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Cannabis 101

Sativa strains, explained: Common effects + how to buy

Beth WaterfallJanuary 14, 2021

Sativa is one of the three species of cannabis plants (the others are indica and ruderalis). Today's cannabis consumers generally look to sativa strains or sativa-leaning hybrids for focus, energy, and a head high that keeps them feeling social. Be warned however, that many strains are bred to be high in THC, and can really pack a punch! 


Getting started: Why choose a sativa strain?


Most dispensaries today offer a variety of strains and products to help meet specific desired effects. In most cases, medical marijuana patients and adult-use consumers alike turn to sativas for daytime use and stimulation. Many praise strains like Tangie, Blue Dream and Sour Diesel as preferable alternatives to the prescription medications for symptoms of ADD and depression. 


Recreational cannabis consumers often turn to sativa strains to enhance stamina and engagement in activities, and to help keep their mood lifted. Take it easy to start, with a couple puffs or a 5mg edible, to see how a new strain works with you and your body's endocannabinoid system.  Depending on the strain's THC and CBD content, and  terpene profile, some buds and products labeled “sativa" can produce paranoia or restlessness, while others, particularly if consumed in high doses, end up producing a mellowing or sleepy effect. 


Sativa strain history


Until the 1970s, most of the cannabis being consumed in the U.S. grew from seeds of tall plants with skinny leaves and scrawny buds (or “flowers"). Today we know that those lanky gals were sativa plants with Indian and African origin.


 As cannabis breeding and legalization efforts have evolved into the 1980s and 1990s, so too have the actual strains of cannabis being consumed in the US. Cannabis legend maintains that it wasn't until the 1970s that cultivators cross-bred sativa and indica strains to create many of the hybrid strains we know today. 


Sativa strain origins 


Sativa cannabis plants generally have a longer grow cycle than indica plants, and therefore grow much taller and require more attention from the grower. The main distinctive physical traits of sativa plants, when compared to their bushy cousin indica plants, are height and narrow leaves. 


Sativa plants' trademark height comes from their origins of growing in very hot and dry climates close to the equator, where the plants have space to stretch out and reach toward the sun, rather than staying small and bushy to protect themselves from harsh elements and cold.

They are indigenous to eastern Asia and subtropical areas of Africa, South and Central America. Some of the more classic or “landrace" strain names, such as Durban Poison and Acapulco Gold pay homage to their geographical roots and, depending on the grower, maintain their OG characteristics.


Sativa strain characteristics


Because of their height potential and longer grow cycles, sativas can get a bit unruly and overwhelming for novice growers. We're not saying you'll end up with an Audrey II on your hands, but these plants are indeed a different animal. While inventors and commercial growers work to innovate new ways to grow sativa plants, indoor home growers and commercial cultivators alike should be careful to research grow cycles for their selected strains, so as to not stunt growth or have to harvest too early.

As with all cannabis and cannabis products, outcomes and effects depend greatly on the breeding, cultivation, and processing practices involved. One way to tell the difference between a sativa and indica bud is to remember the sativa plant's main physical characteristics, which will produce a skinnier, less dense bud (imagine the Grinch's green, furry fingers). 

As cannabis strains become more science than art, the type of strain is only one of many factors to consider when determining which strain is right for you. Research or ask your budtender for the cannabinoid content and terpene profile to help you choose which strain would best meet your needs. 


Common strains


Jack Herer 

Purple Haze 

Star Dawg 

Pineapple Express





RELATED CONTENT:  SATIVA VS. INDICA, WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE? 

Beth Waterfall
Beth Waterfall is a cannabis writer, marketer, advocate and consumer on a mission to break stigma against cannabis and the people who use or work with it. She has written for the Boston Globe, Ladybud, 1000 Watts, Freedom Leaf, and Cape and Plymouth Business magazines, and is a frequent speaker at cannabis industry, marketing, and community events. Learn more at bethwaterfall.com.
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