Cannabis

Sativa, Indica, & Autoflowers: The Difference Explained

Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants in the family Cannabaceae. But not all cannabis is the same! Within that family, there are many species and variations. As we already explored in my introductory post on cannabis, hemp and marijuana are different species. Furthermore, marijuana can be narrowed down into sativa, indica, or autoflower strains. Distinct strains will create varying results, from the way a plant grows and looks, time to harvest, levels of THC or CBD, and the end-user experience. In general, sativa-dominant strains are more lively and indica strains will be more sedate.

Whether you are interested in growing at home or buying cannabis products from a pot shop, it is important to understand the unique varieties and strains – so you can get something that best suits your needs and desires.  Let’s talk about those differences!


Sativa Vs. Indica: What is the difference?


Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are two subspecies of the the Genus Cannabis. Sativa-dominant cannabis plants are distinguishable from their indica-leaning counterparts. This is true in regards to the plants appearance, growth habits and requirements, and its effects.

I say “sativa-dominant” or “indica-leaning” in describing the strains because it is not very common to see a plant that is 100% sativa or 100% indica these days. If so, these would be considered “landrace” strains – think of them as the original heirloom cannabis of a region. However, nearly all modern marijuana strains are a hybrid of indica and sativa. “Sativica” anyone? This happened over centuries of human dispersal, intervention, selection, and breeding. We generally prefer sativa-dominant hybrids, or something around 50-50.

A graphic representation of Sativa versus Indica. On the left shows the word Sativa, a drawing of a tall lanky cannabis plant, and describes in a few bulleted words how it it different than Indica, as already described in this post. On the right in Indica, showing a shorter wider plant and the key differences.
Some of the differences between Sativa and Indica. The stains listed on bottom of each are those rare landrace strains – the origin of all modern sativa and indica types. Photo courtesy of Leafly


Appearance

Sativa plants can get very tall, wily, and have both a narrower body form and leaves. This means there is usually greater distance between the branches and nodes. The leaf can appear lighter green in color than those of Indica strains. Indica plants are more wide, tight and compact, and usually shorter than sativa. Their deep dark green fan leaves are also more broad. People who grow primarily indica often think our crazy “Christmas tree” sativa-dominant Maui Wowie plants look funny, compared to the plants they’re accustomed to.

A patio garden area. On the left are two very tall, lanky sativa-dominant plants. On the right are two indica plants, clearly very much shorter, wider, and dark leafy green. In the middle of patio is a table on a colorful rug, with striped pillows, and baskets of homegrown tomatoes and greens on the table. The patio is around a blue house, with a fountain and other plants there too.
On the left are two Maui Wowie plants, a sativa-dominant strain. Note the difference in their structure from the plant on the front right. That is a indica-dominant strain. See how much more bushy it is? It was started a couple months later than the Mauis, so it did get larger with time, but not all that much taller.


Growing Requirements

Cannabis sativa plants have very long flowering periods. Sativa plants take longer to grow, mature, and finish than indica. This makes them a challenge to grow indoors due to their size. Their timeline can complicate things a little for outdoor growing too. The longer they’re around, the easier it is to succumb to disease or pests. Depending on where you live, the weather may take a turn for the worse before they’re ready to harvest!

Given these factors, it is no surprise that sativa is indigenous to warm regions near the equator – where there is a steady supply of long sunny days, such as East Asia. That doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile to grow in other climates though, if you can swing it. On the Central Coast of California here, we live nowhere near the equator and grow sativa-leaning strains just fine.

Indica cannabis plants will go through their entire cycle and finish up faster than sativa does. Because of this, indica may be preferential for folks who live in a location with shorter growing seasons. After all, it is native to cooler northern climates. Indica plants also pack on the pounds with more dense bud structure than most sativa. The result is higher flower yields per plant. They’re a popular choice with growers, with a reputation for being easier to grow.


Consumer Experience

There are numerous factors at play to influence how cannabis affects you, both mentally and physically. These factors include whether the plant is sativa or indica, the unique characteristics of the strain, THC and CBD content, and our individual Endocannabinoid Systems.


The Endocannabinoid System

Did you know we all have an Endocannabinoid System? Yep. Just like we have an endocrine system, immune system, digestive system, and so on. Our bodies have natural receptors, made to interact with cannabinoid compounds. This includes both internal, naturally-synthesized cannabinoids and those from external sources – like those from marijuana or hemp. Neat, huh?

