Indica vs. Sativa: The Ultimate Guide

Cannabis has been around for thousands of years.

Yet today, there’s still uncertainty about which types do what.

Ever wonder why some people experience total body relaxation from cannabis while others feel uplifted and mentally stimulated?

It’s because there are two well-known species of marijuana, cannabis sativa and cannabis indica, each with its own characteristics and effects.

Or so we thought.

A simple Google search of “indica vs sativa” will net you 467,000 results.

But those links will just give you the same differences between an indica and sativa found all over the internet, like plant size and flowering time.

For someone interested in medical cannabis like you, there hasn’t been a resource that gives you everything you need to know in the indica vs. sativa debate.

Until now.

In this guide, with content sourced from medical journals converted into easy-to-understand language, you’ll learn:

  • How to tell the difference between indica and sativa
  • Medicinal benefits of cannabis and what makes it medicine
  • What gives cannabis its taste and smell
  • And more

Our goal with this guide is to empower you with the knowledge to make an educated decision around cannabis. Whether it’s talking to your doctor or choosing your first strain to use.

It really comes down to what you’re hoping to achieve. Proper education is essential, so read on.


Did you know that cannabis is one of the oldest crops in the world?

It can be traced back to ancient cultures, with records of it being used more than 6000 years ago.

Add to this extensive history the restrictions placed on scientific research over the past century because of drug policy, and it’s no wonder there’s so much about cannabis that still remains a mystery

So, what do we do know?

That there are three main types of cannabis: sativa, indica and ruderalis.

(There’s still a debate over whether they’re three unique species or three sub-species of one Cannabis gene. But let’s just leave that to the scientists for now, shall we?)

Cannabis Sativa

Cannabis sativa was the first species to be given a name. In 1753, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus classified the cannabis he found as sativa, which comes from the latin word for “cultivated”.

Originally grown in countries near the equator (Colombia, Mexico, Thailand), sativas thrive in hotter climates with longer daylight hours and loads of sunshine.

Typically grown to between 8 and 12 feet, sativas are capable of growing taller than 20 feet if they’re allowed to do so!

These towering, tree-like sativa plants are characterized by their long, thin, “finger-like” leaves that can soak up as much light as possible. They take longer to grow, but can generate huge yields, rewarding a grower’s patience.

Without anything to compare it to, Linnaeus thought that Cannabis sativa was a single, undivided species of the plant.

But that all changed 30 years later, thanks to a French naturalist by the name of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

Cannabis Indica

In 1783, Lamarck came across a type of cannabis that was distinct and totally different from the sativa Linnaeus had found a few decades earlier.

Hailing from the rocky, environmentally-hostile Hindu Kush mountains in the Middle East, these newly discovered cannabis plants were different. For starters they were much shorter, roughly 3-4 feet high, and densely branched with broad, wider leaves. These leaves are a much darker, forest green colour, due to a higher concentration of chlorophyll.

The species — which Lamarck called Cannabis indica — adapted to its harsh growing environment in countries like Afghanistan, India, Turkey and Morocco and developed some unique characteristics.

To protect itself from the harsh, turbulent conditions, cannabis indica developed the ability to produce resin — a sticky, organic substance produced by plants. Resin is very dense in cannabinoids (more on those later) which often makes indica cannabis strains very potent.

In both recreational and medical circles, indica and sativa have long been the most common and popular way to distinguish different types of cannabis.

While so many cannabis strains are derived from sativa and indica species, there’s technically a third type of cannabis, called ruderalis.

Cannabis Ruderalis

Originating from Russia, it was first classified in 1924 by a Russian botanist named D.E. Janischevsky. He opted for the name “ruderalis”, which is derived from the root word ruderal, a description in the plant world of a species that adapts to extreme environments and grows in spite of humans.

Janischevsky noticed that this species of cannabis was visibly different than sativa and indica, growing no higher than two feet tall with a wild, unbranched appearance.

A 2004 study backed this up as well. Analyzing 157 different cannabis samples of all types and geographical origins, it was found that six of them weren’t related to indica and sativa and concluded that it was this third, lesser-known species of ruderalis.

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of cannabis ruderalis– it’s rarely mentioned and on its own has virtually no medical benefit due to a much lower concentration of THC, the psychoactive element in cannabis.

