Chemovars: Beyond THC, Sativa, Indica, and Named Cultivars (AKA Strains)

Chemovars: Beyond THC, Sativa, Indica, and Named Cultivars (AKA Strains)

At the risk of committing blasphemy, we think it's time to reinvent 420 as you know it. It's time to stop glorifying THC as the only compound that matters. It's time to stop asking, "do you want indica or Sativa?" And yes, it's even time to forget about your favorite strains (sorry, Sour Diesel die-hards).

Cannabis is so much more than catchy taglines and THC potency. Every cannabis edible, oil, or extract can only truly be defined by its unique chemical profile, known as its chemovar, a very detailed classification that nobody is really talking about.

When we grasp the importance of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, we become true plant connoisseurs. By understanding chemovars and cultivars we learn how to pick the right product to achieve our desired effects. Now that's something to celebrate this 420.

Indica and Sativa, Strains, Cultivars and Chemotypes

Indica and Sativa

At one point, indica and sativa described distinct species of cannabis grown in different parts of the world. However, over time and significant cross-breeding, pure indicas and sativas became nearly, possibly completely, extinct. Most plant enthusiasts know this, yet brands still use the terms to market their cannabis and differentiate their effects.

As a result of product marketing, consumers identify indica strains as sedative, while they assume sativa strains will always feel more energizing.  This might be true for some products depending on the terpenes, flavonoids, polyphenols and other cannabinoids they contain, but "sativa" and "indica" have nothing to do with the perceived effects. Indica and sativa labels have no scientific meaning or relation to the plant's chemical profile.

To determine a product's effects, you need to understand its full spectrum of chemical compounds (chemovar). To illustrate that point, a team of researchers studied hundreds of strains with indica and sativa labels to determine similarities in genetic and chemical profiles.

Unsurprisingly the team found that indica and sativa labels did not correspond with genetic similarities. In fact, indica strains were just as closely related to sativa strains on a chemical level as they were to other indicas–and vice versa–proving the terms were largely meaningless.

In addition to debunking indica/sativa terminology, the researchers discovered that the names of strains served no valuable purpose either. For example, two strains named "OG Kush" shared more genetic similarities to other strains than they did with each other. Yikes!

Strains (AKA named Cultivars)

Like indica and sativa, strain names are completely unreliable methods for classifying cannabis plants and products. Look no further than the current market for proof.

Today, you can find hemp strains and cannabis strains with identical names. Yet Bubba Kush hemp and Bubba Kush cannabis are clearly going to hit differently. So, how can they possibly share the same title?

Strains are names given to cannabis varieties that share similar genetics. Since hemp and high-THC cannabis are technically cannabis Sativa plants, they can come from the same genetics. That said, farmers cultivate hemp much differently than cannabis to ensure it contains less than 0.3% THC.

So while hemp and cannabis strains may go by the same name, they will exhibit different chemical compounds and effects, especially when cultivated differently.  Even two cannabis strains that share the same genetics can vary.

For instance, you can buy the same Durban Poison cannabis strain in two dispensaries and have entirely different experiences. That's because the various ways plants are grown, harvested, processed, and even stored can alter their chemical structure, creating unique cultivars.

Synonymous with “cultivated variety,” cultivars describe a group of cannabis plants that share common characteristics, which farmers create through selective breeding.  However, once harvested cultivars can exhibit vastly different properties, as shown in ACS's analysis of Jack Herer samples from two different sources.

strains vs chemovar graphic - ACS Laboratory

Despite the fact that both samples called themselves "Jack Herer," they produced different cannabinoid and terpene profiles.

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Whether you’ve heard the term or not, you're probably most familiar with cannabis chemotypes. Chemotypes categorize cultivars by their most prominent cannabinoids–namely THC and CBD–and the ratio they contain. Most researchers recognize three main cannabis chemotypes.

Type 1: THC-dominant plants

Type 2: Hybrid 50/50 THC and CBD

Type 3: CBD dominant plants Cannabis chemotypes provide a meaningful snapshot. But they don't tell the whole story.

For example, chemotypes do not illustrate the cultivar’s full range of bioactive compounds, including terpenes and flavonoids. Additionally, Chemotypes do not account for the varying potency levels within each category.  

Within Chemotype 1, for example, there’s a broad range of cultivars with varying THC and CBD potency levels. One type 1 cultivar may contain 5% THC and 0,5% CBD while another may contain 20% THC and 1% CBD. Both belong to the same chemotype, but one is significantly more potent than the other.

Chemotypes, strain names, and indica and sativa labels all attempt to describe how cannabis looks, smells, feels, and acts.

They are valiant efforts, to be sure. But all attempts fall seriously short of reality because they don't account for every plant's one-of-kind nature. The future of an informed cannabis industry lies in chemovars.  

Cannabis Chemovars: The Only Way to Celebrate 420

Cannabis consumers, like all people, want to make informed choices about what they put in their bodies–and they want to consume products that jive with their desired effects. By understanding chemovars and cultivars, cannabis lovers can celebrate 420 with the varieties that synergize with their goals. Chemovars, like chemotypes, classify cannabis plants by their chemical compounds.

But chemovars are more precise. Chemovars considers the plant's most potent cannabinoids and up to four primary terpenes, which make up most of the plant's therapeutic, psychoactive, and flavor profile. Unfortunately, chemovars don't include flavonoids (yet), but it’s the most comprehensive classification system we have for cultivars today.

By identifying terpenes and cannabinoids, chemovars can help people predict how the product will affect them. How? Terpenes and cannabinoids synergize in the body after consumption.

The synergistic mechanism known as the Entourage Effect explains that when these compounds work together, they deliver stronger, more diverse benefits than they could achieve independently. In short, cannabis is so much more than THC and CBD.

The plant relies on terpenes to improve biological absorption, overcome bacterial defense mechanisms, and minimize adverse side effects. It also relies on flavonoids and polyphenols to complete its therapeutic profile.

Know Your Chemovar Before You Buy

When you understand the chemovar of the plant or product in question, you can make the best decisions about:

Purpose of use:

  • Psychoactive effects
  • Pain management
  • Relaxation and anti-anxiety
  • Sleep aids
  • Health and wellness
  • Desired flavor, fragrance, and coloring
  • Appropriate dosage
  • Best time to use
  • Day vs. night

Unfortunately, not every brand is transparent about its products' chemovars. Only brands that request full panel chemical analysis tests from verified third-party laboratories will know precisely what cannabinoids and terpenes exist in their products. Those are the brands you want to look for, and you can find them by checking for a QR code on the product packaging, which links to the Certificate of Analysis.

Once you scan the code, make sure a qualified lab like ACS tested the product. Then, check for the key cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids that make your product one-of-a-kind and exactly what you're looking for from your 420 cannabis experience.

Beyond THC

This year let's move beyond THC, recognize that no two Super Silver Hazes are identical, and remember that "indicas" and "sativas" don't mean anything. Indicas are only as sedative as the soothing terpenes they contain. Likewise, sativas are only uplifting with the proper ratio of energizing compounds.

In short, it's all about the chemovars. So check your QR codes, read up on terps, dive deeper into cannabinoids, consider flavonoids, and celebrate 420 with your perfect chemovar match.