The cannabis plant is a complex one that has been aggressively cultivated over the years to yield a high-THC laden version. The cannabis plant exhibits more diversity than other cultivated crops.

Post-legalization, cannabis cultivators have looked to return the plants they grow to a less hybridized version or are being more mindful about what traits and chemical compounds within the plant – the cannabinoids and terpenes – to accentuate to produce new variations of the plant that better serve consumer needs.

Here’s a short botany lesson that you didn’t learn in fifth-grade science class. Let’s start with the taxonomy of the cannabis plant. Cannabis is the genus of flowering plant in the family Cannabaceae. Other genuses in the Cannabaceae family are Celtis, more commonly known as hackberries or nettle trees, and Humulus, also known as hops.

These days, more people are choosing to use the word cannabis, considered a more culturally accepted term than marijuana, pot, or weed, all of which have some negative connotations. Typically, when people refer to “marijuana” or “cannabis” conversationally, they are speaking about the products derived from the plant itself rather than about the genus or species.

The two species you’ve probably heard about are Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Each species contains numerous “strains,” or genetic variants, including hybrids that blend both sativas and indicas. There is a third species — Cannabis ruderalis — based on unique traits, although it is not commonly used for consumption or sold commercially.

Different strains of cannabis are bred to contain different chemical makeups and potencies that, in turn, lead to different effects. Knowing more about the strain you’re purchasing

and consuming can help you anticipate the effects. Sativa strains are said to produce a stimulating head high when inhaled through smoke or vapor while indica strains are said to produce more of a full body high and deep relaxation. Some studies say strains don’t matter as much when you ingest cannabis products because they change chemical form once they pass through your liver.

While cannabis still grows wild in some places, the majority of the cannabis we buy in licensed retail shops has been cultivated to produce specific types of plants. The term for these plant varieties produced during the cultivation process through selective breeding is cultivar — short for “cultivated variety.” Believe it or not, there are more than 700 cultivars of cannabis identified to date.

Some cannabis experts bristle at the use of the term strain to describe the cannabis plant, pointing out that strains refer to bacteria, not plants. While cultivar is the preferred term among growers and botanists, you’ll most likely continue to hear the term strain as a cannabis consumer.

Popular strains of cannabis include Northern Lights, Gorilla Glue, Charlotte’s Web, Sour Diesel, White Widow, and OG Kush. Scientists and doctors continue to discuss a different classification of cannabis in order to more clearly categorize the plant. Some cannabis cultivars, such as the one referred to as “industrial hemp,” are cultivated for their fiber, grown for their seeds that can be eaten raw, or to extract a concentrated form of the plant to infuse oils that can be ingested or in products that can be smoked, vaped or applied.

When looking at cannabis for health and wellness, seek out the strains and the types of products that emphasize the cannabinoid and terpene content that can best address your needs.

Aliza Sherman lives in Anchorage, Alaska and has been involved in the cannabis industry since early 2016. She is the co-founder of Ellementa, an international network for women interested in cannabis for wellness. She is the author of a new book, “The Essential Guide to Cannabis and CBD: Optimizing Your Health With Nature’s Medicine” (Ten Speed Press).

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