Given that 99 percent of cannabis strains today come from indicas and sativas, we’ll stick to discussing those cannabis types from here on out.

“What if I don’t grow cannabis?”

Knowing the history, origin and physical characteristics of cannabis plants is only relevant if you’re growing medical cannabis yourself.

As of August 2016 here in Canada, new legislation was passed that allows you to do just that. Under the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR), you can now apply to Health Canada to grow a small amount of medical cannabis for yourself or designate someone else to produce it for you.

But how do you distinguish between indica and sativa if you’re in the majority of people that don’t grow their own medical cannabis?

Well, the answer to that question has changed a lot, especially in the past year or so.

But until those changes, there were a few commonly known ways to distinguish between an indica and sativa.


Recent research has surfaced with deeper ways to differentiate indicas from sativas, but here are some of the most common methods people are still using.

Dried Buds

Once medical cannabis has been harvested and is ready for purchase, the most common way to buy it is in the form of dried buds.

While not an exact science, indica, and sativa buds have some noticeable physical differences.


As you learned in Chapter 1, sativa plants have long, thin leaves and those characteristics are passed to the buds they produce.

As a result, sativa buds look larger than an indica’s but they’re also looser and not as dense, looking almost like a collection of wispy hairs. Sativa buds will also be airy and lighter when compared to an indica, because when sativas bloom, the flower forms along the branch almost like it’s stretched out. Deep red or orange colouring can also be a sign of sativa since they grow in much warmer climates

To summarize, sativa buds are:

  • Long
  • Less dense
  • “Wispy” bud, fluffy
  • Often feature red or orange colouring


Indica buds are shorter and more compact than sativas. Indica buds are also extremely dense because their blossoms tend to stick closer to nodes along the stem when they flower. As a result, indica buds look fuller and feel firmer when you touch them.

Another thing to keep an eye out for is any purple colouring in the plant. Since indicas are native to cooler climates, they’re more likely to express purple colouration. The big purple strains are all indica dominant, but sativas can develop some purple if they’re grown in cool climates as well.

To summarize, indica buds are:

  • Short
  • Heavy
  • Compact and dense
  • Often feature purple colouring

Indica vs Sativa Strain Names

Another way of differentiating between indica and sativa lineage is by looking at the strain’s name.

For example, since cannabis indica originated from the Hindu Kush mountains in the Middle East, a strain that has “Kush” in its street name implies that it’s primarily an indica. Whereas a combination of sativa genetics from multiple locations around the world has produced a line of strains with “Haze” in their names.

So Kush = indica and Haze = sativa, then?

Not so fast.

First, strain names have gotten out of control and aren’t a reliable way of determining whether you have an indica or sativa anymore.

Starting out, there were common and easily recognizable street names for strains such as OG Kush and Girl Scout Cookies.

But an increase in the number of strains has also meant an expansion of names, including comical ones such as Wild Thai Ryder, Tripleproof Bluemoonshine and Fire Alien Strawberry.

Second, many companies have created their own names for cannabis strains. In Canada alone, many licensed producers (us included) have given their own unique names to their creations. Some of ours include Floating Island, Coral Reef and Tsunami.

Why? Because different growing conditions can dramatically alter the physical characteristics and effects of cannabis.

For example, two companies could both be advertising and selling, say, an OG Kush, but in reality, each iteration could produce very different effects, despite appearing to be the same on paper.

Medicinal Effects of Indica and Sativa

A cannabis bud’s strain name and physical characteristics might help you confirm whether it’s an indica or sativa. However, the best way to be sure is to note its effects on your body after consuming it.


To this day, indica strains are associated with very relaxing and sedating effects. Commonly associated with a sleepy feeling behind your eyes, indicas are often used at night when you can just fall asleep shortly after consuming them.

Alternatively, indicas are widely regarded to provide intense body effects, like a loosening of your limbs and muscles. They can be so relaxing that you can just relax and sit on the couch for an extended period of time, hence the popular “couch-lock” term to describe the effects.

Indicas are often associated with what people believe is a “high”, when your physical senses are heightened while listening to music, eating food or touching different textures.


In contrast, sativas are often viewed as ideal daytime strains. This is because they typically have energetic and uplifting effects — the total opposite of indicas.

Sativas are commonly associated with creativity, energy and better mental focus. Think functional, everyday scenarios like having more ideas, being more productive, or countering fatigue either in the morning or mid-afternoon.

