Original Cannabis Breeds and Breeding History

First Known Cannabis Breeding

Marijuana, also known as weed, pot, or cannabis, has a long history of human use. In fact, cannabis forefathers did not grow the plant to light up and get high. Rather, marijuana was grown as herbal medicine, with research suggesting that it was first domesticated in East Asia before spreading to other regions of the world, including Africa, Europe, and eventually the United States.

The Beginning of Cannabis Breeding

Hemp and marijuana diverged from one another about 4,000 years ago and developed into the three well-known subspecies:  Cannabis indica, Sativa, and ruderalis.

Some researchers suggest that there are actually five sub-species of cannabis, with cannabis afghanica and hemp being the additional two. While this remains a topic for debate, the potent landrace strains were acclimatized for many years, with farmers selecting only the healthiest seeds to plant from the previous harvest. This selection was quite basic, as the farmers typically focused on two primary factors, including the seed's resistance to harsh environmental conditions and its cannabinoid profile.

But cannabis enthusiasts are always eager to discover the next incredible strain- the plethora of flavors and varying effects combine to create endless possibilities for recreational and medical consumers.

Hence, breeders have spent the last many decades capitalizing on the diversity of cannabis by crossing different strains from all over the world.

As cannabis laws evolve and become more tolerant in the US and other regions, strain breeding is also becoming much easier than ever before. This explains the massive variety of cannabis strains available in seed banks today. Keep in mind that most of the modern strains you come across when browsing a seed catalog are actually hybrids of hybrids.

For this reason, understanding the history of modern hybrids and familiarizing yourself with their strain lineage becomes necessary, especially for those looking to buy clones or seeds. Even more importantly, growers must understand the environmental requirements of each strain as well as the cultural practices that may provide their best results. Often, these factors are influenced by the strain's lineage.

Indeed, growers looking to breed cannabis for strain diversity and quality in the future will depend on thoughtful selection and a great understanding of the earliest strains.

Cannabis Taxonomy

Although taxonomists often disagree on how to classify cannabis, four distinct cannabis types have been heavily documented: cannabis Indica, Sativa, ruderalis, and afghanica.

  • Cannabis Sativa

Cannabis Sativa plants are primarily found in hot, dry climates with longer sunny days. This includes Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America.

Sativa plants can grow as tall as 20 feet. They are particularly thin with smooth, hollow stems and long, finger-like leaves. The plants tend to have longer internodes than other types of cannabis, and they usually take longer to mature than their counterparts.

Cannabis sativa flowering habits can be considered indeterminate. This means that the plants will continue to develop new flowers above the older ones for a prolonged period.

  • Cannabis Indica

Being native to Afghanistan, Cannabis indica has adapted to harsh and turbulent climates. The plants are short, sometimes growing up to 10 feet in height. They are typically stocky with bushy greenery and leaves that are rather narrow and pointy. Indica plants have a more determinate flowering habit, and they grow faster than sativas, producing even denser buds.

  • Afghanica Cannabis

Afghanica plants, not to be confused with Afghan Kush, are stout, stocky, and potent with relatively solid stems. The plant has adjusted to cold climates and is often bred for hashish production.

Although Afghanica cannabis was previously considered indica, Nikolai Vavilov, a Soviet agronomist, described the plant as a distinct type of cannabis in 1926. Since then, some growers have continued to separate afghanica plants, mainly due to their short stature, long petioles, denser buds, and a shorter flowering time. The high of this plant is more sedating than your typical Indica strain.

Generally, when people talk of Indica plants, they typically refer to plants with Afghani heritage. But note that while South India is generally hotter and more humid due to its coasts, most of North India has cold mountains. This significant environmental variation may explain the morphological differences that create a need to separate afghanica cannabis from cannabis indica.

  • Cannabis Ruderalis

Native to Central Asia and Western Siberia, ruderalis was initially considered a wild breed of cannabis. However, it has been brought indoors in recent years to influence new hybrids, mainly because of its auto-flowering cycle.

Auto-flowering strains automatically switch from vegetative growth to the flowering phase based on their maturity rather than the ratio of light to dark hours required with photoperiods like Indica and Sativa varieties.

Generally, cannabis ruderalis plants are short and stalky, typically sitting between 1-2.5 feet tall at harvest. They produce small but relatively chunky buds supported by smooth, hollow stems. The plants may be unbranched, producing wide leaflets that feature a light green hue.

Landrace Strains: The Ancestors of Modern Cannabis

Cannabis seeds that were naturally pollinated, collected, and planted in that particular ecosystem for many generations are referred to as heirloom cannabis. Farmers would select the finest seeds and plant them the following year, a practice that continued until the modern era.

The viability of cannabis plants was determined by their resistance to environmental pressures such as rainfall, temperature, humidity levels, and diseases. Plants whose traits allowed them to withstand these pressures are well adapted to harsh climates, and they generally produced more seeds than their counterparts.

Once farmers trade the heirloom seeds regionally and continue with the practice of collecting the finest seeds for the next crop, landrace cannabis strains are developed.

'Landrace' is a word that originated from the Danish language, meaning 'origin .'Landrace cannabis strains also grow naturally in the wild, without human interference. They are usually limited to specific ecosystems, and they often carry the name of the place they were developed.

Although landrace cannabis plants do share common characteristics, they still maintain genetic diversity. Landrace cannabis is the original genetic foundation of modern hybrids. Perhaps Afghani and Durban Poison are the most popular landraces today. Other notable landraces include Thai, Jamaican, and Colombian Gold.

The First Known Cannabis Breeding

For many decades, botanists have been conducting numerous plant breeding experiments until 1856, when Gregor Mendel started the well-known pea breeding experiment that set the basic rules of inheritance.

Through his experiment, Mendel observed how various traits seemed to come and go through generations. Hedel concluded that some genes are indeed recessive while others are dominant.

A tool, referred to as the Punnet square, gives a visual representation of how Mendelian inheritance works. Punnet square shows breeders the potential phenotypic outcome from breeding selected plants.

Being certain of the possible dominant and recessive outcomes from crossing your selected strains takes a lot of guesswork out of the equation. This basis is typically the selection process for breeders when conducting breeding experiments.

According to research studies, cannabis breeding in the US began in the early 1960s. The goal was to produce early-maturing, THC-laden strains.

Although early-maturing Sativa strains from Mexico were already available during this time, they were of moderate potency. Hence, breeders crossed them with more potent landraces like Colombian, Panamanian, and Thai strains, changing cannabis for what we know it today.

The resulting hybrids were also selectively inbred, creating the famous outdoor Sativa strains of the 1970s, such as Original Haze, Skunk #1, and Northern Lights. By the late 70s' crossing cannabis sub-species had become widespread. High-wattage grow lights were also introduced during this period, beginning a new era in cannabis production.