How do Sativas and Indicas differ, and how does a phenotype play a role?

Sativa or Indica? That is the question most consumers are faced with when choosing the right strain for them. In fact, it’s so prevalent and rooted in cannabis culture that bud tenders start by asking you whether you prefer Sativas, Indicas, or Hybrids. However, is that all that we should be looking to when we choose between cannabis strains? What are the true differences between the two plant species, and how different are they in reality? In this article we will address cannabis’ many nuances, the myths and misinformation around it, and explore the key differences between Sativa and Indica so that you, as a consumer (or cultivator), can make an informed decision.

Sativa vs Indica – Facts and Myths

Indica strains are typically believed to be a more relaxing or sedative, with anti anxiety properties, while Sativa strains are typically believed to have more stimulating, uplifting and creative properties. This is the commonly accepted standard by which we separate cannabis. However, Sativa and Indica are actually the species of cannabis, and the way the difference is determined is through plant structure and lineage. Because of that, it’s not always the case that any Indica or Sativa will fit the typical description, as you can have an Indica strain with more Sativa like properties and vice versa. For instance, you may have a hybrid that is typically very relaxing, but the phenotype grown may have more sativa effects than you would expect. Or a strain that you would normally use for motivation and energy, and all of a sudden the new batch of it you got has you tired. The effects of cannabis are extremely varied and differ from person to person tremendously, but terpenes and the entourage effect are the most likely reason for this discrepancy, and with that knowledge, you can use terpenes to your advantage when it comes time to choose what strain you want.

Terpenes and the Entourage Effect


Secreted from the very same glandular trichome heads that produce cannabinoids like THC and CBD, terpenes are the fragrant oils that distinguish cannabis varieties with distinctive flavors like mint, chocolate, berry and pine. These terpenes are most likely responsible for the differences we feel from strain to strain. THC in general is the main psychoactive ingredient, and the most conclusive studys pretty conclusively lean towards terpenes being the deciding factor in how your cannabis feels. Essentially, the terpenes guide and impact the experience THC has on your body, altering your perception of the effects. In general, fruit smelling terpenes like limonene, ocimene, and terpinolene contribute to an uplifting experience, while earthier or more pungent terpenes like linalool, myrcene, pinene, humulene and caryophyllene help contribute to a more relaxing experience. There are more than 100 different types of terpenes in cannabis alone, many of which are found in other sources as well (limonene for instance is found in, you guessed it, lemons and limes), and all of these terpenes in varying quantities and concentrations are what make up the thousands of strains of cannabis and make each one unique.

Phenotype Differences

The phenotype of a given plant plays a huge role in the types, quality, and contentration of terpenes that end up in the final, dried and cured product. When a cannabis seed is planted, each individual sprout has its own phenotype with its own unique characteristics. Each pheno truly is its own unique strain in a way. An easy example is GG#4. GG (Gorilla Glue) is the strain but #4 is the phenotype that the company determined was the best one, our of potentially hundreds or more versions of GG. That GG#4 went on to win many awards, while many of the other phenotypes will never see the market. Many growers and breeders will “phenotype hunt” or grow hundreds of plants searching for that one perfect phenotype with all the right characteristics, the best potency, most beautiful appeal and the highest concentration of terpenes. For this reason though, the decision between Sativa and Indica is slightly more complicated. For instance, you can buy the strain Girl Scout Cookies in many varieties and it’s hard to know whether the variety you get will be indica or sativa dominant. Smelling the strain, if you have the chance, is one potential way to figure out the type of effects it may have. If it smells like fruit, chances are it has more uplifting terpenes, and if it smells earthy or gassy chances are it has more relaxing terpenes. Many cannabis consumers find that strains with effects that suit them smell and taste appealing to them, so trust your senses.

Hybrid Strains

With all of the years of genetic research and development that’s been going on with cannabis, it’s hard to find a strain that is purely Sativa or Indica. Most strains you find will be a hybrid of the two, meaning that the strain has characteristics of both major species’ of cannabis. This complicates things a little further for consumers looking for an easy choice, because Hybrids are very seldom just relaxing, or just uplifting. Usually they will come with a bit of both, and it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting into unless you know the strains that make up the hybrid. There are a few great sources to look up strain lineage, and you can always ask your budtender for assistance as well. It’s always best to make an informed decision when purchasing cannabis so you don’t spend money on something that isn’t for you. For instance, in California where the legal market is blossoming, there are two very popular strains; one called San Fernando Valley OG, and the other called San Fernando Valley OG Kush. From a first glance many shoppers would not notice the difference, but each strain has very different characteristics, with San Fernando Valley OG being sativa dominant and San Fernando Valley OG Kush being an indica dominant relative, bred from the aforementioned San Fernando Valley OG with an unknown afghani strain. Someone looking for a nice, uplifting Sativa would have a very different experience if they got San Fernando Valley OG Kush instead of San Fernando Valley OG.

If you’re Growing your Own

Sweet Cheese Cannabis

The Sativa versus Indica debate is even more contentious when growing, as phenotypes and grow conditions can both impact the final terpenes (the concentration and overall amount, and the quality of them) and the overall effects and experience of your cannabis. First and foremost if you’re growing the best way to get quality terpenes that you want in the end product is to start with quality genetics. Years of research has gone into cannabis genetics and there are some breeders and growers out there with some truly amazing and exceptional product. Using quality soil, or a soil medium, is important as well, as is proper nutrient use and flushing. If your plant is starved, it can’t produce all of the terpenes to its full potential, and if you don’t perform a proper flush, you could end up with improper tasting cannabis that masks the taste of the terpenes you worked so hard to cultivate. Once the grow is finished, it’s up to a very slow dry (quick drying methods tend to be extremely detrimental to terpenes. Quick dried cannabis tends to smell “grassy” or “hay like”) and cure process (slowly allowing the dried cannabis to enhance in flavour and fragrance in a humidity controlled environment) to preserve and enhance your cannabis’ natural terpenes. Keep an eye on the blog for a more detailed, thorough guide to growing. Everything will be covered from germinating your first seed, to trimming and curing your final product for consumption, so that you as a consumer/cultivator can take a lot of the guess work out of growing your cannabis.


Whenever possible, smell or at least look at the cannabis in question to see if you think it’s going to be sativa or indica dominant. It’s not a perfect test, but as noted previously, many cannabis consumers find that the strains they enjoy the smell of, tend to agree with them effects wise. If that fails, the best way is to try a small sample of the strain in question and see how it agrees with you. Over time many consumers find that they learn the strains they do and don’t like. There are also a lot of online resources available that can help you learn more about the lineage/characteristics of particular strains when the time comes to make a choice, especially if you’re growing. No amount of research is too much, and the internet is an invaluable tool to inform yourself with. While scientific research is scarce, plenty of work has gone into understanding cannabis strains while studying the plant, and much of the knowledge is freely available to anyone interested in learning . While it may seem daunting at first, an informed consumer can most certainly find a strain that will suit their needs, or find the perfect genetics for their first grow, with ease.