Cannabis Basics

What Is a Cannabis Strain?

While the experience of cannabis consumption is highly individual (to the person, the strain, the specific plant, the time of day, the setting and so on), understanding strains may help guide your cannabis shopping and growing decisions.

scientific plant lineage illustration of cannabis


For many cannabis consumers, shopping for flower can be a bit confusing. How does one weed through all the strain names, from Ghost Train Haze to Wedding Cake? What is a cannabis strain, and does it differ from the term “cultivar”? How do cannabis genetics work and impact your experience?

What is a cannabis strain?

The word “strain” — as well as its lesser-used synonyms “varietal” and “cultivar” — is used to describe distinct varieties of the cannabis plant that exhibit specific physical and genetic characteristics. The term “cultivar” is seen more often in horticultural contexts.

Phenotype describes a plant’s physical characteristics such as growth patterns, leaf shape and bud appearance. Phenotype can be influenced by many environmental factors and will have unique expressions from plant to plant within the same strain. The plant’s phenotype is also determined by its genetic lineage, the collective, generational heritage and ancestry of its strain.

Lineage encompasses the genetic contribution of multiple parent plants over time, with some strains dating back thousands of years. Through a variety of methods, new strains are bred by combining the genetics of two parent plants.

How are new cannabis strains made?

While single plants can be cut and grown to produce genetically identical clones, you need genes from both a male and female cannabis plant to create new strains. Pollen from male plants is used to pollinate the flower-bearing female plant, which then produces unique seeds that carry genes from the strains of both parents. Not unlike a litter of kittens, this first generation of “sibling” plants may have considerably different characteristics from one another.

The next step for breeders is to identify which of the crossed seeds produce their ideal phenotype. This process, called “pheno-hunting,” is where the grower seeks out plants that exhibit the potency, terpene or appearance characteristics they’re looking for.

The pheno-hunting process can take months to years. The seeds from the ideal plants have to be grown to mature plants, cultivated and fully processed to understand the desirability of the final product. Once the best plants are chosen, their genetics are made consistent and reproducible through selective breeding and cloning, allowing manufacturers to reliably produce the same desired traits.

How are cannabis strains categorized?

You may have heard people using varietal terms like “indica” and “sativa” to categorize cannabis types and their effects. However, in reality this isn’t an accurate way to understand types of cannabis beyond appearances. While we mostly rely on more general categories to help us talk about cannabis, the following examples show how effects and experiences vary depending on the individual.

Indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid

The classification of plants as indica, sativa or hybrid is based on the physical characteristics of the plants, with indica strains being shorter with wider leaves, and sativa strains being taller with narrower leaves. A hybrid plant is a mix of two or more cultivars.

Popular cultivars by plant type


  • Mandarin Cookies
  • Ghost Train Haze
  • Jack Herer
  • Mango Haze
  • Tangerine Dream


  • Wappa
  • Pink Kush
  • Black Cherry Punch
  • Wedding Cake
  • Blueberry


  • Blue Dream
  • White Widow

It was once thought that Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica produced distinct effects, but these names are just botanical terms for the structure of each plant type.

As growers cultivate unique hybrid strains and research develops, this classification is becoming less relevant or helpful.

Factors like cannabinoid and terpene profiles play a significant role in determining the plant’s effects and are generally thought of as a better way to shop for cannabis.

Learn more about the differences between indica, sativa and hybrid.

Haze, Skunk and Kush

Three varieties are sometimes considered to be the genetic building blocks, or lineage, of many modern-day cannabis strains. Each variety possesses a distinctive appearance, aroma, flavour and potency.

  • Haze

These sativa-dominant plants are thought to originate from tropical regions; they have lighter, more open buds that make them more resilient to mould. Haze buds carry a fresh, spicy aroma with fresh, sour and fruity notes.

  • Skunk

Famously aromatic, Skunk varieties are associated with Californian breeders in the 1970s. They’re characteristically easy to grow, with shorter timescales from seed to flower. Skunk is also renowned for its high THC potencies.

  • Kush

This variety carries genetics from Hindu Kush strains, typically classified as indica or indica-dominant and known for their resilience. The plants are short and bushy, with plenty of side branches. They’re well known by home growers for their fast flowering, compact growth, high yields and potent THC concentrations.

How are strains named?

Have you ever wondered where the names of cannabis strains come from? Strain names can be influenced by a variety of factors, including the strain’s genetic lineage, cultural references and even the breeder’s creativity. Some names are inspired by geographical origins, while others reflect the strain’s effects, aroma or appearance.

With an understanding of some broad cannabis categories, you can understand a strain’s lineage a bit better through its name. Strains like Skunk Haze and Purple Kush, for example, point you in the direction of their parent strains and give you a basic idea of their characteristics.

Read more about a variety of flower strains.

Regardless of the category or reputation of a cannabis strain, your body’s chemistry and cannabis consumption experiences are unique. Familiarizing yourself with strain names and genetics isn’t a replacement for safer consumption habits, but it is interesting to learn about and may give you a general idea of what to expect when sampling a cultivar for the first time.

As always, start low and go slow.

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