When I first started learning about cannabis, a landrace strain was explained to me as the strains of cannabis that naturally evolved in certain areas of the earth before humans had a chance to cultivate the plant. These “natural” strains were also described to me as being the pure “Sativa” and “Indica” strains that existed before hybridization became a common practice. It is amazing how much of the information I learned about cannabis turned out to be wrong.
Cannabis is believed to have first appeared in Central Asia. Glaciers from the last ice age naturally separated the plant into smaller pockets, and, from there, they started evolving into different species (hemp and marijuana) and subspecies (narrow-leaf and broad-leaf). Cannabis needed humans to spread it around the world. In other words, humans were vital to the creation of landrace strains. Strains like Colombia Gold, Thai, and Durban Poison could not have gotten to these places or reached their psychoactive peak without human intervention. There is some truth to the fact that these landrace cannabis strains represent a pure “Sativa” and “Indica;” however, this has more to do with the fact that these strains originally made up the market before growers started cross-breeding narrow and broad-leaf strains together.
A more accurate description of a landrace strain takes into consideration the environment in which the cannabis was grown and the techniques used to grow it. The physical (phenotype) and chemical (chemotype) characteristics of a cannabis plant are the result of the genetics of the plant as well as the environmental factors that produce it. Durban Poison is a landrace strain, not because it naturally appeared in Africa, but because it was brought to Africa and cultivated in that specific environment and growing conditions. Over time, through natural and human selection, the cannabis plants in this region evolved to thrive in this environment; therefore, producing unique characteristics that reflected the Durban region. In short, a landrace strain is a strain that expresses a place. It makes sense that so many of the classic landrace strains have a geographic location in the name!
Within an accurate understanding of landrace strains, you can make the argument that a new landrace strain can be created today — even if they are hybrids; however, it might not be the best idea to use the term “landrace” to describe these strains. Similar to the terms “Indica” and “Sativa,” the commonly used definition of “landrace” is so ingrained into the collective consciousness of the cannabis community that attempting to change the usage of the term would be tricky. In my opinion, our best course of action for addressing this issue is going to involve introducing new terms for categorizing cannabis.
One place that I continually draw inspiration from is the wine industry. Similar to cannabis, wine has been consumed by humans for centuries; however, unlike cannabis, wine has developed categories and systems that bring distinction to the growers and the wine. A lot of this has to do with the legality of the products, but, as cannabis begins to make its way into the mainstream, it is important that categories are developed to bring distinction and set quality standards within the industry. If these categories are not developed, we will be doomed to a sea of mids, as the best quality of any product requires distinction to set itself apart.
Below, you will find a list of terms commonly used in the wine world that I think will translate well into the cannabis industry. These are terms that can help bring distinction to the growers, the environments in which they grow their plants, and the cannabis they produce. Let’s give the masters of the craft their due!
- Terroir: The fancy word used to talk about the natural environment and growing practices that impacted the plant while it’s growing. The soil, topography, climate, seasonal weather, and farming practices are all going to show up in the physical and chemical characteristics of the plant. There are certain places in the world that are just going to produce fantastic cannabis, and there are farmers in these areas who have spent their lives growing plants that best express those places. One of those places is the Emerald Triangle in Northern California. It’s time to bring distinction to this region, so we can all fully appreciate it.
- Appellation: Laws have not always been on the side of cannabis; however, appellation is a legal term that I think the cannabis world should embrace. A sparkling white wine can only be called a Champagne if it was produced in the Champagne province in France. This is more than just a piece of trivia for wine aficionados. This is an actual law within the wine industry that regulates what you can put on the label. A product can only carry a specific name if it reflects the right place — exhibiting the qualitative and biological features that occur due to the environment in which it is produced, i.e., the terroir. For the cannabis industry, this will not only bring distinction to the growers and the land, it will also give strain names weight. Right now, there is nothing to govern what someone names a plant. They could grow Blue Dream, sell it as GSC, and there is nothing anyone could do about it. Tying a strain to a specific farmer and place means you know what you are getting. Another grower might have a clone or seeds from a farm with an appellation, but they won’t be able to use the strain name unless they grow it within the specific region in a certain way. These laws are designed to make sure that quality standards are maintained and that proper credit is given to the people who have developed the products.
- Typicity: This is a term that is used to describe how faithfully a wine reflects its name and other categorical distinctions. Certain wines need to taste and look a certain way if they are going to be categorized within a specific category. Without looking at the label, the best Sommeliers in the world can tell you where a wine was grown, who produced it, and when they produced it just by looking it over, smelling it, and tasting it. There can always be some variation within typicity — no wine is exactly the same; however, the purpose of typicity is to create boundaries for categorical distinction. For the cannabis industry, typicity can be used to categorize cannabis strains by their physical (observable characteristics) and chemical characteristics (lab results). Does it have the right chemistry? Does it look and smell right? These categories will not only help people better predict how a strain will make them feel, but it will also help them understand what quality looks like in each category.
- Heirloom: This is the term that I would use to categorize the old-school “landrace” strains like Thai, Panama Red, Hindu Kush, and Lamb’s Bread. Heirloom is a term used to define a traditional plant or breed of animal. In short, these are plants and animals that have been around for a long time and are no longer produced on a large scale. These are the strains that make up the genetic backbone of our favorite new strains. In many ways, heirloom strains of cannabis are the definition of landrace strains; however, heirloom and landrace are not synonymous. As the market continues to open up and farmers continue to find new environments in which to grow their plants, new landrace strains are an inevitability. These strains are not “traditional” enough to carry the heirloom designation; however, they play an important role in continuing the legacy of growing cannabis that reflects the land and the people therein.