The Endocannabinoid System (also called EC or ECS) is responsible for how our bodies and brains respond or feel after consuming cannabis. Studies suggest that the more you’re exposed to cannabinoids, the more receptors you develop. That is why someone who uses marijuana for the first time may not feel much at all. After a few times, more receptors have been established and therefore the effects more readily experienced.

“The endogenous cannabinoid system, named after the plant that led to its discovery, is perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. In each tissue, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.”

Dustin Sulak, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine


Furthermore…

“…the ECS helps fine-tune most of our vital physiological functions. It promotes homeostasis affecting everything from sleep, appetite, pain, inflammation, memory, mood, and even reproduction.” Tyler Strause

Tyler Strause, from Medium


As you can see from the graphic below, cannabinoid receptors are present throughout the body. They’re embedded in cell membranes, and are believed to be more numerous than any other receptor system. As a result, this is likely the key reason that cannabis is shown to help ease symptoms from such a vast array of diseases and conditions. Conditions that affect all parts of the body and brain, from Alzheimer’s to cancer to arthritis.



Sativa vs. Indica: Effects

Generally speaking, sativa is known for providing a cerebral head-high while indica induces more of a body high. Sativa = up, creative, euphoric. Indica = down, relaxing, sleep-inducing. Most “couch lock” and “munchies” can be attributed to indica. On the other hand, uncomfortable feelings of anxiety may come from a strong sativa. Of course this is a generalization. With many strains being hybridized, this doesn’t always ring true – or at least not so black-and-white.

Hybrids can be wonderful. Cultivators combine strains to “weed out” some of the unpleasant extremes and highlight the beneficial or desired ones instead.

Personally, we seek out nicely-balanced, uplifting hybrid strains. For example, we’ve been lucky to find sativa-dominant hybrids that keeps us feeling alert, engaged, clear-headed, and creative. We are able to work on projects in the garden or dance at concerts without feeling sluggish, but also not feel racy or anxious like some strong sativa can cause. With the indica bred in, they also provide for a nice relaxing effect and lead to a great night of sleep later. One such strain is Maui Wowie – a personal favorite. However, maybe you want something that will put you to sleep, pronto! It all depends on what your motivations and desired outcomes are for cannabis use.


Choosing a strain that’s right for you

There are so many variations within the sativa and indica classes themselves. When you are shopping for cannabis seed, plant, or flowers, do not only pay attention to the sativa and indica ratios. Read the descriptions! A good breeder or supplier should be able to provide pretty detailed information about the common effects and attributes of the strain. Furthermore, information on the THC and CBD content should be included, which we’ll discuss next.

A photo of two very tall, lanky sativa cannabis plants. They are taller than the roofline that it is next to. The leaves are more narrow and pointy than indica. The plants are in huge 25-gallon tan fabric grow bags.
Our favorite strain, many years running: Maui Wowie. You can tell by her shape, height, and skinnier leaves that it is a sativa-dominant strain.
The description reads: “Hawaii Maui Waui holds onto her vintage roots well and smoking her can leave you feeling groovy, wishing you were at Woodstock. The high is classic sativa and makes you energetic, happy and increases creativity ten-fold. She will leave your body numb, and is the perfect bud for music festivals.” Dead on. Our favorite concert weed, including our own private concerts in the back yard garden.



THC & CBD

Before we dive into the sativa versus indica conversation around THC and CBDs, let’s first make sure you have a good understanding of what those compounds are. Cannabis contains hundreds of cannabinoids. The two most widely known ones are THC and CBD.

THC stands for Tetrahydrocannabinol. It is known for having psychoactive effects – the mental “high” associated with marijuana use. Those psychoactive effects are not all negative though! On the contrary, THC is reported to help ease symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety for some users.

CBD, more formally referred to as cannabidiol, provides natural relief for many ailments such as insomnia, seizures, and inflammation. It does not create an obvious change in mental state. Therefore, CBD-only strains and products are popular, more accepted, and widely used as medicine – even while people are at work.

Together, the strength and medicinal benefits of THC and CBD combined through whole-plant consumption and extracts is more powerful than either one on its own. This is referred to as the Entourage effect, which we explored in my introductory post on cannabis.



Indica, Sativa, CBD & THC: So which has more of what?


A popular myth is that Indica is higher in CBD, and sativa is higher in THC. That is why indicas make you more sleepy and sluggish, while sativas are more energizing and uplifting, right? Wrong.

