Modern Hybrids vs. Landrace Strains: Know Your Roots!
Most of us understand the difference between indica and sativa strains in terms of how it effects the user, but many are unaware of where these varieties originated and how they came to exhibit the traits they do.
The cannabis industry, like other agricultural industries, is undoubtedly dominated by hybrid cultivars or varieties. Through selective breeding, humans have been able to fine tune hybrids to contain desired genetic traits.
For cannabis plants, these desired traits can range from unique cannabinoid profiles, such as varying levels of THC and CBD, to having certain flavor or aroma characteristics influenced by specific terpenes. Hybrids can even be bred to display higher tolerances to things like drought or disease when the proper cultivars are used in the breeding process.
The vast majority of hybrid cannabis available today is usually a mix of both indica and sativa species that are often bred to contain more dominant traits from one over the other, such as a sativa-dominant strain.
Cannabis is widely believed to have first evolved in Central Asia and as migrants and traders traveled to other regions they would often carry cannabis seeds with them. These seeds would then be planted and cultivated in a different environment from which they came. For thousands of years, these plants interbred in different regions without the interference of other cannabis varieties.
This caused them to adapt to their environments. In doing so, they developed distinct genetic traits and characteristics unique to their respective homes. Such plant varieties eventually became indigenous to their individual regions and are now referred to as the landrace strains. They are the genetic forefathers of modern hybrids and many populations are still maintained today.
This is where the terms indica and sativa come into play. These two varieties are the main landraces that modern hybrids stem from. The cannabis that was introduced and allowed to breed in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are called indicas.
In these regions, the growing season is shorter and the weather can be harsh at times. Indica has adapted by growing shorter and bushier, and flowering a bit earlier in the season once summer solstice brings longer nighttime periods.
Sativas, on the other hand, originated in areas closer to the equator like southern Asia and northern Africa. Since the weather stays warm year-round there, cannabis sativa plants will grow taller and leaner and take longer to flower.
A third, lesser known landrace variety is cannabis ruderalis. Ruderalis evolved in the Siberian region of Russia where the growing season is notably shorter. This variety grows much smaller than its indica and sativa cousins and has a significantly lower level of THC and other cannabinoids.
What makes ruderalis unique from other landraces is the fact that it flowers upon reaching a certain point of maturity and does require a change in photoperiod length. This allows it to flower more quickly, giving the plant variety a level of importance among breeders.
The original landrace indicas and sativas, and their individual traits, are often named for the places they originated, such as Afghani, Hindu Kush, Malawi or Thai.
Throughout the 1970s, cannabis aficionados from around the world traveled throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East in search of the best of what they viewed as a sacred plant had to offer. The routes they followed are part of what is called the Hashish Trail, aptly referred to as the Hippy Trail.
On their journeys, many would collect seeds from landrace cannabis varieties and bring them home to grow in their own gardens, effectively making them heirlooms. The relevance of this strain relocation in the US lies mostly in Hawaii and the hills of northern California.
Northern California’s Emerald Triangle sits approximately on the same parallel line as Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush mountains. Indica varieties found themselves right at home in northern California’s cooler climates and shorter growing seasons, eventually giving birth to the famous OG Kush variety.
Alternately, sun and heat-loving sativas from Africa to southern Asia thrived in the tropical environments of Hawaii. Over the years, these landrace cultivars became the basis for breeding of the hybrids we know today.
Over the last 30 years, breeders have continued to travel to regions of the world where landraces can still be found. These varieties are praised by breeders and highly sought after for their pure genetic traits and unique cannabinoid compositions, desired terpene structures, and ability to adapt to varying environmental conditions.
One company that strives to keep landrace genetics at the forefront of modern breeding is Green House Seeds from Amsterdam. Founder Arjan Roskam and breeding partner Franco Loja have traveled to remote areas of the world in search of landrace seeds since the 1990s.
Their work using landrace strains to create new hybrids has led to more than 30 Cannabis Cup wins and various industry awards for varieties such as White Widow and Super Silver Haze.
In 2008, Roskam and Loja started the now-famous Strain Hunters video series which documented their treks to remote areas of the world in search of landrace cannabis. The two were able to educate viewers on the value of landrace genetics and how important it is to preserve their populations.
“Landraces are the most natural form of cannabis existing on the planet because they have been constantly adapting and evolving, improving their harmony with the environment they live in,” Franco wrote in 2014. “It is our duty to preserve cannabis landraces for the future of scientific and medical research, and for the basic human right to use a plant that has been used for millennia.”
This sentiment is front and center in all Strain Hunter documentaries and the driving force behind landrace seekers from around world.
To the shock of the cannabis industry, Franco Loja died on Jan. 2, 2017, at the age of 42 after being infected with cerebral malaria while on expedition in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Everywhere that Franco went he brought with him a deeply rooted passion for his work with the plant he loved as well as his great big, glowing smile. His death is a devastating loss to the industry but his memory will forever live on through the cannabis breeds he helped create.
Written by Kyle Ladenburger | Director of Regulatory Affairs for Age Old Organics & ENP Turf, Freelance Garden Writer