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Indica vs. Sativa - An Overview of the Cannabis Subspecies

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As cannabis slowly becomes more prominent in Australia, so is the growing interest in the different varieties of the plant. Sativa and indica might be terms you have come across but weren't exactly sure what they signify.
Simply put - cannabis indica and cannabis sativa are two subspecies of cannabis.

The two subspecies are typically associated with different types of “high” when consumed:

  • Indica strains are known to induce a more sedative effect, suitable for relaxation, stress relief and sleep aid.

  • Sativa strains are believed to cause a more energising and uplifting clear-headed high. Geared towards creative and social purposes.

There is also a third species named cannabis ruderalis, a hardy and mostly uncultivated variety of cannabis. It’s lesser-known due to its lower THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) concentration, the chemical compound that causes the psychoactive effects. However, ruderalis has recently gained popularity with breeders to create hybrid strains due to its rugged nature.

In this article, we will discuss the physical and chemical differences along with some background of the indica and sativa subspecies. We will also address the misleading categorisation of the effects often associated with the two cannabis varieties.

Origins of Indica and Sativa

Beginning its origin many believe to be in central Asia, cannabis plants have survived and migrated with humans throughout history.

marijuana plant

The plant’s many properties have long encouraged human cultivation - from making oil from the seeds, materials from the fibre, to its chemical compounds for medicine. As such, cannabis plants have been found throughout different continents around the world - grown by humans and surviving in the wild. After millennia of adaptation in diverse conditions, cannabis has evolved to the subspecies we know today.

It is also believed that human selection played a vital part in the physical traits and chemical profile of the plants. Indica plants were mainly grown for consumption, so strains were selected for medicinal effects. Sativa plants, on the other hand, was originally cultivated for materials and oils, therefore physical properties were favoured.

The term “Cannabis sativa” was first adopted in 1753 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus[1]. He used the term “sativa”, a Latin adjective for “cultivated” to refer to a common hemp variety found in Europe grown mainly for its seed and fibre.

A second species of cannabis was later classified by a French naturalist - Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, roughly 30 years later[2]. He dubbed the strain cannabis “indica”, in recognition of India, where he had procured the sample from.

Sativa Characteristics

Sativa plants originate from hotter equatorial zones and have adapted to tropical growing conditions. The plants tend to be physically taller and requires a longer growing season to flower due to the constant periods of warmth.

In terms of appearance, the leaves are generally thinner and have narrow serrated blades. The branches and foliage are widely spaced from each other, and usually have a lighter shade of green than other varieties. As the plant matures, some strain’s buds may appear to have a slight red to orange hue.

In the cannabis community, sativas are often referred to as the more energetic strain. It is known to provide users with a more uplifting and euphoric high, inducing increased brain activity and elevated mood. As such, sativas are generally accepted as the strain for “daytime” use. It is associated with keeping users awake, sociable and creative due to the cerebral head high.

In saying that, the heightened brain activity is known to worsen the effects of anxiety for some users.

Indica Characteristics

Indica plants tend to be shorter and stubbier in nature, usually reaching a height of no taller than 2 meters. The plant is more compact with broader leaves that are darker green in appearance, with some showing shades of purple as it matures. Indica plants also tend to produce more side branches and thicker foliage, thus have naturally larger yields for growers.

The species is believed to have originated in the cooler climates of the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. As a result of this, indicas generally have shorter flowering cycles to survive the unpredictable weather and seasons of the region.

Indica strains are generally known to provide users with a full-body relaxation and are more suitable for “night-time” use. It is said to cause a sedative high, and known to relieve stress and help with insomnia.


hybrid strain

You may also have come across another category known as a “hybrid” whilst looking for cannabis products in the Australian market. Hybrids are the love-child of indica and sativa - produced to create a balance between the psychological high of sativa and the sedating nature of indica.

Modern cannabis breeders had better access and a wider range of cultivation tools. This granted more flexibility with growing conditions and plant species - and thus began the hybrid revolution.

Growers started experimenting with creating new strains of cannabis by combining native indica and sativa strains. And then the process was repeated by combining the offsprings of the offsprings and so on.

This allowed indoor growers to selectively breed and handcraft specialty strains based on their desired attributes. For example, breeders could match the smaller stature and shorter flowering period of indica plants with sativa-like characteristics, or create medicinal high CBD strains with little to no psychoactive effects.

How will they affect me?

