Understanding Cannabis: Sativa vs. Indica vs. Ruderalis
Sativa, indica and ruderalis are all types of the same species—Cannabis sativa L. However, despite being from the same species, the effects, appearance and characteristics of each subspecies vary greatly. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the different subspecies of cannabis.
Cannabis is an incredibly diverse plant that can be split into thousands of different strains, dozens of categories, and several different species. What's more, the different subspecies also have unique characteristics, which can make navigating the legal cannabis industry confusing if you don’t know where to start.
Certain subspecies will be more suitable for medicinal markets, while others are beneficial to commercial sectors, like agriculture and textiles. Knowing the fundamental differences is the ideal place to start before building a cannabis portfolio. It allows you to understand the focus of a company, and how their product ranges or services may be affected in the future.
With that in mind, we are going to break down the three subspecies, sativa, indica and ruderalis. We will cover their key characteristics, as well as the effect they can have when consumed. Armed with this information, you can continue to build an overview of the legal cannabis industry’s core commodity.
Capable of towering over six metres in height, the sativa species is native to tropical climates, where long periods of intense sunlight are the norm. This adaptation to its environment has allowed the sativa species to develop large pointed leaves with minimal markings or patterns. Their branches are outstretched with 3–6 inches between nodes.
Sativa strains are capable of dealing with higher concentrations of humidity compared to their indica counterparts. However, sativas have a longer flowering time, with plenty of space needed for them to reach their full potential. Cultivating the sativa subspecies requires a knowledgeable hand, and a carefully prepared growing environment or greenhouse.
Sativa strains commonly incite feelings of euphoria and a head-focused high when consumed. They can also be used in small doses to boost energy levels, creativity, and divergent thinking. Sativas are not the first choice for medical markets, unless dealing with specific medical conditions. Sativa-dominant strains are an ideal choice for the recreational food and drink market.
The indica subspecies is the opposite of sativa strains in virtually all respects. It grows much shorter, with denser branch structure. Leaves are also smaller, with broader, slightly marbled fingers. Grown correctly, indica strains resemble a small Christmas tree, with the largest leaves at the base of the plant.
Indicas are less adept to humid conditions, and can easily fall victim to mould, unless monitored. They are usually the preferred option for recreational growers as they have a shorter flowering period. This means that in controlled environments (indoor grow room) it is possible to harvest multiple times per year.
Indica strains produce a body-centric effect that can be used to soothe muscles, aches and pains. Certain indica strains can also help induce sleep or tackle insomnia. These attributes usually make indica-dominant strains preferable for medicinal use.
Existing somewhere between the sativa and indica subspecies, ruderalis have small, thick leaves with only a few branches and a fibrous stem. They do not grow very tall, only reaching up to four feet in height. Native to central and eastern Europe and Asia, the ruderalis subspecies has become adept at thriving in poor, or hostile environments.
The fundamental difference between ruderalis and sativa or indica is how the subspecies flowers. Usually, a cannabis plant would use the change in seasons to prompt the shift from the vegetative phase to flowering. However, due to the lower sunlight intensity in Europe, the ruderalis subspecies has developed an inbuilt timer for flowering—regardless of seasonal changes. Its genetics determine the length of time it spends in the vegetative stage before automatically flowering.
Ruderalis strains have low levels of THC and produce lower yields in comparison to the indica or sativa subspecies. They are not used in the recreational market due to their rather poor return, although they can be cross-bred with either indica or sativa strains to improve yields. The ruderalis subspecies can contain higher levels of CBD and be useful for medicinal markets, as long as sophisticated extraction equipment is used. The fibrous stems also make ruderalis strains more suitable for use in clothing, or textiles.
Technically this is a tricky question, as no subspecies is utterly superior to the other. Each one has its own unique effects and uses. However, what is essential to know is that regardless of the subspecies, poor quality genetics and care will always lead to an inferior product. It is possible to grow a high-quality ruderalis that is more profitable than a poorly looked after sativa. The capability of a company and the skill of its growers will be a significant factor.
The final point to consider is that all three subspecies can be crossbred to create a strain that has a variety of their characteristics. This is common amongst breeders, as true landrace strains (pure indicas or sativas) are difficult to source. Consider the markets you wish to invest in and find companies that have evident expertise in the relevant subspecies.