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It Runs in the Family: Understanding Different Cannabis Phenotypes

By Cory Hughes
Published: August 23, 2017 | Last updated: May 11, 2021
Key Takeaways

Unlike many other plants, cannabis isn’t hermaphroditic. It has distinct male and female plants that, when bred together, have the potential to produce a vast number of genetically different offspring all at once. So, how do you make sense of all this variation? It starts with understanding how cannabis phenotypes work.

Cannabis plants come in all shapes and sizes. Even within a crop of a single strain, you can see some pretty drastic differences between plants. So, how is it that one strain can end up producing plants with such dramatic variations in color, smell, and taste? It all comes down to two factors that dictate pretty much everything in nature: genetics and environment.

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First, let’s look at the basics. When we talk about all those differences, we are talking about cannabis phenotypes. Phenotypes are variations in observable traits brought about by the effects of the environment on the plant’s underlying genetics.

Phenotypes vs. Genotypes

Phenotypes are often confused with genotypes, so let’s clarify the difference. A genotype is the underlying genetic makeup or genetic code of an organism. It’s the base genetics of an individual organism.

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Every living being on this planet, from fungi to humans, has a unique genetic sequence that defines them. Every person possesses DNA markers that clearly identify them as human, but due to genetic variation, none of us are exactly the same. Variations of genetic code within the species allow for the many combinations of features we see in the population today.

Whether you are breeding cannabis or people, genetics works in the same way. Both parents contribute to the genetic makeup of the offspring. Some offspring resemble the mother, while some resemble the father.

Siblings carry the same genetics but have a different genotype due to the randomness of gene selection in the breeding process. Identical twins, on the other hand, have identical genotypes.

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Still, these twins will undoubtedly end up two very different people thanks to their environments while growing up. With cannabis, the environment has a greater ability to affect variation in genetic expression, which can result in myriad aesthetics and characteristics. Phenotypes are these physical differences between plants of a single genotype brought about by environment.

Phenotypes can also be described as the physical expressions of the genetic code. A handful of seeds may all have the same genotype, but once grown, they may contain several different phenotypes.

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Development of Phenotypes

The development of various phenotypes can begin early in the formation of the seed. Adverse environmental conditions that affect the parent plant can trigger phenotypic development before the seed is even done hardening. Once germination occurs, environmental conditions can trigger the advancements of certain traits, whether it be node length, density, etc.

So, it would seem the environment isn’t simply a neutral third party meant to offer comfort and support to your garden. It actively guides and fosters the traits of your plants at any given time.

Another cause for the development of a phenotype is the presence of a recessive trait that was not observable in either parent. Dominant traits mask the expressions of recessive traits. In humans, dark hair is more dominant than blonde hair, thus a dark-haired couple would more than likely have a dark-haired child.

However, it’s possible that one of the parents has the gene for blonde hair. That blonde gene is still present, but it may skip a few siblings before emerging. It may even skip a generation for that matter. Same goes with cannabis.

If most of your cannabis plant “siblings” look the same, but one has distinctly different features, it could be thanks to a recessive trait that has revealed itself. A remnant of its lineage.

Variations in Phenotypes

A great example of variations in phenotype can be found in one of today’s most popular and most potent strains: Gorilla Glue (GG) #4. Bred by GG Strains, GG#4 is one of a handful of phenotypes that came from the breeding of Chem’s Sister and Chocolate Diesel. (GG#4 got its name because it was the fourth seed that popped—not too scientific, huh?).

While GG#4 and its sibling GG#1 both have the same earthy, piney taste and look the same in the garden, the breeders themselves attest that GG#4 has a very different high. It is said that GG#4 produces a heavy head high, while GG#1 has a more relaxing buzz. Gorilla Glue #5, on the other hand, looks different than its siblings, with denser buds and more indica traits showing through.

There are a million reasons why your cannabis plants turn out looking the way they do. As with all other life forms, their development always comes back to environment and genetics.

Environmental contributions are the primary sources of the many phenotypes we see in the cannabis world, while latent genetics can also play a role. It is this intricate dance between nature and nurture that ultimately decides how we all turn out in the end.

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Written by Cory Hughes | Commercial Grower

Profile Picture of Cory Hughes

Cory Hughes is a former police officer turned full-time commercial grower in Denver, Colorado.

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