In recent years, as a result of the widespread commercialization of cannabis in various places around the world, breeders have become creative with their selection of cannabis genetics; consequently, there are currently thousands of trade names for different cannabis “strains” – which are, effectively, different variations of cannabis. However, while variety is indeed the spice of life, it can be extremely confusing for those new to the cannabis industry.
Logically based on location, the original, simple system for naming cannabis strains has now become more complex, with breeders often choosing names to reflect properties such as color, smell, or flavor, or the specific effects produced – consequently, novelty names such as “Sour Diesel”, “Blue Cheese”, and “Amnesia” are becoming increasingly well-known. In this article, we explain the history of cannabis strains, their evolution into modern society, and the naming process in general.
A Brief History of Cannabis
Cannabis is a genus of the Cannabaceae family, with three species widely recognized: cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. All vary slightly in appearance and properties: cannabis sativa plants are tall and thin, and are known for producing flowers that have energizing and psychoactive effects; cannabis indica plants are typically short and bushy (and, therefore, often favored in recent years for growing indoors), with flowers that have sedative effects; and cannabis ruderalis plants are small in size and produce very little tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – however, they are “auto-flowering”.
Although unconfirmed, research suggests that cannabis originated in the Himalayan Mountains and around the Middle East, with five specific strains generally considered to be the oldest: Thai, Aceh, Nepalese, Hindu Kush, and Afghani. Although they varied in appearance and effects slightly due to different growing conditions, their names had one distinct similarity: they all related to geographical location. At this time, international recognition and commercialization of cannabis were non-existent, and the movement of people between different countries and continents was minimal; as a result, these original strains remained relatively unchanged for years.
A New Era of Cannabis Growing
In the 1960s, however, the international movement of the landrace strains of cannabis (strains that had developed over time in their natural environment and had not, therefore, been cross-bred) dramatically increased, and cross-breeding began to take place, thereby opening up a world of different genetic combinations and possibilities. This allowed breeders to get creative as they produced strains with specific effects, smells, colors, and flavors – and this creativity transcended into the naming process, too.
To produce a new cannabis strain, breeders must select preferred traits from two existing strains that have been selected for cross-breeding, and identify the dominant and recessive genes within them. This selection process is crucial to the new strain’s genetic stability, which in turn ensures unwanted traits that have been eliminated are not produced in future harvests. The two selected strains are then cross-bred until the desired blend has been achieved – this is often a long process that requires patience and persistence, and the name the new strain was given would often reflect this in some way.
An example of this long and arduous process lies in one of the most commonly recognized cannabis strains around the world, “Haze” – the origins of which date back to 1970s California. The Haze brothers – namely, R. Haze and J. Haze – crossed a Mexican landrace sativa and a Colombian landrace sativa, selected the best females from the hybrid, and cross-bred them with an Indian landrace male. Again, the best females from this hybrid were cross-bred with another landrace male, this time from Thailand, to produce the end product – which was obviously named after its creators once they finally reached their goal.
At this point in time, however, the most common method of naming a new cannabis strain was to reference and credit the “parent” cannabis strains, with breeders coming up with clever – and often amusing – names to reflect the unique genetic makeup. For example, Poison OG was cross-bred with GSC (Girl Scout Cookies) to make “Suicide Girl”; White Widow was cross-bred with Blueberry to produce “Berry White”; and the aptly named “Dr. Who” was created by cross-breeding Mad Scientist and Timewreck.
However, cross-breeding and selective genetics have been utilized for around half a century now, and the traditional naming system has become increasingly difficult to uphold because the ancestral lines are too complicated – it’s impossible to credit every previous strain that’s gone into a hybrid in one name without it being ridiculously long. Therefore, modern strains tend to be named in relation to their specific traits – appearance and taste being the most common. For example, going back to Haze, since its initial creation in the 1970s, multiple spin-off strains have been cultivated and sold around the world: for example, Silver Haze and Lemon Haze, which were named according to their color and taste respectively. This is also great for marketing purposes – new, novelty strain names tend to attract attention, especially among the younger population.
Different cannabis strains are created for various reasons, which can also influence the names they are given. For example, many strains that have been created specifically for recreational purposes have names that reflect their intended effect, such as “Laughing Buddha” and “Sweet Dreams”. Others, however, have been created for medical purposes, such as “Charlotte’s Web”, which was formulated for a girl named Charlotte who suffered from a severe form of epilepsy and consequently named after her.
