What is a Hybrid Cannabis Strain?

Indica or Sativa is a commonly asked question. But what's up with hybrids? Read on to find out.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Anyone who is a regular cannabis consumer can tell you that not all plants are equal. If you've ever consumed cannabis yourself, you'll know that the experience of being "high" can differ widely. There's a reason for that. Individual plants can produce different effects from one another, even if they're the same type of cannabis. It all boils down to the chemical composition of the plant and how it has been cultivated.

To differentiate between all the various cannabis plants, they are broken down into groups called strains. These strains are similar to the different breeds of dogs. Although chihuahuas, bulldogs, and rottweilers look and act differently, they are all still dogs. They have just been bred to become quite distinct from one another. Similarly, cannabis strains may differ in the experiences they elicit, but they are all still different forms of cannabis.

Importantly, these differences make consuming cannabis unlike consuming other drugs such as alcohol, where there is only one end result – getting drunk. Different strains of cannabis produce different effects, and knowing which strain you're using is critical for consumers in order to get the experience or medical benefits that they're after.

But what are the main differences between strains?

Indica vs. Sativa

Cannabis plants are commonly categorised into two main groups. If you've been around the block, you've probably heard of the terms indica and sativa.

Indica plants are short and stocky with bushy leaves and globular buds. These plants are associated with producing full-body effects, such as muscle relaxation and mild sedation. They may also help to relieve pain and nausea. These effects make indica strains popular for night-time use.

Sativa plants are tall and thin with skinnier leaves. These plants are associated with producing cerebral effects, such as feeling energised or reducing anxiety. Increased productivity and creativity are also common with these strains. These stimulating effects make sativa strains popular for daytime use.

These two labels are mainstream in cannabis culture and most budtenders at a dispensary will typically begin strain recommendations by asking which of the two you prefer. While these labels are useful in describing the appearance and features of the plant, they might not be so different from one another. 

Although research is limited, the science suggests that these labels are not that useful in distinguishing between the effects they produce. Something that has further muddied the waters is the ascension of a third major strain category – Hybrid Strains.

What is a Hybrid Strain?

Breeding one strain with another results in the combination of a new strain, or a hybrid. This term is most commonly used to describe the combination of an Indica strain with a Sativa strain, in order to gain a mixture of their effects. The effects of a hybrid are determined by the genetics it has inherited from its parent strains in a process called cross-breeding. These hybrids are bred to either enhance a specific effect or to provide a more balanced combination of effects. Their appearance is also dependent on winning the genetic lottery.

These strains originally started cropping up on the West Coast of the USA, as breeders attempted to increase the quality of their plants by hybridising them with other varieties. Not just combined for their effects, cannabis breeders also create hybrids to purify and strengthen strains, or to enhance certain features like yield percentage, aroma and potency. 

In order to create a hybrid strain, a breeder would need to select two strains with desirable attributes to use as the parents. Cannabis plants can either be male or female, and one of each is required for breeding. Using the GSC strain as an example, the breeder would need to obtain a male version of Durban Poison and a female version of OG Kush or vice versa. 

After the male has pollinated the female, it will produce seeds that express the genes of both parents. These seeds are then harvested and grown separately to produce the newly created hybrid strain. The female's characteristics are more likely to be passed on to the resultant strain than the male's, so breeders often choose male plants that complement these traits.

Once the breeder has crossbred the strains and selected a particular phenotype, the hybrid strain will then be 'back-crossed'. Back-crossing is a process in which the hybrid strain is cross-bred with itself or one of its parents in order to strengthen its genetics. This ensures that the most desirable genes are passed on through the generations.

Due to these practices, most strains available for purchase are hybrids. They can be classified as Indica-dominant, Sativa-dominant or balanced. This means that the strain will express the characteristics of the dominant parent. Indica-dominant hybrids such as GSC will produce a 'body high' and some sedation, while Sativa-dominant hybrids such as Super Lemon Haze will produce a 'mind high' with some cerebral stimulation.

Cannabinoids & Terpenes

As mentioned earlier, the terms Indica and Sativa are just part of the common cannabis taxonomy, but they don't paint the whole picture. While these labels are useful to breeders and consumers of cannabis, they predate the modern chemical analysis of the plant. For this reason, they are not descriptive of an individual strain's overall effects. 

So if Indica and Sativa aren't predictive of the plant's effects, then what is? The science points to the cannabinoid and terpene compositions of the plant being major factors in the overall experience.

Cannabis plants are made up of hundreds of chemical compounds called cannabinoids. These molecules are responsible for producing a lot of the effects experience with cannabis use – even the negative ones. There are many undiscovered cannabinoids and researchers are still trying to figure out the extent of their actions, but two main ones have been identified – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

THC is primarily responsible for the psychoactive effects associated with cannabis use. This includes the feeling of euphoria, better known as the 'high'. It stimulates appetite, while also relieving symptoms of pain, nausea and more. CBD is non-psychoactive and does not produce a high. This compound is linked with many physical benefits such as pain and stress relief, anti-inflammation and preventing seizures

Typically hybrid strains have heightened THC levels, compared to Indica and Sativa strains, as breeders attempt to boost the mood-lifting effects. The levels of CBD can also be raised in order to enhance the therapeutic effects. According to Leafly, on average, hybrid strains have a THC content of 18.1% and a CBD content of 10.1%.

Terpenes are another naturally-occurring compound found within the plant and are directly responsible for its smell. Research shows that these molecules not only influence the plant's aroma but may contribute to the plant's medical benefits as well. There are many different terpenes and not all plants contain the same ones. The most common terpenes are caryophyllene, limonene, humulene, myrcene, pinene and linalool.

Why are hybrid strains so popular?

Some of the most popular and highly-praised strains around are hybrid strains. Boutique strains are constantly being created in California and Canada and there is a lot of buzz around some of the more well-renowned ones. Some of these strains are the Gelato strain, Wedding Cake strain, Original Glue strain and GSC strain. You will find these strains on top of many cannabis aficionado's lists. But what makes them so special?

Firstly, hybrid strains are great for all-around use. No matter the reason for consuming cannabis there is most likely a strain that suits your needs. By maximising certain effects in some, or having a balanced blend in others, there are so many hybrid options to appeal to a larger customer base.

Recreational users can find hybrids with either a potent body high or some mental stimulation, and if they want, maybe a bit of both. Medical cannabis users can utilise different strains for day and night use depending on the plant's genetics. For patients who need to consume cannabis regularly, they might use a strain with balanced effects that they are able to tolerate throughout the whole day.

Lastly, some breeders are just wacky and love making new strains. Whether they're creating a balanced masterpiece, or just something entirely crazy, breeders love to try out new combinations and growing techniques in order to create something unique.

Ultimately, hybrid strains are a great way to maximise the plant's potential or to create something new and exciting. Everyone's personal chemistry is different and everyone enjoys things differently. As long as these two things are true, hybrid strains will always be around and new ones will always be in production.

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Josh Griffin
Josh Griffin

Josh is a Perth-based writer with a background in psychology and pharmacology. Through his studies he has gained an interest in abnormal psychology, mental health and psychopharmacology and has reported on these topics. Currently, his main focus is on cannabinoids and their medical potential.

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