Truly a plant of the people, cannabis is one of the earliest known cultivated crops. A highly useful plant, cannabis has occupied a central position in village fields for millennia. With common uses in food, textiles, medicine, and spiritual rituals, cannabis cultivation dates back to at least 4000 BCE. 1
The cannabis plant originated and began its diversification in Central Asia and the Himalayan Foothills. With distinctive varieties today recognized as “Indica”, “Sativa”, and “Ruderalis”, these common names tend to refer more to phenotypic characteristics, or the way a plant looks and smells, than any real scientific classification. (More on scientific classification in another article.) “Indica” varieties are represented as short plants with compact growth structures that produce a relaxing bodily effect when consumed. “Sativa” varieties are said to be tall with a sprawling growth structure that produces more of a cerebral psychoactive result. “Ruderalis” falls between “Indica” and “Sativa” in growth profile, being squat and sparse, and has a very low THC percentage. However, unlike other varieties of cannabis, “Ruderalis” doesn’t need to wait for the right light conditions or a particular time of year to flower. “Ruderalis” automatically flowers upon reaching maturity, and so is bred with “Indica” and “Sativa” varieties to produce plants with higher levels of THC that will “auto-flower” upon reaching maturity. These plants can allow farmers to still pull a fully matured harvest in short-seasoned areas. 2
The cannabis of our ancestors possessed very low THC levels and, based on archaeological findings, was likely bred mainly for seed oil and textile production during the first several thousand years of cultivation. However, around 2500 BCE people started to prioritize higher-potency cannabis and began selectively breeding for high THC plants. Evidence for this has been recently uncovered in tombs located in modern-day China, where collections of cannabis resins found in ceremonial incense burners tested much higher in THC than similar plant matter found in the surrounding area. 1
Today, cannabis is one of the most widely enjoyed psychoactive plants on the planet. With much of its psychoactivity attributed to the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short, this cannabinoid is typically selected as the main indicator for potency. With high-potency strains available that are strong enough to immediately elevate even seasoned consumers, most modern cannabis plants are much more psychoactive than their ancient precursors.
Although increasing THC levels has long been one of the main focuses of breeding efforts, and especially so in recent years, each cannabis plant has a varied and complex profile of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, all which likely played a part in the effects felt by a consumer. With new studies continuing to turn up research-based evidence for the beneficial psychological and physiological effects of other cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabigerol (CBG), as well as terpenes such as limonene and a-pinene, cannabis breeders are beginning to focus on the need for a broad expression of beneficial compounds within cannabis varieties, in favor of the traditional goal of one-note super-high THC plants.
Cannabis has been a staple plant in many cultures throughout much of human history. It’s role as a clothing and food source led to its initial domestication, but the healing effect it has on many ailments has steered breeders to produce the high-yielding, potent and extremely aromatic plants we have today. With a focus on increasing beneficial compound levels supported by modern technology, cannabis breeders can now view a complete chemical profile of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids within each plant. This allows breeders to be able to reliably judge the chemical profile of each plant and more effectively breed for desired traits. By coupling modern science with ancient breeding techniques, we have more control over selectively shaping the course of this plant than ever before. With emerging evidence fully supporting the positive psychological and physiological effects of consuming a wide-range of cannabis-derived compounds, it is exciting to speculate about the future of cannabis. I envision sprawling fields of potently psychoactive, highly fragrant cannabis flowers with delightfully well-balanced chemical profiles. Cannabis has come a long way since our ancestors started tinkering with its genetics thousands of years ago, but it still holds a solid place in the medicine cabinet, pantry, closet, and yard of many homes.
Take a look at this! These are the scientific designations of the varieties of cannabis. Could do another blog on this at some point.
- sativasubsp. sativa var. sativa (low THC, with domestication traits)
- sativasubsp. sativa var. spontanea (low THC, wild-type traits) (ruderalis)
- sativasubsp. indica var. indica (high THC, domestication traits)
- sativasubsp. indica var. kafiristanica (high THC, wild-type traits)