Beginner's Guide to Cannabis Plants and Strains


The legalization of cannabis has opened a lot of doors for people who may have been curious about pot, but never wanted to break any laws. It’s easier than ever to walk into a dispensary, pick out the type of weed you want to smoke, and be on your way.

If you’re new to the world of cannabis, your first visit to a dispensary might be overwhelming. There is not just “one type of pot.” Budtenders can offer you all types of funny names for different types of highs. How do you know where to start? What if you want to experiment with cannabis, but you don’t want to get high?

This guide will help you answer all of those questions. There are many types of cannabis plants. Once you understand the different categories of cannabis strains and plants, you will be able to make a more informed decision at the dispensary.

Cannabis: Hemp vs. Marijuana

Cannabis is a genus of plants in the family Cannabaceae. It’s an umbrella term - underneath this umbrella is hemp and marijuana. These are both cannabis plants, but they have very different reputations. Hemp is a revered plant. Its fibers are used in rope and clothing. Hemp seeds are considered a superfood. You can even buy hemp milk at health food stores. Marijuana, on the other hand, was demonized and criminalized for decades. (Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.) It’s used primarily for ingesting and getting high.

What’s the difference? One chemical compound called THC.

THC is one of over 100 active ingredients in the cannabis plant. It’s the only one that is intoxicating. When THC hits your brain, either through smoking, vaping, or ingesting marijuana, you will start to feel “stoned.”

Some cannabis plants have more THC content than others. If a plant has less than .03% THC, it is considered hemp. If the THC content reaches over .03%, the plant is considered marijuana. (Marijuana strains that you smoke typically contain between 9-25% THC, although these numbers vary.)

Both hemp and marijuana may also contain CBD. CBD is another active ingredient that is used in oils, beverages, and beauty products to reduce inflammation and anxiety.

The Three Species of Cannabis

Hemp and marijuana are not different species of the cannabis plant. There are three species of cannabis, although only two are typically sold as marijuana.

The three species of cannabis are: -Cannabis indica -Cannabis sativa -Cannabis ruderalis

If you have been to a dispensary or researched marijuana before, you might have heard of “sativas” and “indicas.” These are the two broadest categories of marijuana plants.

These two species are native to two different climates, evolving into plants with slightly different appearances. Sativa plants are taller and skinnier. Indica plants grow wider and lower to the ground. Cannabis users aren’t as concerned with these differences, but they may notice a difference in how the plants make them feel.

Sativas generally provide a more focused “head high.” They are often the better choice if you want to smoke earlier in the day and you want to stay awake. Indicas, on the other hand, are more likely to put you to sleep. They provide a more noticeable “body high.” If you’ve ever felt “couch lock,” you were probably smoking an indica.

Different strains of weed are either sativa, indica, or a hybrid of the two. Growers have found that if you breed indicas and sativas together, you can produce a type of marijuana that has qualities of both indica and sativa.

Different Strains of Marijuana

Budtenders will first ask you whether you want a sativa, indica, or a hybrid. Next, they’ll start to throw out names and descriptions of different strains.

Strains are a subcategory under species. If you look at cannabis like you would a type of animal, cannabis would be “canines.” Sativa and indica would be “dog.” Strains would be “border collie,” “beagle,” or “Scottish terrier.”

Different strains have unique aromas and flavors. They may also make you feel more energized, euphoric, calm, or relaxed. The combination of active ingredients (including cannabinoids like THC and terpenes) will influence these different characteristics.

Strains may vary slightly depending on the farm that grew the strain. In general, however, one strain has the same terpene profile and will offer the same effects no matter where you buy it.

Where Do Strains Get Their Names?

Here are a few strain names: -OG Kush -Northern Lights -Blue Dream -Gorilla Glue #4

These strain names are pretty funky. Some will give you hints about the flavors and effects. (Blackberry is a strain that speaks for itself.) Others appear to be completely random. (You might be asking yourself, What the heck is a Super Silver Haze?) Once you do some digging, you will find that most strains have a story behind their name.

Jack Herer, for example, is a sativa that was named after the legendary cannabis activist of the same name. Maui Wowie was named after the Hawaiian island where it was first bred. Snoop’s Master Kush - well, you can guess who that strain is honoring.

Some strains will also give you a hint about the strain’s effects. If you see a strain of the “Kush” variety (OG Kush, Blackberry Kush, etc.) it’s going to be an indica. “Haze” strains (Ghost Train Haze, Amnesia Haze, etc.) are a sativa.

How to Pick the Best Strain For You

Long-time cannabis enthusiasts may have a preferred strain. Others may have different strains for different occasions. There is no one way to enjoy cannabis.

If you’re new to cannabis and marijuana, take some time and experiment.

Think about your needs. Do you want to relax? Giggle? Enjoy a case of the munchies? Think about how you want to feel before shopping.

Talk to your local budtender. Get some opinions at the dispensary. Budtenders can point you in the right direction if you tell them how you want to feel and your preferred flavors.

Do some research online. Blogs, cannabis wheels, and other resources can provide more specific information on each strain and how terpenes affect flavor, aroma, and effects.

Happy smoking!

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