How cannabis strains get their names

Strain names are more about branding than potency – and may be on their way out

cannabis-retail-strain-names

There’s now a small but growing trend of dispensaries moving away from the whole “strain name” thing. Photo: Samuel Engelking

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Full disclosure, there was a time in my life that I thought only really potent weed had a name. I figured all weed was “weed,” and strains like “White Widow,” “Northern Lights” and “Purple Haze” were somehow elevated above whatever my friend Josh sold us when his mom wasn’t home. 

Turns out just about every cannabis strain has a name. But what teenage me was even more wrong about was that a strain’s name somehow signified its effects or that a strain with a good name was obviously more potent. That’s not really the case. 

Strains, even with the same name, vary wildly in their potency, effects and appearance – even from dispensary to dispensary. 

Where do strain names come from? 

Basically, strain names are just a really old form of product branding used by cannabis breeders pre-legalization. It began back in the 1960s when breeders began procuring landrace strains (or feral, wild cannabis) from around the world. 

Native landrace stains have suffixes like “kush,” “bread” and “gold.” So strains had names like, “Hindu Kush,” “Lamb’s Bread” and “Acapulco Gold.” These strains most likely coined the types of naming conventions we see today, while also providing the building blocks for an explosion of genetic diversity in cannabis. 

While landrace strains are interesting in that they are genetically pure (meaning complete indica or sativa), they are also genetically inferior in that they don’t withstand the elements very well. And so crossbreeding has led to new strains and new opportunities to brand them. 

How does a strain name get picked? 

There’s no standard way a cannabis strain is named. Every cannabis breeder will have a different method for coming up with names for their own unique strain. 

What’s important to remember is that they are trying to sell their strain in a competitive market so, like wine, a clever name helps differentiate products – so they’re trying to be as creative as they can get away with. 

They may turn to pop culture for inspiration, for example. Pineapple Express comes to mind. But you’ll also find strains with names like “Charlie Sheen” and “Margaret Cho” still circulating in the black market. 

Some names are completely random and most likely only mean something to the grower themselves. Hell, there’s even an online generator to help you name your own strain. (Dibs on “Childish Gambino.”)

Often parent strains’ names are combined to create a new name. For example, Blue Dream is a combination of Blueberry and Haze. Why they didn’t just call it “Blueberry Haze” is beyond me. 

Some strains may speak to the physical attributes of the bud. White Shark, Mango Haze and Houndstooth all have the physical attributes their names would suggest – being covered in white trichomes, having a fruity aroma or notable colour. 

Strain names may be on their way out 

While industry regulations require strict testing and labeling under legalization, being accurate about strain labeling is not required.

In Canada, for example, while it is illegal to include any information on a label that is “false, misleading or deceptive” – it doesn’t mention anything about strain names. It would be illegal to mislead someone in terms of the potency levels of a cannabis strain, because strains don’t necessarily have anything to do with potency, it’s a non-issue.  

However, this does cause issues. Strain names are a part of cannabis branding whether we like it or not. And having a brand means you must convey an idea. When it comes to a product where people are looking for a specific effect, conveying that idea of with consistency is beneficial to your customer. 

This is perhaps why there’s now a small but growing trend of dispensaries moving away from the whole “strain name” thing. 

The state of Oregon has even begun to create some laws around strain names, recognizing that they’re as much a part of the branding as the label itself. There seems to be an acknowledgement on Oregon’s part that some strain names could be enticing for children, such as “Lucky Charms” or generally misleading such as, “Opium.”

It’s a problem for brands too. You’ll often see multiple cannabis brands with the same strains in a dispensary, but with very different effects. Next time you’re in your local dispensary, just see how many “White Sharks” or “Northern Lights” there. 

Hell there are two Blue Dreams currently on this Ontario Cannabis Store page

What’s next for strain names? 

Likely, brands will start to leave the conventions of naming behind in order to keep their products in line with overall brand positioning. Some brands, like Haven, have already started using their own strain naming conventions to help consumers identify potency and effects. 

What would be most beneficial from a consumer point of view would be to move away from conventional naming traditions in favour of other attributes that are more focused on science, such as cannabinoid testing result levels and terpene profiles

Terpenes give cannabis strains their unique smells. Each terpene is associated with different effects and wellness benefits. Of course cannabinoids, THC and CBD, help users identify what kind of high they would like to experience. 

The way we’ve been naming strains is very pre-legalization. They’re goofy and juvenile and seldom help us make a decision based on what kind of high we want. It may be time for that to change.