Other reported effects of sativas include laughter and better ability to carry on a conversation. Given that they can help with creativity, cannabis sativa is very popular among philosophers, artists, and musicians. Some sativas even have been found to enhance lights and sounds, making music, movies, and your surroundings more vibrant.

The thing is, though, it’s not an indica or sativa that produces these different medicinal effects, it’s the compounds in these cannabis plants called cannabinoids.


In fact, cannabinoids are one part of what makes cannabis medicine. There are over 100 cannabinoids produced by cannabis plants that have various effects on your body.

That’s because your body has an endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors found throughout your body. So in your brain, organs, glands and cells naturally-occurring, cannabis-like substances are produced that affect pain, inflammation and many other processes in your body.

The two most commonly studied cannabinoids are THC and CBD.

Also known as Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, THC is the main psychoactive component in cannabis. It’s been shown to stimulate appetite and has been reported to help with nausea and vomiting.

Explore In-Depth: CBD vs. THC

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a cannabinoid that has no psychoactive effect and can actually make the ‘high’ caused by THC more tolerable.

Both indica and sativa cannabis strains contain THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids.

So it’s been widely thought that indica strains are more psychoactive and therefore higher in THC, while sativa strains are thought of as higher in CBD so you don’t necessarily feel a “high” which is why the effects are considered to be more functional.

But, it’s not that simple.

Hello, Hybrids

We mentioned earlier in this chapter about how growing conditions can give cannabis different effects, even if they have the same strain name on paper.

How? Because of cannabinoids.

Different growing conditions and methods can alter the percentages of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids in cannabis plants.

You can find milder strains that are less than 10 percent THC and others that are over 20 percent THC and much stronger, both in an indica or a sativa.

Today, the line between indica and sativa is being blurred more than ever, due to frequently blending the genetics of both species


In the dog world, cross-breeding is nothing new.

While not an exact science, taking one breed and mating it with another allows you to gain traits of both breeds in a litter of puppies.

Take a Labradoodle, for example.

By combining the gentleness and trainability of a Labrador Retriever with the low-shedding coat of a Poodle, a popular cross-breed was created for people that required a guide dog but had allergies to fur and dander.

In addition to a unique look, it provided the best of both worlds in terms of benefits.

It’s the same story with medical cannabis. But instead of cross-breeds, strains that combine the genetics from multiple plants are called hybrids.

Hybrids: Best of Indica & Sativa

Similar to male and female dogs, there are male and female cannabis plants that can pollinate together to produce offspring in the form of seeds, which can be used to grow new plants with characteristics from both of its parents.

Often hybrid strains can be bred to cultivate the best qualities of the sativa and the best qualities of the indica in one super plant.

For example, a popular hybrid such as OG Kush is known for relaxing the body like an indica while also having the traditional euphoric, uplifting effects of a sativa.

Types of Cannabis Hybrids

Hybrids can be dominant to either sativa or indica. If you choose a hybrid strain that is dominant to one way or the other, expect to experience more of the effects associated with the dominant strain.

There are three different types of hybrids:

  • Sativa-dominant: These hybrids usually provide a stimulating head high that pairs well with a relaxing body feeling, typically used to relax and unwind both mentally and physically
  • Balanced: These hybrids represent an even, 50/50 balance of sativa and indica, providing an all-over effect that affects both mind and body
  • Indica-dominant: Generally provide a strong body high and sedated feeling, but with a mild mental effect that won’t necessarily put you to sleep

These are just rough generalizations, as benefits and effects may vary according to the strain and each user’s biochemistry.

Hybrids in Medical Cannabis

Almost all strains grown by licensed cannabis producers for medical purposes are hybrids — rarely is a strain truly 100 percent indica or sativa.

The main reason for this is because for cannabis to be used as medicine, consistency between crop yields and replicable results are of utmost importance.

So what’s the best way to achieve this?

By carefully creating your own strains in a controlled growing environment.

Which also means that the classification system of indica and sativa is far from what it used to be.

With hybrids, a sativa strain could produce similar body effects to an indica, and an indica could energize someone mentally similar to a traditional sativa.

Which is why more research is coming out to imply that what you should pay attention to when choosing cannabis strains are cannabinoids and terpenoids.