The history of cannabis strains is long and complex – consequently, the naming process has evolved over the years too. Now, with a seemingly never-ending list of different cannabis strains available around the world, it seems like anything goes. It is down to the breeder’s creativity to choose a marketable name; these days, that usually reflects the properties of the strain, rather than where it originated from.
Cannabis in the XXI Century
A cannabis dispensary is one of the anomalies of the modern era – or at least it still feels that way. It’s one of the few places where it’s socially acceptable to be met with the overwhelming aroma of cannabis – legally! But an onslaught of herbal, floral and musky aromas isn’t the only thing you get in a dispensary. You’re also met with a barrage of cannabis strain names that vary from delicious all the way to nonsensical.
These days, most cannabis enthusiasts are accustomed to strain names, throwing around terms like “Critical Mass” and “Amnesia” as though they were talking about the latest movie or the latest candies at the candy store. But for all the scientific names that we have for plants, do you ever wonder why we call a particular variety of cannabis “Purple Haze” or “Afghan Kush”? There was once a very logical system for naming cannabis strains, but it has since evolved into a creative aspect of cannabis genetics. Let’s have a look into the strange history of cannabis strain names.
Landraces and early strain naming
Before breeders and before the modern commercialization of cannabis, it was simply just Cannabis Sativa. This is the plant’s scientific name and every strain of cannabis falls into the C. Sativa genus. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that strain names entered the scene, during a time when the international movement of cannabis was rife. Cannabis was making its way from India to the UK, from Morocco to Australia, from Afghanistan to the USA.
At this time, strains of cannabis were something like virgins, untampered with by geneticists. They got their strain names from their geographical origins, such as Mexican, Afghan Kush and Colombian Gold. Strains varied from each other slightly thanks to the different conditions in which they grow, with Mexican being taller and having a more cerebral high, while Afghan Kush was bushier and had a more physical high.
The transportation of cannabis from different parts of the world eventually formed the building blocks of all the strain variation we see today. The interbreeding of different landraces resulted in an infinitude of different genetic possibilities, gracing the shelves of dispensaries around the world with strains that are all slightly tweaked from each other.
Modern cannabis strain naming
We’ve come a long way since the handful of landrace strains that were circulating the planet in the 70’s. Geneticists have been playing around with different phenotypes and genotypes for the better part of the last 50 years. In fact, whole businesses were built around the concept of playing with cannabis genetics, and this is what has given us so many different options when we walk into a dispensary.
The most common way to name a strain was to give it a name that included hints of its parents. For example, the strain, Acapulco Gold contains genes from the Mexican heirloom strain. When Sensi Seeds mixed Mexican heirloom genetics with an African Sativa strain called Durban Poison, they named the offspring Mexican Sativa.
Overall, this was a logical way of coming up with strain names. But geneticists soon realized that they could manipulate the taste and overall effects of a strain simply from its growing conditions, rather than its genetic makeup. This means that a single combination of genetics can again yield a myriad of different phenotypes. After this point, strain names just started getting creative.
For example, Lemon Haze contains two aspects to its name: the first is that one of its parents is Haze (which isn’t a landrace, by the way); the other aspect is its flavor – lemon! Soon, the flavors and effects of a strain became another way to name it. Take Amnesia for example, which is obviously a statement about the effects it has on the user. The same goes for Trainwreck, Granddaddy Purple (because the buds are purple) or Pineapple Express. But these names don’t hail from a genetic parent. Rather, Granddaddy Purple gets its purple color from manipulating the photoperiod, causing the buds to turn purple.
The infinite possibilities
The more varieties of cannabis we end up with, the greater the possibilities for creating more varieties. There is a seemingly inexhaustible amount of genetic variation in cannabis, much the same as there is with humans. Strains are sometimes formulated for a special reason and are given names accordingly, such as Charlotte’s Web. This strain was created for a girl named Charlotte who had epilepsy. It was grown for the strict purpose of having high CBD levels, and was named after her. Other strains are simply dedicated to important people in the world of cannabis like Jack Herer.
If anything, naming a strain of cannabis has more to do with creativity (and a little bit to do with marketing) than it has to do with genetics. Of course, this was different when there were only a handful of landrace/heirloom strains to play with. If modern cannabis varieties included the names of all of their ancestors, the names would be kilometres long – just like humans!
There are still many breeders who swear by the importance of heirloom and landrace strains. They are the foundations of cannabis, and fundamentally have the genetics that nature spent billions of years evolving. So while it’s exciting that there are so many strains, it’s also important to keep the original ancestors in mind. The more the cannabis industry moves on, the more strain names begin to deviate from their original genetic ancestry. It is now a creative endeavor of giving a strain a name fit for what it is rather than where it came from!