When indicas, sativas, and hybrids are analyzed in the lab, there is no support of this rumor. Sure, there may be indica strains that are very high in CBD and lower in THC… but the same could be said for some sativa strains too. Across the board, one is not consistently, significantly higher than another. This will vary from strain to strain, based on its natural origin and also how it has been bred. Again, do your research and check labels! A trustworthy cannabis product should always be clearly labelled as to its THC and CBD content, enabling you to evaluate and choose what suits you best.



Considerations for Medicinal Use

I think we have already clearly established that a designation of “sativa” or “indica” is not a reliable predictor of its exact effects. This is particularly true when hybrids come into play. However, sativa and indica are distinct enough that there are commonly accepted medicinal uses associated with each.

SATIVAINDICA
Medicinal benefits:

– Mood swings
– Fatigue
– Nausea
– Increased concentration
– Stress relief & depression
– Fights chronic pain
– Promotes creativity
– Increases serotonin (a neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of learning, mood, sleep, anxiety, and appetite)
– Good for day time use
Medicinal benefits:

– Anxiety
– Insomnia
– Physical pain
– Muscle spasms
– Nausea
– Headaches
– Seizures
– Increases dopamine (a neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward & pleasure center
-Good for night time use
Specific conditions it relieves:

– Mood disorders including
depression and bipolar disorder
– ADHD
– HIV/AIDS
– Glaucoma
– Alzheimer’s Disease







Specific conditions it relieves:

– Cancer
– Multiple Sclerosis
– Fibromyalgia
– Lupus
– Sleep Apnea
– Anxiety disorders including: OCD, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, & panic attacks
– Parkinson’s Disease
– Arthritis
– PMS
– Inflammation
– Crohn’s Disease
– Epilepsy
User’s Favorite Strains:
– Durban Poison
– Green Crack
– Super Lemon Haze
– Tangie
– Maui Wowie
– Pineapple OG
– Sour Diesel
– Candyland
– Jack Herer
User’s Favorite Strains:
– Platinum Kush
– Grandaddy Purple
– Bubba Kush
– Northern Lights
– Purple Kush
– Blueberry Kush
– God’s Gift
– Presidential OG
– Skywalker

Chart references: Kind Meds Strain Guide and Peace Naturals



Auto-flowering Cannabis Plants


If you follow along with our growing journey, you’ll probably notice some odd, short, mini cannabis plants around our homestead. Those are auto-flowering plants, referred to as “autoflowers” or just “autos”. We usually grow a few of these along with regular, larger “photoperiod” plants as well. They aren’t a favorite for all cannabis growers, but they definitely have some advantages that we enjoy! I thought some of you may enjoy them too, so let’s discuss autoflowers!

Just as sativa and indica plants can be bred together to create hybrid plants, those plants can also be crossed with another species of cannabis plant – ruderalis. In fact, this species is the base of all modern auto-flowering cannabis strains.

An image of three cannabis leaves. On the left says sativa. The leaf is narrow, pointed, and has 9 segments or fingers of the leaf. The middle leaf says Indica, is wide and fat, and has 7 leaf segments. The right is Ruderalis, with fat leaves like the Indica, but only 5 leaf segments.
Photo Courtesy of Leaf Science

Ruderalis

Ruderalis is an ancient, wild cannabis variety that originated in Russia. To adapt to its native harsh, cold climate and very short growing season, ruderalis developed some interesting traits. First of all, they’re very small – growing to a maximum of about 2 feet in height! They’re also quite cold-hardy.

Another extremely unique adaptation is that Ruderalis is triggered to go into flower based on time, not light or day length. In contrast, today’s common photoperiod marijuana plants rely on a shift in light or sun exposure to dictate when they start to flower (aka, produce “buds”). The shortening days tell them “You better hurry up, because the season is coming to an end!”. Russian Ruderalis make up for their short growing seasons by automatically maturing within seven weeks, regardless of light. This means that they explode with early vegetative growth, stop that, and then begin to flower only 3 to 4 weeks after sprouting! Photoperiod plants can take two to three times longer.

A 2005 study compared the genetics of C. indica, C. sativa, and C. ruderalis and found that the ruderalis gene pool lies somewhere between hemp and marijuana cannabis varieties. With that background, Ruderalis plants contain hardly any THC (like hemp), but can instead have quite robust CBD content – more like marijuana. This fact, combined with their other quirky traits, make them very appealing for cultivators developing today’s auto-flowering cannabis strains.


