If you’ve ever wondered why your cannabis plants look and behave the way they do, then you’re in the right place. The answer lies in something called “phenotypes” – a fancy word for the observable traits that result from a plant’s genes and environment. But don’t worry, you don’t need a degree in genetics to understand this stuff. In fact, you probably already know more about phenotypes than you realize – like how some strains make you feel energized and creative, while others leave you couch-locked and hungry.
So grab your favourite strain and settle in, because we’re about to explore the weird and wonderful world of cannabis phenotypes.
What is a phenotype?
If you’re new to the world of genetics, the concept of phenotypes might seem a bit intimidating at first. But don’t worry, I’ll break it down for you. In simple terms, a phenotype refers to the set of physical, behavioural, and physiological characteristics that an organism exhibits, which result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Let’s say you have two cannabis plants of the same strain, but one is grown in a hot, humid environment, while the other is grown in a cool, dry environment. Even though they have the same genetic makeup, the two plants will likely have different phenotypes – the first plant might grow taller and have thinner leaves to help it dissipate heat, while the second plant might be shorter and stockier to conserve water.
Phenotypes can be broken down into different categories, depending on the type of characteristic being observed:
- Physical phenotypes refer to observable traits like colour, shape, and size.
- Behavioural phenotypes refer to how an organism acts or responds to its environment.
- Physiological phenotypes refer to the internal workings of an organism, such as metabolic processes and hormone levels.
The exact phenotype that an organism expresses is the result of a complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors. Some traits are purely genetic, while others are heavily influenced by environmental conditions like temperature, humidity, and light.
In general, the more complex the trait, the more likely it is to be influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. So, while you can’t change an organism’s genetic makeup, you can manipulate its environment to encourage the expression of certain traits.
Phenotypes in cannabis plants
Now that we have a better understanding of what phenotypes are, let’s talk about how they apply to cannabis plants. Cannabis phenotypes are expressed in a variety of ways, including the shape and size of the plant, the colour and texture of the leaves, and the aroma and flavour of the buds. These characteristics are what distinguish one strain of cannabis from another, and they’re the reason why some strains are preferred for certain purposes (like relaxation or creativity) over others.
One way to classify cannabis phenotypes is by using the three main categories: indica, sativa, and hybrid. Indica strains tend to be shorter, bushier plants with wide leaves and a heavy, relaxing effect. Sativa strains, on the other hand, tend to be taller with thinner leaves, and produce a more uplifting, energetic high. Hybrids are a combination of the two, with varying proportions of indica and sativa genetics.
It’s important to note, however, that these categories are not always reliable indicators of a strain’s effects, and the actual characteristics of a strain can vary widely depending on its genetics and growing conditions. In fact, many experts argue that the distinction between indica and sativa strains is largely a myth, and that other factors like terpene content and cannabinoid ratios may be more important in determining a strain’s effects.
Breeding is one of the primary factors that influence the expression of cannabis phenotypes. Growers can selectively breed plants with desirable traits to create new strains that combine the best of both parents. This process, known as pheno-hunting, involves growing and testing different phenotypes to identify the most desirable characteristics. Environmental factors like temperature, humidity, and light can also have a significant impact on the expression of cannabis phenotypes, so it’s important for growers to carefully control these conditions to ensure optimal growth.
How to identify phenotypes in cannabis plants
Identifying phenotypes can be a tricky process, as it often requires a combination of visual inspection and genetic testing. Here’s a brief overview of how it’s done:
First, you’ll need to grow a batch of cannabis plants from the same strain or genetic lineage. You can then observe and compare the plants as they grow, looking for differences in physical characteristics like leaf shape, colour, and size. Pay close attention to the plants’ growth patterns, as well – some may grow taller or wider than others, or develop buds more quickly or slowly.
