ENDANGERED CANNABIS STRAINS! - And How Terpenes Can Save Them Forever!

Posted by Jack O'Leary on

Cannabis is a plant with a deep history and a presently scattered, unregulated, and beautifully chaotic catalog of historic and ever-evolving strains. Like any species of plant, cannabis and specific strains of the plant are susceptible to being lost in time due to a plethora of ecological occurrences. As we know the plant’s terpene profile is heavily determined by the environmental factors like amount of sunlight, precipitation, humidity, even factors like sea level and atmospheric pressure are believed to have an impact on the health and growth of the plant. A slight change in a plant’s environment can vary its terpene profile vastly, making strain specific variants of the plant both hard to regulate and a challenge to record and preserve.

The cannabis that you smoke today is likely descended from one of four varieties of cannabis that form the very bedrock of the cannabis breeding pool dating way, way back. The four varieties referenced are not strains like Blue Dream or Grandaddy Purple, but rather  entire groups those specific strain originate from. 

The cannabis species is believed to be domesticated in the steppes of Central Asia. The origin story and family tree is speculated and often debated. A recent review by cannabis botany leaders Dr John M. McPartland and Dr. Ernest Small hopes to bring clarification to help give credit to the forebearers of modern cannabis. True OG’s. The paper is entitled: “A classification of endangered high-THC cannabis (Cannabis sativa subsp. indica) domesticates and their wild relatives” and it paints a grim outlook for the progenitors of the species.

Seen pessimistically, the varieties described here are components of a vanishing world, and classifying them is like an exercise in renaming dinosaurs. Optimistically, the formal recognition of indigenous Central and South Asian varieties will provide them with unambiguous names, and may help prevent their extinction.”

History of Cannabis

It is thought that Hindu Kush, Afghani, Thai, Aceh (Atjeh), and Nepalese are the oldest known cannabis strains with landrace traits. But it’s hard to know the true origin and the deep lineage of most cannabis strains of today. Their cultivation took place underground and wasn’t well-documented. The history of most modern cannabis strains doesn’t go much further than the 1960s.

All cannabis plants are of the family and species cannabis sativa. For many in the cannabis industry Indica and Sativa have been the bedrock of how people communicate the morphology and subjective effects of the plant. However, science has begun to reveal that the chemovar, or terpene and cannabinoids, in the plant rather than the shape of the plant are better indicators of effect. Dr. Ethan Russo and others have written about this synergistic combination of compounds coined The Entourage Effect.

In this vein, McPartland and Small contest that all cannabis sativa subspecies sativa are hemp fiber and seed crops with low THC contents, while all drug-type (THC containing) cultivars would be classified as Indica. 

There are 4 indica varieties: cannabis sativa subsp indica var. indica, cannabis sativa subsp indica var. himalayensis, cannabis sativa subsp indica var. afganica, cannabis sativa subsp indica var. asperrima. These four families account for the lineage of every THC variety on the planet. It is also these 4 varieties which are currently in danger.

To make it even more confusing cannabis sativa subsp indica var indica actually has the narrow leaf morphology associated colloquially with “Sativa” varieties. Additionally, the third subspecies of cannabis is cannabis sativa subsp ruderalis. Ruderalis is a wild variety that has low THC contents and is autoflowering or day neutral.

Anthropomorphic Interference 

The biggest threats to these landrace cannabis varieties come from humanity. In the search for the best plants for effect, yield, resistance to disease and other characteristics humans have begun interbreeding. In doing so endemic species are often impacted by the reduction in seeds for reproduction taken by humans for breeding and cultivation. Further, human cultivation often leads to artificial selection for traits such as resin yield or THC content rather than reproductive fitness or introduction of varieties from other regions. Overtime these varieties escape domestication and go feral, altering the gene pool of the native plants. You can only get so far interbreeding.

McPartland and Small detail records of these practices from the 1960’s onward. One example is cannabis breeder Jerry Beisler who claims to have introduced Mexican Gold into Afghanistan in 1972. These actions seem insignificant, but over time may erase the ancient varieties that originally sired them.

RELATED: What Terpenes and Cannabis Strains Make You Laugh?

The Future of Endangered Cannabis Strains

First and foremost, if you have the chance to try any endangered cannabis strains like original landrace or one of the old-time Haze or Kush varieties, don’t hesitate. As these plants become more scarce, who knows when they will become completely obliterated forever? We don’t want to cause a panic, and obviously, landrace plants still grow in their native regions, but getting your hands on them has become increasingly difficult.

