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Indica vs. Sativa— What's the Difference?

Indica, and Sativa—they’re probably the first couple of words you may think of when describing cannabis. Both are subspecies of cannabis, but hybridization is starting to blur what makes an Indica and Sativa different from each other. So how are they different and, in what ways?

Indica vs. Sativa- A name break down and history of each plant

The cannabis plant belongs to the cannabaceae family — cannabaceae being one of the oldest medicinal plants to be used by humans. The species name, Sativa and Indica, have roots in the Latin language. Sativa, meaning cultivated, and Indica, meaning “of India” which comes from the country of the plant’s origin. Regarding the meaning of the word cannabis, the School for Aromatic Studies, states that cannabis means “cane-like.”

The first documented discussion of cannabis genetics about Indica or Sativa plants was first recorded in 1543 by botanist Leonhart Fuch. However the official classification of the first cannabis sativa plant was made by Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus in the mid 1700s, while examining plant specimens he had brought back from his time in India. At the time, the sativa plant was the only cannabis plant that had been identified. The first distinction between Indica and Sativa plants was made by French naturalist and biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, after he re-evaluated a variety of cannabis plants.

Countries of origin and plant characteristics

Climate, Visual Characteristics and Growth

Sativa and Indica plants differ greatly in shape, size, height, color, bloom time, and what climate they thrive in. Weather patterns, soil conditions and other factors in their native regions helped Sativa and Indica plants evolve different characteristics over time in order for them to adapt to their surroundings. Because Sativa plants originated in countries around the equator such as Thailand and Southeast Asia, they tend to grow in hot and dryer climates naturally, when compared to their counterpart. Indica’s were originally found in continental Asia and due to them naturally growing further away from the equator, they are able to survive in colder conditions. In addition to their characteristics, climate differences also have an effect on a specific plant’s growth and color. Commonly, Indica plants tend to have a more purple hue when compared to sativas. This is because colder temperatures typically produce a darker color whereas Sativa’s are brighter and lighter in color due to them needing a warmer environment to grow properly.

Typically, a telltale way to identify Indica and Sativa plants is the size and width of its leaves. Sativa plants usually have thinner and longer leaves, while Indica leaves are shorter, wider and darker. The buds on each plant can be an indicator, too. Sativa buds tend to be fluffy and longer while Indica buds are more rounded and denser.

Bloom time and height also differentiate between both plants, particularly depending on where they are grown. On average, Sativa plants that are grown outdoors grow to be 7 to 10 feet tall and have a 10 to 16 - week bloom time. However, if they are grown indoors they grow to be 4 to 6.5 feet tall. Indica’s that are grown indoors are smaller in height, averaging 2 to 5 feet tall while outdoor Indica’s are typically 3 to 6.5 feet tall. Because Indica’s are smaller, bloom more quickly can grow in cooler conditions, and produces a higher yield, they are more ideal for indoor growing.

Cannabinoids, terpene profiles and effects

Differences in Sativa and Indica plants also come down their cannabinoids and terpene profiles. A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCIB) states that, like its color, a cannabis plant’s cannabinoid content and types of terpenes can differ, depending on climate and subspecies. Due to hybridization in the past 50 years, differences between Indica and sativa plants have become blurred, particularly the THC to CBD ratio either plant has. The study went on to state that, one of the main differences between the two is that Indica’s generally have a higher CBD content than Sativas.

A separate article published in the NCBI, features an interview with neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher, Ethan B. Russo, who popularized the cannabis study, The Entourage Effect. In his study, Russo theorizes that the effects of cannabinoids could be augmented by a plant’s terpenes and vice-versa. In the interview Russo says,

“The differences in observed effects in cannabis are due to their terpenoid content….sedation in most common cannabis strains is attributable to their myrcene content, a monoterpene with a strongly sedative couch-lock effect. A high limonene content will be uplifting on mood, while the presence of the relatively rare terpene in Cannabis, alpha-pinene, can effectively reduce or eliminate the short-term memory impairment classically induced by THC”

As Russo claims, many Indica dominant strains such as Harlequin, Cannatonic and Bubba Kush, are all high in meyrcene, have higher CBD to THC ratios, and act more as a sedative. Whereas strains that are high in alpha-pinene and limonene such as Jack Herer and Blue Dream, are known to boost energy, improve mood and memory and, evoke creativity.

Medical benefits- Indica vs. Sativa

More and more, people are associating medical benefits with cannabis. As stated in the NCBI study, Indica’s tend to contain higher levels of CBD, which according to the journal CNS & Neurological Disorders- Drug Targets, helps preserve the neurological structure and function of brain receptors due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These properties assist in treating and preventing the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and Multiple Sclerosis. CBD has also shown to treat epilepsy due to reducing inflammation of CB1 and CB2 receptors. Higher THC content which are commonly seen in Sativa’s, have been found to treat mental health issues such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Sativa’s can also help aid chemotherapy and eating disorders due to its ability to increase appetite and clear brain fog.


So, now that we know how they’re different, which one is better? Indica or Sativa? That relies on personal opinion. But there’s no denying that questions surrounding these two plants have racked people’s brains for millennia and will most likely continue to do so.

References: (journal originally published by Bentham Science Publishers)

Cannabis info graphic courtesy of:

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