Getting to the next level, Part 2: Pedigree and breeding

Strains that have nothing going for them but “pure DNA” are not going to impress anyone who has the faintest traces of taste

hindu-kush

The plethora of cannabis strains available today can trace their roots to a wild plant that grew in the Hindu Kush mountain range. Photo by DanielPrudek/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

0

By Rhys Juergensen

In last week’s article, I opened the floor with a comparison between cannabis and wine. It seemed to make sense, so this week, I’m doing it again.

When it comes to reds, I like Shirazes, and in the case of whites, I always go for a Riesling. I think Merlots are too soft, and that the vast majority of whites are too sweet. But evolutionarily speaking, what makes each grape taste the way it does? How did one common ancestor turn into so many varieties, and why did they evolve to have such different tastes?

In this piece, I’m applying the same questions, and more, to the hundreds (maybe even thousands) of cannabis strains available today. More importantly, I’ll show you how an understanding of cannabis ancestry can help you become a more refined connoisseur. There are only so many producers that grow our favourite strains—when we’ve tried them all, where do we turn for something new and exciting, yet familiar? Pedigree can help us choose the product that will satisfy these criteria. 

A (brief) history

Every single cannabis strain in the world can trace its roots to a wild plant that grew in the Hindu Kush mountain range, in the region that is now the border between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China. It was stumbled upon over 7,000 years ago, and while some scholars say that the plant was harvested for hemp long before it was used medicinally or recreationally, others believe that we understood the flower’s psychoactive effects shortly after we discovered it. 

No matter what the initial appeal of the plant was, these travellers brought their newfound discovery back home. And as factions of the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations explored and expanded, they took the cannabis plant with them—until it flourished on every continent (except for Antarctica, because apparently penguins are too square to partake). After the plant was introduced to these foreign environments, variations started to develop.

Landraces

As the cannabis plant acclimatized to its new environments, what are known as “landraces” emerged. Because they were introduced by way of human hands, a landrace strain is not technically “indigenous” to a particular area (unless it’s the original, wild Hindu Kush); but it is the first variation to have flourished in a foreign region. In other words, landraces are the pioneer strains, the ones that first evolved to suit a certain set of foreign conditions—i.e., colder climate, drier soil, higher elevation, et cetera.

Sometimes, the location of a landrace is incorporated into its name. Kush, for example, refers to the cannabis plant’s region of origin (it doesn’t mean “good weed,” as every dealer led me to believe in my youth). Acapulco Gold, Durban Poison, Afghan Kush, and Panama Red are all named for their place of origin.

Many of the adaptations that characterized these landraces were beneficial for survival as well as consumption. THC is great for getting us high or relieving ailments, but it also has many evolutionary roles. The THC-packed trichomes that appear on cannabis flowers attract pollinators while defending the plant from pests, predators, frost, water loss, overheating, UV radiation, and possibly even microbes.

As landraces faced the new threats and challenges that came with new environments, the ones that produced the most effective defence mechanisms survived to pass on their high-THC-producing genes. But we sped up the process of upping THC potential by way of artificial selection: because the defence mechanism of having a heavier concentration (and higher potency) of trichomes was desirable to us, we selectively bred plants that exhibited these qualities.

Modern strains

Landrace strains branched off into further niches as we became interested in more qualities than just THC. Variations could be selectively bred for their flavours (terpenes), their CBD content, the volume of their yield, and a number of other factors. If two strains exhibited desirable qualities, they were crossbred to get the best of both. The results of these hybridizations were crossbred again, and their descendants were further crossbred, and so on.

strains-thc-cbd
Photo by Aleksandr_Kravtsov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Basically, a combination of human and natural processes—exploration, adaptation, selective breeding—turned a wild plant in the Hindu Kush region to a massive variety of unique strains. These processes continue to happen around the world, leading to all sorts of new varieties that offer different combinations of appearance, aroma, and effects.

Are landraces better?

Do landraces off a “better” smoke than other strains? It depends how you define better, but by nearly any measure, the answer is no.

The reason strains are continuously crossbred is because cultivators can keep improving them—as discussed, we can get higher THC potencies, hone terpene profiles, or develop strains with specific medicinal benefits.
Some purists would say that crossbreeding leads to the dilution of landrace DNA. They’re right, of course, but “dilution” should not be used pejoratively. (I’m saying this as an ethnically-mixed person and passionate consumer of hybrid strains.) The only true OG strain is the wild plant from the Hindu Kush mountains, and it was subject to dilution as soon as we removed it from its indigenous environment. Its DNA was further altered when we introduced artificial selection and began controlling our growing conditions (more on growing conditions next week).

Apply the knowledge

Now that the history and science bits are taken care of, it’s time to ask how this knowledge can be used for our benefit.