“Wait, what are terpenoids?” you might be asking yourself. We’ve got you covered — just read on to Chapter 4.


What gives cannabis different smells and tastes?

Ever wonder why one strain smells like berries while another can smell like diesel fuel? How can one strain taste like cheese while another tastes like mango?

The answer is terpenes.

Terpenes (pronounced tur-peens) are organic, aromatic compounds found in the oils of all flowers, including cannabis.

Naturally produced to attract beneficial insects and repel predators, terpenes emit strong smells and flavours and change based on various growing conditions.

Prior to terpene research, a cannabis strain’s smell and the taste were commonly attributed to whether it was an indica or sativa.

Indica and Sativa: Smell and Taste

Ever seen a strain with “Diesel” or “Cheese” in its name?

Certain cannabis strains can smell like diesel fuel or like cheese, and this is sometimes reflected in their street names. Other strains, however, can smell completely different from citrus and fruit notes.

Initially, it was thought that indica-dominant strains were the ones that had sweet, fruity flavours such as blueberry, grape, and mango. On the flip side, sativa-dominant strains were usually associated with earthy and piney aromas.

But now with more awareness of terpenes — combined with the sheer number of hybrid strains that exist around the world — there’s a wide range of flavours and smells that any strain could have. Regardless of whether it’s an indica or sativa.

Terpenes & Terpenoids 101

Only recently has research started to come out about the effects of terpenes, but the early results are simply fascinating.

From a cannabis perspective, terpenes are secreted alongside cannabinoids like THC and CBD and are responsible for many of the distinguishing characteristics of different strains.

Not to be confused with one another, terpenes and terpenoids are often used interchangeably. However, the main difference between them is that terpenoids are created when terpenes are denatured by forces like oxidation.

Still with us?

So for example, drying cannabis buds and exposing them to more oxygen will convert many of the terpenes into terpenoids.

Terpenes are found on cannabis flowers inside trichomes, the tiny hairs or growths that make buds look frosted or snowy white. Over 100 terpenes and terpenoids have been identified in cannabis, each with their own aroma and flavour.

Three of the most common terpenes found in cannabis are Myrcene, Limonene, and Pinene.

  • Myrcene: Found often in highly aromatic plants such as mango, hops, bay laurel leaves, and basil. It is also found in ylang ylang, a tropical flower valued in the perfume industry for fragrance extracts.
  • Limonene: Like its name hints at, it’s commonly found in the rinds of citrus fruit and also in the cannabis flower’s resin glands, or trichomes.
  • Pinene: Produced naturally by a variety of plants pinene is named after its aroma of fresh pine needles. In addition to being found in pine trees, it’s also produced by many herbs, such as basil, parsley, and dill.

Terpenes and Cannabinoids

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of terpenes is their ability to work alongside cannabinoids found in cannabis plants.

Various research has hinted that terpenes can modify the effect of THC on your body and impact a strain’s potency.

For example, you could have two cannabis strains that have an identical 16 percent THC but they could smell and taste different and also have different effects — all because of terpenoids!

It’s also been reported that terpenes can modify how much THC passes through the blood-brain barrier, with their influence even reaching as far as to regulate neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin in your brain.

As a result, it’s no wonder that terpenes are generating a lot of interest in the medical cannabis community. A lab test is currently the only way to determine the precise amounts of terpenes in cannabis, and medical cannabis licensed producers with access to various laboratories are taking full advantage.


In Chapter 1, you learned all about cannabis indica, sativa and ruderalis — where they each originated from and the physical characteristics of each plant species.

But if you’re not interested in growing your own medical cannabis, you were shown in Chapter 2 how to distinguish an indica from a sativa based on bud composition, strain name, and medicinal benefits.

Then in Chapter 3, we showed you how cannabis is moving beyond just indica and sativa classifications with hybrids being bred to combine the best of both species for more targeted dosage.

And lastly, we introduced you to the wild world of terpenes, the real reasons cannabis strains have so many flavours and smells.


So which one is right for you? Again, it’s really determined by what you’re hoping to achieve. We sincerely hope that this has helped you learn more about the current state of cannabis strains. But if you need to know more remember, in Canada, you can always call the client care department of any medical cannabis licensed producer and get your questions answered right away.

What did you think of the guide? Did we miss anything?