Whilst the physical traits of indica and sativa strains are undeniable - the modern categorisation of the species' mental and physical effects are sometimes misleading.

Cannabis comprises of many chemical compounds responsible for the varying effects felt when ingested. These tiny compounds, such as cannabinoids and terpenes, can alter the high felt by humans after consumption.

Based on a recent research publication[3], it concluded that the genetic composition of a particular strain cannot be used to indicate its biochemical content. Put simply, judging the strain’s chemical effects using the indica or sativa categorisation is often deceiving. Some cannabis strains that possess the physical appearance of a sativa may in fact have a chemical profile closer to that of an indica and vice versa.

Thus, by understanding the chemical makeup of cannabis, we can better comprehend the effects of a particular strain.

Cannabinoids and Terpenes

The main chemical compounds responsible for the different types of “high” we feel when using cannabis are known as cannabinoids. The cannabinoids have the ability to interact with the human brain and body, causing chemical reactions to modify our mood and bodily functions.


One of the many cannabinoids called THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) in particular, is psychoactive in nature and causes the high often experienced with cannabis consumption. When users feel euphoria, mood changes and hunger, it is the result of THC binding to tiny receptors in the body and brain, disrupting our natural regulators.


CBD (Cannabidiol) on the other hand, is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid and is even known to counteract the effects of THC. It accomplishes this by physically blocking THC from binding to our receptors, thus reducing the intensity of the overall high.

Both THC and CBD are known for a wide range of therapeutic properties to assist with pain, insomnia, anxiety, low appetite, nausea, just to name a few. However, CBD is usually more popular for medicinal use due to its non-intoxicating nature.


Another major characteristic of cannabis strains often noted by users is the scent and flavour of the bud. These particular aromas are a result of an organic compound called terpene. Terpenes are presented in the form of aromatic oils which also exist across many other plant species. The citrusy smell of lemons, flavours of different herbs, the scent of a freshly cut pine tree - are all thanks to different varieties of terpenes, each with their own distinct aroma.

lavender plant

Apart from the odours produced by terpenes, they are also known to affect the human body in various ways. One example is aromatherapy - where natural plant extracts are used to promote well-being. Lavender oil is commonly used as a soothing agent, whereas rosemary and peppermint are primarily used for focus and increased attention.

The same is believed when the terpenes in cannabis are consumed. There are more than 100 identified terpenes in the marijuana plant, each with different aromas and subtle effects on the human body. When they are consumed in conjunction with cannabinoids such as THC or CBD, terpenes are known to modify the high and play a big part in the particular strain’s differentiating effects.

Choosing the right strain for you

Now that you have a better grasp of how the chemical compounds of cannabis can affect the way we feel, it should allow for better decisions when choosing a strain.

Selecting a cannabis product based on an indica or sativa strain alone may not result in the anticipated effects. It’s important to determine the terpene and cannabinoid content to guide you to a better product match. For example, if you are prone to anxiety, it might be wiser to lean towards a strain with lower THC and higher CBD. Or if you prefer a more euphoric and uplifting effect, a THC potent strain might be a better bet.

There are also products that isolate a particular cannabis cannabinoid into its own concentrate. One of the most popular examples in the Australian market is known as CBD oil, which extras the CBD compound into an oil concentrate.

As always, we encourage our readers to consult a medical practitioner prior to deciding on any cannabis products as there may be adverse effects depending on your medical history.

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about specific strains, check out our cannabis strain explorer page for detailed profiles, including cannabinoid and terpene content.

Jason Lu | BudHerd

Jason Lu | BudHerd

Jason is one of the lead editors and founder of BudHerd. He spends his days writing, designing, developing and researching all things cannabis. Jason is passionate about destigmatising and educating Australians on the therapeutic and recreational values of cannabis.
  1. Cannabis sativa. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannabis_sativa

  2. Cannabis indica. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannabis_indica

  3. Sawler J, Stout JM, Gardner KM, Hudson D, Vidmar J, et al. (2015) The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp. PLOS ONE 10(8): e0133292. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0133292

The statements made on this website are for information and educational purposes. BudHerd and its affiliates are not recommending anyone to use or cultivate cannabis for medicinal or recreational purposes. Please consult with your doctor before using medicinal cannabis to learn about the associated negative side effects. Medicinal cannabis is regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia and more details about cannabis as a scheduled drug can be found on their website.