Modern Day Cannabis Autoflowers

Today’s autoflower plants are created by crossing C. ruderalis with an indica or sativa cannabis strain. Next, the resulting strain is then bred and selected over many generations to develop the best qualities of both. With this, the resulting strain will largely maintain the medicinal properties of the indica or sativa parent strain. Therefore, all of the variables regarding THC, CBD, sativa, and indica properties that we have explored up to this point apply just the same to autoflowers. Except for the way they grow.

Like their ruderalis roots, autoflowers stay quite short. They do get a bit taller than two feet though! You can expect the average autoflower to be around 3 to 4 feet tall. True to their name, modern autoflower strains ignore daylight changes and start flowering automatically by age instead. They have a super short vegetative period and flower early, though not always quite as early as ruderalis does. Most auto strains are expected to begin flowering within 3 to 6 weeks after germination. They will be done and ready to harvest in 10 to 15 weeks, depending on your unique growing conditions.

For the record, hybridization and cross-breeding is NOT the same as gene splicing and genetic modification. Autoflowers are NOT GMO!

A short, stocky autoflower cannabis plant. It is only about 2 feet tall, but it's branches are thick and full of buds. In the background are another couple small autoflower plants. The image is taken in a hobby greenhouse. The plans are in 5 gallon tan fabric grow bags, on a wood slat shelf.
A few short, chubby autoflower plants at various stages in maturity in our greenhouse.


Advantages of Growing Autoflowers


There are many advantages of growing autoflower plants, particularly for the home hobby grower!


More Plants

If you are like us, and love to experiment by growing new and unique plants (and I mean any and all kinds of plants… not just pot!), then you can likely understand the appeal here. With such a short lifecycle, several rounds of autoflower plants can be grown in one growing season. You can play with many more varieties than if you were to grow photoperiod plants only.


Manageable Yield

By growing more plants over a season, this can help to make up for the smaller production in buds that come from each single autoflower plant. That is, if a high bud yield is a priority for you… Maybe high yield isn’t a concern? On the contrary, are you you an infrequent user and would rather not end up with more cannabis than you know what to do with? Then autoflowers are even more appealing! They’re a lot less overwhelming to tend to. You could grow just one or two autos for the whole year. Even more, that means less to trim!

Size

The small stature of autoflower cannabis plants is appealing for some growers. Above all, for those restricted to growing indoors or in a smaller outdoor space. I can’t imagine having a massive, lanky sativa plant indoors. But maybe you love sativa! A sativa-based autoflower may be the ticket. In our very modest 6 by 8-foot greenhouse, we can easily house three to four full-grown autoflower plants! Rather, it seems like one mature photoperiod plant would hardly fit in there.


Cost

Because the plants are smaller, they can be grown in smaller pots. Consequently, this equates to less space requirements, and also less cost for the pots, soil, and amendments! For example, we typically grow our “big girls” in 20-gallon grow bags. In contrast, autoflowers can be happy in a 5 to 7-gallon bag instead.


Plant Health

The final advantage worth a mention regarding autoflowers is their hardiness. Due to their short life cycle, they are less susceptible to the impacts of potential disease and pests than traditional photoperiod plants. That isn’t to say that things can’t go wrong with autos; they aren’t immune to issues by any means! However, if they’re around for a lesser period of time, as a result there is also a reduced chance for something like powdery mildew to take hold. Or, for an aphid infestation to get too far out of control.  



In summary, the options are endless!

As you can see, cannabis comes in a plethora of types and forms. I realize that everyone isn’t for cannabis, but I also venture to say that there is likely a cannabis for everyone.


In all, what do you think? Did you learn something new? I hope you enjoyed the read. Finally, please feel free to ask questions and pass it on! To the left, that is.




4 Comments

  • charles Miller

    I follow you on ig and love the content. Just found the website and it’s even better. Keep up the great info, you are inspiring! IG-theplantnerd23

  • Kayla

    This is the exact type of cannabis post I’ve been waiting for! It’s comprehensive, written beautifully, and a fantastic overview of the differences between strains. Thank you for a great read! My husband and I are definitely hoping to start growing our own. We live in Chico, CA. Would love any recommendations on great sources for seed in California!

  • Cielo

    Thank you for this! I have 3 sativa babies growing right now and I hope they look as beautiful as yours. Do you prune them or just let them do their own thing?

  • Kate

    Thank you for the great info! I’ve been growing indicas for a couple years here in the Northeast (where it’s legal, of course!) but I’m thinking autoflowers may be the way to go. Last year I had to harvest early due to the weather.
    Any recommendations for reliable seed sources?

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