Once you’ve identified potential differences in physical characteristics, you can take a closer look using a variety of tools and techniques. One common method is to use a magnifying glass or microscope to examine the plant’s trichomes – the tiny, hair-like structures that cover the buds and contain most of the plant’s cannabinoids. By looking at the size, shape, and colour of the trichomes, you can get a better sense of the plant’s genetic makeup and potential effects.
Another tool that’s commonly used is genetic testing. This involves analyzing the plant’s DNA to identify specific genes and markers that are associated with certain traits or characteristics. Genetic testing can be more accurate and reliable than visual inspection alone, but it can also be more expensive and time-consuming.
It’s important to note that identifying cannabis phenotypes is not an exact science, and there’s always some degree of uncertainty and variability involved. That said, with careful observation and the right tools and techniques, you can get a pretty good sense of the different phenotypes that are present in a particular batch of cannabis plants.
Importance of phenotypes in cultivation and use
Phenotypes are a crucial consideration in cannabis cultivation, as they can have a significant impact on the quality and potency of the final product. Here are a few reasons why phenotypes matter in cannabis cultivation:
- Potency: Different cannabis phenotypes can have different levels of cannabinoids like THC and CBD, which are the compounds responsible for the plant’s psychoactive and medicinal effects. By selecting and breeding plants with desirable cannabinoid ratios, growers can produce strains with higher or lower levels of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids.
- Yield: Some cannabis phenotypes are known for producing larger, denser buds than others, which can result in higher yields for growers. By selecting and breeding plants with desirable bud structure and density, growers can maximize their yields and increase their profits.
- Aroma and flavour: The aroma and flavour of a cannabis strain are determined in part by its dominant terpenes, which is another important aspect of cannabis phenotypes. By selecting and breeding plants with desirable terpene profiles, growers can produce strains with unique and appealing aromas and flavours.
- To select and breed cannabis plants for desired phenotypes, growers often engage in a process known as pheno-hunting. This involves growing and testing different phenotypes to identify the most desirable characteristics, and then breeding those plants to create new strains with the desired traits. Over time, this process can lead to the development of new and unique cannabis strains that are tailored to specific user needs and preferences.
- Different cannabis phenotypes can also have a significant impact on the user experience. For example, indica strains are often preferred for relaxation and pain relief, while sativa strains are often preferred for creativity and focus. Hybrid strains can offer a combination of both effects, depending on the specific genetics and growing conditions. The aroma and flavour of a strain can also play a role in the user experience, with some strains producing earthy, spicy, or fruity elements that are more appealing to certain users than others.
In short, phenotypes are like the spice of life, but for plants. Without them, we’d have a boring monoculture of generic greenery. But thanks to the wonderous world of genetics, we have an endless variety of shapes, sizes, smells, and effects to choose from. From the soothing embrace of indica to the uplifting buzz of sativa, each phenotype offers a unique experience that can take you to new heights (or maybe just the couch).
Whether you’re a green-thumbed grower or a happy-go-lucky consumer, taking the time to appreciate the nuances can help you cultivate a deeper appreciation for the wonder and diversity of the natural world. So the next time you’re toking up or admiring a beautiful flower, raise a glass (or a bong) to the wondrous world of phenotypes.
References and further reading
- Kim, H. J., Lee, J. R., Kim, J. B., & Lee, H. J. (2020). Understanding phenotypes of Cannabis sativa L. for agricultural and medicinal practices. Journal of Applied Biological Chemistry, 63(1), 1-9.
- Lynch, R. C. (2018). Cannabis pheno-hunting: maximizing the genetic potential of your garden. High Times.
- Russo, E. B. (2019). The case for the entourage effect and conventional breeding of clinical cannabis: no “strain,” no gain. Frontiers in plant science, 9, 1969.
- Sawler, J., Stout, J. M., Gardner, K. M., Hudson, D., Vidmar, J., Butler, L., … & Myles, S. (2015). The genetic structure of marijuana and hemp. PloS one, 10(8), e0133292.
- Zuardi, A. W. (2006). History of cannabis as a medicine: a review. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria, 28(2), 153-157.