A cannabis dispensary is one of the anomalies of the modern era – or at least it still feels that way. It’s one of the few places where it’s socially acceptable to be met with the overwhelming aroma of cannabis – legally! But an onslaught of herbal, floral and musky aromas isn’t the only thing you get in a dispensary. You’re also met with a barrage of cannabis strain names that vary from delicious all the way to nonsensical.

These days, most cannabis enthusiasts are accustomed to strain names, throwing around terms like “Critical Mass” and “Amnesia” as though they were talking about the latest movie or the latest candies at the candy store. But for all the scientific names that we have for plants, do you ever wonder why we call a particular variety of cannabis “Purple Haze” or “Afghan Kush”? There was once a very logical system for naming cannabis strains, but it has since evolved into a creative aspect of cannabis genetics. Let’s have a look into the strange history of cannabis strain names.

Landraces and early strain naming

sungrown cannabis

Before breeders and before the modern commercialization of cannabis, it was simply just Cannabis Sativa. This is the plant’s scientific name and every strain of cannabis falls into the C. Sativa genus. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that strain names entered the scene, during a time when the international movement of cannabis was rife. Cannabis was making its way from India to the UK, from Morocco to Australia, from Afghanistan to the USA.

At this time, strains of cannabis were something like virgins, untampered with by geneticists. They got their strain names from their geographical origins, such as Mexican, Afghan Kush and Colombian Gold. Strains varied from each other slightly thanks to the different conditions in which they grow, with Mexican being taller and having a more cerebral high, while Afghan Kush was bushier and had a more physical high.

The transportation of cannabis from different parts of the world eventually formed the building blocks of all the strain variation we see today. The interbreeding of different landraces resulted in an infinitude of different genetic possibilities, gracing the shelves of dispensaries around the world with strains that are all slightly tweaked from each other.

Modern cannabis strain naming

cannabis jars

We’ve come a long way since the handful of landrace strains that were circulating the planet in the 70’s. Geneticists have been playing around with different phenotypes and genotypes for the better part of the last 50 years. In fact, whole businesses were built around the concept of playing with cannabis genetics, and this is what has given us so many different options when we walk into a dispensary.

The most common way to name a strain was to give it a name that included hints of its parents. For example, the strain, Acapulco Gold contains genes from the Mexican heirloom strain. When Sensi Seeds mixed Mexican heirloom genetics with an African Sativa strain called Durban Poison, they named the offspring Mexican Sativa.

Overall, this was a logical way of coming up with strain names. But geneticists soon realized that they could manipulate the taste and overall effects of a strain simply from its growing conditions, rather than its genetic makeup. This means that a single combination of genetics can again yield a myriad of different phenotypes. After this point, strain names just started getting creative.

For example, Lemon Haze contains two aspects to its name: the first is that one of its parents is Haze (which isn’t a landrace, by the way); the other aspect is its flavor – lemon! Soon, the flavors and effects of a strain became another way to name it. Take Amnesia for example, which is obviously a statement about the effects it has on the user. The same goes for Trainwreck, Granddaddy Purple (because the buds are purple) or Pineapple Express. But these names don’t hail from a genetic parent. Rather, Granddaddy Purple gets its purple color from manipulating the photoperiod, causing the buds to turn purple.

The infinite possibilities

The more varieties of cannabis we end up with, the greater the possibilities for creating more varieties. There is a seemingly inexhaustible amount of genetic variation in cannabis, much the same as there is with humans. Strains are sometimes formulated for a special reason and are given names accordingly, such as Charlotte’s Web. This strain was created for a girl named Charlotte who had epilepsy. It was grown for the strict purpose of having high CBD levels, and was named after her. Other strains are simply dedicated to important people in the world of cannabis like Jack Herer.

If anything, naming a strain of cannabis has more to do with creativity (and a little bit to do with marketing) than it has to do with genetics. Of course, this was different when there were only a handful of landrace/heirloom strains to play with. If modern cannabis varieties included the names of all of their ancestors, the names would be kilometres long – just like humans!

There are still many breeders who swear by the importance of heirloom and landrace strains. They are the foundations of cannabis, and fundamentally have the genetics that nature spent billions of years evolving. So while it’s exciting that there are so many strains, it’s also important to keep the original ancestors in mind. The more the cannabis industry moves on, the more strain names begin to deviate from their original genetic ancestry. It is now a creative endeavor of giving a strain a name fit for what it is rather than where it came from!