids, particularly THC.
In order to be classed as industrial hemp, the plant must contain no more than 0.2% THC in the UK (0.3% in the USA). However, the Sativa plant can also contain high concentrations of THC and other cannabinoids and can provide multiple harvests per year and have relatively long flowering periods.
This variety has thinner and longer leaves than both the Indica and Ruderalis varieties and can grow up to 3 metres tall. Cannabis Sativa originated in Eastern Asia but now grows in most climates around the world thanks to human cultivation.
Indica is also a diverse plant which can be used for a variety of purposes. This variety is most often associated with the recreational use of the plant. However, it has many of the same qualities as other varieties. Cannabis Indica plants do not tend to grow as tall as Sativa varieties, but the plant may also be used for industrial purposes such as the production of paper, clothing, and building materials.
In the world of recreational cannabis, ‘Sativa’ and ‘Indica’ are often used as terms to imply the effects of certain strains. In this context, it is widely accepted that Indica strains are more sedating, whereas Sativa strains will have a more uplifting effect. Although this may be a convenient way of dividing recreational cannabis strains, there is in fact little evidence to suggest that this is really the case.
The Indica variety of Cannabis was categorised by French Naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785. He named the plant ‘Indica’ as he discovered the variety in Indi. Despite the name of the variety, Cannabis Indica plants can also grow in many climates around the world.
The final variety is also the most obscure and least known of the cannabis varieties. It remains debated whether Ruderalis is in fact a species or a subspecies of the Cannabis family. It is theorised that the variety actually descends from Indica varieties. This theory suggests that Ruderalis is the result of cultivated cannabis species beginning to grow wild and adapting to harsh environments.
The Cannabis Ruderalis variety is the smallest of the cannabis varieties, usually not exceeding heights of 1.5 metres. Ruderalis plants have short flowering seasons and usually have low THC levels. The characteristics of the Ruderalis mean that it is not often considered for industrial, medicinal, or recreational uses. However, the variety are sometimes cross-bred with Sativa or Indica varieties to utilise the best qualities of both plants.