First, we can debunk some myths. We know that “landraces” are misnomers, as they’re not truly “indigenous” to any location (with the exception of Hindu/Afghan Kush). More importantly, we can cast aside the “aura” of exclusivity they seem to carry. As interesting as their history is, landraces show their age. In the paradigm of the young, bold, and strong, a strain that offers little more than a (somewhat) “pure” set of DNA is not going to impress anyone who has the faintest traces of taste. The best way to enjoy a landrace is through its descendants. They pop up in hybrid strains all over the place, so you’re still getting all the history contained in their genes—it’s just that you’re also getting the best parts of other great lineages.

Respect pedigree; recognize potential

A savvy cannabis consumer respects pedigree, but recognizes potential. They look ahead to the new or experimental strains, but they know where these strains come from. They appreciate their cannabis in terms of familial ties: they know what their favourite bloodline is, the direct descendants of this bloodline, and a few of its distant relatives.

Savviness can be attained with nothing more than curiosity and minimal research. I’ve always been a fan of Sour Diesel and its derivatives, but after I’d tried all the stuff with Sour in its name, I looked into the strain’s pedigree to see if I could find a not-too-distanced relative that might offer similar qualities. Sour D’s lineage is murky, but most believe that Chemdawg is one of its parent strains. (When I did some more research on Chemdawg, I found that it shares the same pungent, diesel-y terpene profile as Sour Diesel—it’s more than likely that Chemdawg is the source of Diesel’s signature aroma and namesake.)

Trying Edison’s Chemdawg in a pre-roll, I was not disappointed. I won’t waste your time with a drawn-out description of its flavour and effects, but I will say that my world has been expanded: now, I have the entirety of the Chemdawg family to explore. In what other strains does its lineage appear? Where do its parent strains come from? The rabbit hole beckons.

The strains behind the names—a few tips

Typically, the producers I avoid are the ones that deliberately obfuscate the lineage of their products. Houseplant, Seth Rogan’s line, offers a great indica and sativa, but the company is secretive as to the strains they use—they’re just called “indica” and “sativa”. I understand that Seth is secretive about his creation, or may wish to cultivate mystique, but I’d like to know what I’m smoking and where it comes from. 

strains-houseplant
Houseplant’s generically named strains obfuscate their lineage.

Most of the big-bag budget options (Grasslands, Buds, TWD) identify their products as indica, sativa, or hybrid “blends” because they come from a variety of batches. Sometimes, a crop doesn’t meet the minimum THC content for a strain, or fails to meet some other criterion of quality. These crops end up in the “blend batches”—the weed can be decent, but there’s no consistency. Every time you buy a bag/jar, you get something completely different.

There are exceptions to this, of course: Good Supply grows all its crops for the specific purpose of selling half-ounce and full-ounce options at a reasonable price. One of their hybrids, Monkey Glue, is one of the best one-ounce options you can get for 145 bucks. 

Names can be arbitrary

Sometimes a producer lists a strain name that’s completely arbitrary: they take a well-known lineage and rename it to make it sound new. Haven St. does this with their entire range: Big Dipper is just Pink Kush, Noisy Neighbour is MK Ultra x Sour Diesel (Namaste’s Ultra Sour comes from the same parents, only their name makes sense). Midnight Jam is Afghan Kush, and the Sonic Express I mentioned last week is Sour Diesel x S.A.G.E (the same parent strains as Citizen Stash’s Sage N’ Sour).

To be fair to Haven St., their website is clear enough about the parent strains of their products. But why confuse us with random names, and give us extra work to do in deciphering them? These plants they’re cultivating aren’t just intellectual property, they’re the culmination of millennia of history—they should do that history some credit.

The future of breeding

As I’ve said before, the quality of a high comes down to many factors—science is still finding out how many. There are eight major cannabinoids (compounds that interact with our endocannabinoid system, or ECS) in cannabis: THC, CBD, CBGA, CBCA, CBGVA, THCVA, CBDVA, and CBCVA. These acronyms refer to long, sciency names, which I won’t bother writing. The important thing is that their individual effects, and the effects of their interaction, are still largely mysterious to us. Plus, there are terpenes to consider. Like many of the above acronyms, they are not psychoactive, but they have a measurable—if not yet fully understood—impact on the final product.

High-CBD strains with little to no THC were once thought to be best for pain relief, until we learned that at least a little THC is needed to fully unlock the potential of the CBD. How many other discoveries like this are coming down the pipeline? Let’s say a future study shows that high levels of CBGA interact with high levels of CBD to completely inhibit the growth of cancer cells—growers would have to begin the process of finding any plants that, through random mutation, showcase the desired compounds in the right proportions, and then selectively breed them to increase the consistency and potential of the yield.

This is hypothetical, but the point is that the more we understand the cannabis plant, the more we can get out of it. It’s the breeder’s job to shape the product to meet this ever-changing knowledge. If we want to get the best out of all their hard work, it’s our job to understand how they do it, and why.

Leave your opinion for the editor...We read everything!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *