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Do Cannabis Strains Matter?

December 5, 2023

With names like Alien Breath, Cheetah Piss, and Ghost Train Haze, you could be forgiven for thinking cannabis strains, AKA cultivars, are completely made up. (There’s certainly a school of thought that advocates for this point of view.)

But for the cultivators who carefully select and pair plants to create new combinations — and for cannabis lovers who only go for GG #4 or swear by Sour Diesel — nothing could be more serious than the art of selecting the right cultivar. Hundreds of varieties are available in dispensaries across the U.S., and many bring their nuances and advantages to the table.

In short — yes, strains matter, but there’s a bit more to the story.

What is a strain of cannabis?

A cannabis strain is a specific variety of the cannabis plant. Cannabis flower of different strains have unique flavors, smells, and effects, while flower from the same strain will generally be much more alike. While plants within a strain vary to some degree, they have shared characteristics that make their effects somewhat predictable.

Getting to the bottom of Indica, sativa, and hybrid strains

Cannabis plants are often labeled as indica, sativa, or hybrid strains, which can sometimes be referred to as indica-dominant or sativa-dominant hybrids. These labels have their roots in decades of cannabis lore that thrived during Prohibition, used to describe how a strain may make you feel. Conventional wisdom suggests that Indica-dominant strains create a relaxed and sleepy “body high,” while Sativa-dominant strains are energizing “head high.”

This is an oversimplification. Indica and sativa describe how the plant looks — its phenotype — and not the genetics that shape your experience. Hybrid simply means two or more strains were crossed to create a new plant. While they’re still used as a jumping-off point when shopping the dispensary menu, they won’t always serve as a reliable method for choosing the right strain for the moment.

Do weed strains matter?

Yup. The strain you choose can greatly affect how you feel. That’s because strains vary from one another considerably when it comes to cannabinoid and terpene content, the compounds that shape your experience.

That being said, it’s important to note that even two different plants of the same strain can have quite a few differences. A strain’s compound profile depends on many factors, including the precise genetics of the seed, the plant’s growing environment, nutrients the plant was fed, and cultivation techniques used throughout its life. If you walk into a dispensary and buy cannabis flower based on whether its name sounds interesting, you could end up having an unexpected experience.

What to know about the strains you’re trying

Always check the THC potency, cannabinoid content, and terpene profile listed on a product’s label to ensure it’s in line with what you usually prefer to consume. Here’s why these compounds matter.

Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids include compounds like delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), Cannabidiol (CBD), and Cannabichromene (CBC). Cannabinoids interact with our endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS) to produce a wide range of effects, from the high you feel to the giggles to the munchies. It’s these compounds that are primarily responsible for cannabis’s effects,

Learn more in our THC guide >>

Terpenes

Terpenes also contribute their unique effects, often enhancing the properties of cannabinoids in various ways. For example, myrcene is one of the most common and dominant terpenes in cannabis, connected to deep relaxation. Terpenes also add unique flavors and smells to each strain depending on which are present in high concentrations. Limonene, for example, produces a sweet, citrus smell and taste.

Learn more in our terpene guide >>

Flavonoids

Less known and less studied, flavonoids are the compounds in cannabis responsible for creating the vibrant colors cannabis is known for. Some studies suggest, though, that they may have their own effects on our cannabis experience. More than 20 flavonoids have been identified in cannabis so far, but more needs to be studied to confirm the precise role they play in your body and mind.

How to choose the right weed strain

With so many strains on the market, where do you even begin choosing the right one?

Consider your goals

Before you start comparing different strains, ask yourself what you’re hoping to achieve. Do you want a strain that’ll put you at ease, or would you prefer a strain that’ll have you feeling energetic and inspired? Maybe you want both for different moments in your life.

Write out a short list of what you hope to get from a strain. Once you have a clear idea of the way you want to feel, you’ll be able to more effectively search for a strain that matches. Don’t forget to take note of where and how you’ll try the strain, too, as that can influence how you feel.

Review cannabinoid and terpene profile

Cannabinoid and terpene profiles will always be your best indicator of how a strain will affect you. Most people start with THC potency, which is typically listed as a percentage on the label.

In cannabis flower, THC levels typically range from around 15% to 30% THC by weight. Some consumers prefer high THC content for its heady effects, but others prefer lower amounts of THC. It all comes back to your goals and how you like to feel.

You should also review the other cannabinoids present in a strain. Some strains contain elevated levels of Cannabidiol (CBD), Cannabigerol (CBG), Cannabinol (CBN), and other notable compounds. The levels of these cannabinoids tend to be much lower than THC in most strains, but even when they reach just 1% or 2%, their impact can be significant.

Finally, review the terpene profile of each strain you’re considering. Generally, the top three or four terpenes will contribute the most to your experience. Strains with high levels of limonene and pinene may be more uplifting and energizing, while strains with high levels of myrcene and caryophyllene are more likely to promote relaxation. But check the combinations of terpenes, because different combinations can provide some unique feelings.

Try multiple strains and note your experience

After analyzing the cannabinoid and terpene profiles of the strains in your local cannabis dispensary, you should have a pretty good idea of which strains may suit your needs. We recommend buying small amounts of multiple strains, either in small amounts of flower or pre-rolls, so you can test out a strain without a big commitment.

As you work through each strain, take note of your experience. What did you like and dislike? Was this strain effective for your goals? Would you want to try it again? What’s the cannabinoid and terpene profile of the strains you like? Keeping a journal — either pen and paper or on your phone — is a great way to track your preferences and learn more about what you like.

Refine your search

It may take a few tries before you find the one, and that’s OK. With information in hand about which types of strains you liked and disliked — and the cannabinoids and terpenes they contain — you can undertake a more targeted search.

Don’t be afraid to try strains that contain different cannabinoids and terpenes than you’re used to, as well. Sometimes, unique combinations have surprising results, and you may find your new favorite this way. The more you try, the more you’ll learn which types of strains you enjoy and which you prefer to avoid.

While we’re at it… where do strain names come from?

So… how do cultivars get names like Randy Marsh, Zkittlez, or Cereal Milk?

Some draw inspiration from their parent strains.

Some are plays on commonplace brands or figures.

Some reflect the experience the flower may support.

Some describe the flower’s appearance, flavor, or smell.

Some cultivators pick a name simply because they like it.

Strains do matter, but they aren’t everything

Weed strains do indeed matter and provide us with important information about what we can expect when we consume. Although cannabis flower varies considerably from plant to plant, even of the same strain, categorizing cannabis by strain helps give us a good baseline expectation from which to work.

Of course, nothing beats trial and error, but in time you’re bound to find a few go-to strains that treat you right. When in doubt, just ask one of our budtenders at Union Square Travel Agency, who would be happy to guide you through your choices.

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