Not all plants are created equal. Different varieties of the same plant can have vastly different traits, and anyone who wants to use those plants should be aware of them. Cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants with a history that stretches back thousands of years, so it has had time to develop into different, but related, species. There are two species, indica vs sativa, although the two can interbreed to create hybrid strains. Scholars debate the details of the differences between the two species, but they can agree on several fundamental differences.
How They Look
The easiest way to distinguish between indica and sativa is by appearance. The most striking difference between the two is their height. Sativa plants can reach heights of twenty feet, with branches spread loosely along the stem. Indica plants are much shorter and have denser foliage. Those features mean that sativa plants are almost always grown outdoors, while indica can usually be found in a greenhouse.
Leaf shape can also be used to tell the two apart. Sativa leaves are long and relatively narrow, and there is usually some empty space between them on the branch. Indica leaves are a little shorter and significantly wider, with less space between the leaves.
What They Do Indica vs Sativa
Cannabis is famous for its effects on the human mind and body, but many people report different experiences from each of the plants. Sativa plants are said to produce an uplifting and cerebral effect, which is best suited for the day. Indica is said to be relaxing, and better suited for the evening. Scientists have never been able to confirm that with a study, but they have been able to discover other differences between the two.
The first scholar to study Cannabis in detail was the famous biologist, Lamarck. He noticed that European species were much less intoxicating than Indian plants, and divided cannabis into the two groups. Genetic research revealed the chemical differences between the two many years later.
Intoxicating cannabis plants have genes that produce a large amount of an enzyme called THCA Synthase. The enzyme converts the natural chemical CBG into THCA, which turns into THC when it is exposed to heat. THC is the compound that produces the famous effects of cannabis on humans. Indica plants have much more of this enzyme than sativa plants, which instead have the enzyme CBDA Synthase. That enzyme converts CBG into CBGA, which can turn into CBD. These compounds have a minimal effect on humans. The two species have hybridized over time, so most of them produce both enzymes to some degree, but the general trend remains.
Where They Come From
Some scholars attribute the divide between indica and sativa to geography. They believe that a common ancestor to both of the species originated somewhere in central Asia, and eventually split into sativa and indica. Those plants then spread to different parts of the world, which further isolated their gene pools and encouraged divergence. Some scholars also believe that the precursor species split into additional cannabis species, such as Cannabis ruderalis, but that idea is not universally accepted. Most scientists who work with cannabis continue to research the split between sativa and indica with a mixture of genetic and geographic techniques, so it’s likely that the question will eventually be settled for good.