Many cannabis consumers are not aware of the significant differences between indica and sativa varieties of the herb. They look different, have very different medical effects and high types, and — for cultivators — grow in very different ways. This makes sense when one realizes that indica and sativa are actually two different species of cannabis.
Use this easy-to-understand infographic to learn the typical characteristics of each:
Know the Difference
Let’s examine the differences between indica and sativa point-by-point.
Morphology: The morphology of a plant or organism refers to its form and structure, including its outward appearance and traits such as shape, size, color, and patterns. The morphology of indica plants is short and stocky, while sativa varieties are tall and lanky. The leaves of indica plants are broad and chunky, whereas sativa strains exhibit thin and pointy leaves. It takes little practice to quickly identify the different species by their appearance.
Cultivation: Sativa strains tend to be the best for growing outdoors, sometimes achieving a height of 10 or 12 feet. Sativas enjoy natural sun and the ability to stretch as tall as possible (impossible in many indoor gardens). Indica doms are great for indoor growers. Their relatively short, bushy shape make them perfect for basement and closet grows. While indica dom strains can take as little as eight or nine weeks to flower and mature, some sativa strains require 12 to 14 weeks or longer. This is one reason gardeners prefer hybrids, so they can achieve a shorter grow cycle from the indica genetics while also incorporating some sativa traits.
Odor: Most people have heard of skunk varieties of cannabis. These indica strains are characterized by strong odors, many of which are similar in smell to a skunk. Sativa types, however, have sweet and spicy odors and flavors (odors in both species are generated by terpenes in the plant).
Efficacy: The efficacy, or effect, of indica and sativa strains is very different. A pure sativa has a powerful energizing effect. It can result in one’s mind racing and make one very chatty. Sativas can also promote focus and productivity. However, strong sativas sometimes cause anxiety or paranoia in users. Those predisposed to such reactions should seek out a hybrid or indica dom strain (again, difficult or impossible in states with no legal medical marijuana program that provides dispensaries and retail shops).
Indicas have the stereotypical effect of relaxation and calming. Strong indicas can easily give users something called couchlock, meaning they became so relaxed that they can barely get out of their seat. A strong indica might be a bad choice for a patient medicating in the morning and wanting to stay productive. Likewise, smoking or vaping a sativa in the evening isn’t necessarily recommended. Appetite stimulation (the “munchies”) is another effect of indica dominant strains. Some sativa strains actually kill appetite.
Availability: As mentioned, the vast majority of cannabis available on the black market are hybrids that tend to be indica dominant. Those wanting to experiment with sativa strains — especially patients in prohibitionist states — will be hard pressed to find samples. Those in states with legal medical programs can easily request a sativa or indica from their local dispensary or retail outlet.
Generally, the default recommendation for patients and recreational users is to consume sativa doms in the morning or mid-day and indica doms in the evening or at night. Patients who must seek relief when struck by nausea or pain, regardless of the time of day, obviously benefit by having both indica dom and sativa dom varieties in their medicine cabinet.
Hybrids Most Common
However, the two species are so closely related that they are commonly cross bred to create what are called hybrids (like how a female horse and a male donkey are bred to create a mule). Hybrids are simply a mix of sativa and indica, providing the pros and cons of each species. Hybrid strains that are more indica than sativa are called indica dom, or indica dominant.
Likewise, sativa doms have mostly sativa traits, but are buffered by some indica influence. Each hybrid strain of cannabis is obviously a different mix of indica and sativa characteristics. Patients should experiment with different strains to find the right efficacy and high type for their particular disease or ailment.
Indica is by far the most common species of marijuana. Why? Because it grows faster and yields more bud per plant than sativa varieties. Thus, cultivators are more motivated to grow indica and hybrid strains, that will yield large crops and mature quickly, than they are to grow sativa and sativa dom types.
Black Market Woes
The greatest shortcoming of the black market — other than high prices, illegality, and potential exposure to criminal elements — is the inability of patients to select the species or strain that is best for their particular ailment. Legal dispensaries in states like California and Colorado allow consumers to get exactly what they want and need, with no guesswork or uncertainly.
Regardless of price or safe access, having an indica dominant in one’s medicine cabinet when what is needed is a sativa or sativa dominant is the natural result of the black market. Patients who can’t choose are always playing a guessing game.
This post was originally published on June 15, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.