What’s the Difference Between “Indica” and “Sativa” Strains?

by Nebula Haze

What are the best strains of cannabis, the ones labeled Indica or Sativa or Auto-flowering? Which strains produce this or that effect? Which ones are “medical” and which aren’t? The sheer number of cannabis strains available today can be overwhelming, and it can be tough to cut through the marketing speak and find the information you’re really looking for!

Indica vs Sativa vs Ruderalis

Sativa vs Indica vs Ruderalis - Strains and Varieties of Marijuana

The three main “types” of cannabis are Indica, Sativa and Ruderalis (auto-flowering).

In the scientific community, all types of marijuana (including hemp) are referred to as Cannabis sativa, whether you’re talking about Indica, Sativa or Ruderalis strains!

Scientifically, there are not different “strains” of marijuana as much as they are “varieties” of the plant Cannabis sativa. Genetically, the various strains cannabis we know and love are actually very closely related to each other and hard to tease apart.

When it comes to the cannabis growing scene though, growers universally refer to various varieties as strains.

This can be confusing because there is a lot of overlap between strains, and many strain names are made up on the spot by the grower. It’s also common for some growers to misrepresent their buds by saying they are more popular or famous strains. Strain names should be taken with a grain of salt! If you are interested in strain lineages, you may be interested in this site which lets you track the lineage of strains from the most popular breeders.

And there is a lot you can learn about a plant from its genetics! Ultimately, we have differentiated the various varieties or “strains” of marijuana because each one grows differently, produces different cannabinoid profiles, and has different effects on different people. Although we don’t have this down to a perfect science, we are learning more every day!

Learn more about medical vs non-medical strains of cannabis

That being said, there are a few common “types” of cannabis that tend to have specific traits. The most common types of cannabis you may hear about are indica, sativa and ruderalis (auto-flowering).

Example of an indica cannabis plant compared to a sativa cannabis during the flowering stage in a grow tent.

Two Aurora Indica plants on left (very small, fast-flowering Indica) & Two Wonder Woman plants on right (a hybrid with some Sativa characteristics) – These were grown together from seed in the same environment yet you can clearly see the stark difference in growth characteristics between the strains!

Example of two different strains grown in the same environment at the same time - Left is Aurora Indica and Right is Wonder Woman

Very few growers have access to the genetics of “pure” Indica, Sativa or Ruderalis plants. These generally low-yielding ancestors of today’s popular strains are often far less pretty, medical and potent than strains which have been bred specifically for bud quality and yields.

Example of “pure” Sativa buds – with older Sativa strains the buds are often loose and airy (though they can sometimes have unusual or unexpected effects!). Most modern strains actually hyrbids of many different strains that have been bred to produce higher yields, more compact buds, and be easier to grow indoors than what grows naturally outdoors!

Example of "wild" or "landrace" Sativa buds - they are loose and airy

For the purposes of medical marijuana or adult-use cannabis, you may want to choose a strain that has been bred to produce the effects you want, whether it has Indica or Sativa in its history!

Indica Strains

The Indica varieties of marijuana originated in colder climates with relative short summers. Indica strains tend to grow short and bushy, with wide/fat leaves.

A healthy young indica cannabis plant growing short and bushy with big leaves

The buds produced by Indica plants often have a more heavy and relaxing effect, known as a “body high”, and can cause people to feel “couchlocked.”

Indica plants tend to be well-suited to growing indoors because of their shape, smaller size and quick time-to-harvest.

When it comes to medical marijuana, Indica-leaning buds are often better suited to relieving insomnia, muscle tension, nausea, lack of appetite, anxiety, body pain, and depression.

Example of a big, fat indica leaf from a cannabis plant.


Sativa Strains

The Sativa variety of marijuana tends to grow tall and lanky, with thin, fingerlike leaves. Sativas also generally have a longer flowering period and grow buds that are more airy and less dense than from an Indica.

The buds from a Sativa plant cause more of an “in your head” high, sometimes psychedelic, sparking creativity, uplifting your mood, and even can be energizing for some people.

This sativa strain of cannabis tends to grow tall and stretchy.Sativa varieties of marijuana are often better suited to growing outdoors as some plants can grow to 20 feet or more in height! While an indoor cannabis grower can use growth control methods to control the height and shape of the plant, a Sativa strain that hasn’t been bred to grow shorter can be tough for an indoor grower with limited space to control.

Therefore, many indoor growers who love the Sativa bud effects will opt for a hybrid that carries the same bud properties, but has been bred to be easier to care for indoors.

Well-loved by artists, Sativas are especially suited to relieve depression, migraines and certain types of pain, while being more “day-friendly” and energizing than many Indica-leaning strains.

The Haze variety of marijuana is often considered a type of Sativa, or at least Sativa-dominant, yet Hazes have a few unique properties all their own. The genetics of these strains are a combination of Sativas originally from Mexico, Colombia, Thailand and India.

Hazes tend to have psychedelic and uplifting effects, and Haze plants have contributed genetics to many famous strains such as Super Lemon Haze, Northern Light, and Jack Herer. Hazes tend to have very long flowering periods, though stay shorter and are easier to grow indoors than a pure Sativa.

Sativa cannabis leaves have long, thin fingers


Auto-Flowering Strains

The Ruderalis or “Auto-Flowering” variety of marijuana originates from the northern parts of Russia and Sibera. In the wild, a pure Ruderalis plant contains next to no THC and produces no psychoactive effects on its own. However these strains have been mixed with other strains because of one unique property… Unlike most strains of marijuana, Ruderalis or Auto-Flowering strains will naturally go into flowering (start making buds) on their own, without the need for the 12-12 light change to let the plant “know” it’s time to start flowering. They also produce buds sooner than pretty much any other strain of cannabis, and are usually ready for harvest in under 3 months from seed.

Learn more about auto-flowering vs photoperiod plants

Basically, a Ruderalis or auto-flowering cannabis plant will go through its whole lifecycle in about 3 months, regardless of what you do as a grower. This can be bad if you’d like to produce huge plants, but can be convenient since Ruderalis plants produce a lot of buds for their size even though they tend to stay very short. They are well-suited to small, indoor spaces and for growers who want to grow smaller plants outdoors.

Example of auto-flowering (Ruderalis) cannabis plants just before harvest!

A Note About Ruderalis/Auto-Flowering Plants, Potency and CBD

When I first started learning about them in 2010, Ruderalis strains were less “potent” (with THC) compared to other strains of marijuana, since the ancestor Ruderalis plants had basically zero THC. In the time since then, many strains have been developed which have comparable THC levels to other strains, while maintaining the auto-flowering characteristics of Ruderalis.

Another unique property of Ruderalis strains is that, like hemp, these strains naturally tend to have higher levels of CBD which have many implications for medical uses such as anti-anxiety. That being said, these days there are also lots of low-CBD options for growers who prefer a more fast-paced experience.

Auto-flowering strains usually contain higher levels of CBD than most high-THC, adult-use strains

Learn more about CBD and other cannabinoids here

99.9% of Cannabis Strains Are Actually Hybrids!

A hybrid is any combination of the cannabis varieties listed above. Hybrids make up the majority of strains you will encounter or be able to buy today. Although some strains tend to be more “Indica-leaning” or “Sativa-leaning” ultimately they contain aspects of all!


Jump to…

Where to Get Access to Good Strains

How to Increase Marijuana Yields

How to Increase Overall Bud Appeal

How long does it take to grow and harvest weed?

10 Steps to Start Growing Cannabis Today!



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