With that being said, one can’t help but look at the progress that cannabis lovers have made and realize that the nugs we once dreamed about are now here. By using refined growing methods and taking the art of cultivating weed to a scientific level, breeders have created strains that look beautiful, produce high levels of THC, and are basically things that were figments of our imagination years ago.

 It’s bittersweet to think that some of the world’s strains are in an endangered state, but what’s exciting to think about is the progress we’ve made and where the world of cannabis could be in the next few decades. Perhaps the strains we enjoy now will seem like child’s play once we become even more skilled in crossing various plants to create the perfect bud.

The Solution

The cannabis industry and world at large will hopefully share the responsibility to preserve the biodiversity of the cannabis species. This will include protecting the habitat, reducing feral or escaped cannabis populations in its endemic range through Central and Southern Asia. 

Another option to exporting, importing and harvests of wild or native cannabis plants and seeds is to recreate them locally through recombination. Some companies specialize in replicating the aromatic profile of cannabis varieties from analytical testing utilizing terpenes sourced from other plants: Linalool from lavender, Myrcene from lemon balm or Beta-Caryophyllene from clove. 

C. sativa subsp. indica var. Afghanica 

Plants from Afghanistan and the surrounding area are referred to as Afghanica. Afghanica plants are under 6 feet tall, usually under 3 feet. Wider serrated leaf structure with 7–11 leaflets that are dark green. Afghanica plants have the highest combined THC/CBD levels on average of the varieties. Less than 7:1 THC:CBD ratios usually. The terpene profile typically contains higher levels of guaiol, γ-eudesmol, β-eudesmol, and the monoterpene alcohol nerolidol, as well as hydroxylated terpenoids, such as γ-elemene, a-terpineol, and β-fenchol. Reported to have a fresh, often acrid or skunky odor. 

Strain ex.: ACDC

C. sativa subsp. indica var. Indica 

Indica plants originated around India, but are found throughout southern Asia. They are usually taller than 6 feet and have the narrow serrated leaf structure. The largest leaves typically have at least 7 leaflets. Indica plants have a higher than 7:1 THC to CBD ratio and have elevated terpinolene, β-caryophyllene, trans-β-farnesene, humulene and a-guaiene. According to reports they have an herbal or sweet aroma.

Strain ex.: Trainwreck

C. sativa subsp. indica var. Himalayensis 

As indicated by the name, Himalayensis plants are endemic to the Himalya Mountain Range. They are closely related to the Indica variety. Himalayensis plants range from 3 to 9 feet tall. Narrow serrated leaf structure. The largest leaves typically have at least 7 leaflets. Himalayensis plants usually have a higher than 10:1 THC to CBD ratio, but there are also high THCV/CBDV plants in this population with much lower THC:CBD ratio accordingly. The terpene profile is similar to that of var. indica, except for higher levels of β-myrcene, cis-ocimene, humulene and β-caryophyllene. 

Strain ex.: Bubba Kush

Terpene Blends are Cannabis’ Library of Alexandria

 While it’s not the same as intimately growing your own plant or smoking it and experiencing its benefit and chemovar - terpene profiles are the next closest thing to recreating past evolutions, variants, and even extinct strains that are no longer prevalent in the cannabis landscape today. With the advancement and prominence of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, we are not recording more and more batches of cannabis grown all throughout the world, and are beginning to understand how a Blue Dream grown in California may differ vastly from a Blue Dream grown in South Africa, or anywhere else for that matter. Currently, strain names are a convenient label for which we place over a strain of which the geneology we are aware of, but compare a 100 different Blue Dreams across the globe and, odds are, they all have slightly (or vastly) different terpene profiles. With GC and mass spec, we may see a shift from typical strain names to a much more specific and calculable product. This may not be for decades, but if regulations tighten, it may occur sooner rather than we may think.

This step forward in technology also allows us to recreate strains of the past, as long as we have a sample we can test its profile for. If you’re nostalgic for the popular strains of the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s - the G13’s, Sour Diesel's, Acapulco Golds - of the past, they can be recreated into concentrates and enjoyed again! (Although sometimes nostalgia is best left in the past).

NEXT: Terpenes & Trees!

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