How to Pick the Best Cannabis Strains
My boomer father loves to remind me that “back in the day, pot was just pot. It came in a zip-lock, you spent hours picking out the seeds and stems, and you didn’t get to pick your strain.”
But, times have changed since the seed-laden zip days, and the choices you’ll find at a dispensary can be a bit overwhelming to new consumers. That’s why arming yourself with a bit of knowledge about strains can be make the difference between picking your next favorite flower, or ending up with a strain that leaves you wanting more.
What are cannabis strains?
A “strain” is a specific variety of cannabis that has been bred for characteristics like aroma, potency, appearance, effects. These strains are then given a unique name, often based on their parent strains or dominant properties.
These names are not always indicative of how the high will feel, so asking your budtender is always the best way to learn about the effects of a strain.
The difference between Indica, Hybrid, and Sativa strains
Cannabis strains fall under three categories: Sativa, Hybrid, and Indica. At its root, the terms “Sativa” and “Indica” refer to the structural differences in the plant: narrow vs. broad leaves, tall vs. short structure, etc.
Pure Sativas are relatively tall, reaching as high as 15 ft, with long, narrow-bladed leaves. Pure Indicas are shorter and bushier, with wider leaflets. Cannabis strains that have been cross-bred are called ”Hybrids,” which make up the majority of strains available today.
Due to the limitless possibilities of crossbreeding, most connoisseurs are quick to point out there is no such thing as a “true Indica” or “true Sativa” anymore, and that all strains fall somewhere on a Hybrid spectrum; some being more Sativa-leaning, some more Indica-leaning, and some more balanced. Nonetheless, many dispensaries and consumers continue to use these classifications to indicate what kind of effects to expect from a strain.
Sativas and Sativa-Leaning Hybrids generally have uplifting, energetic, and cerebral effects, and are great for creativity, socializing, and other activities. If you experience symptoms of anxiety, strong Sativas can sometime exacerbate those symptoms, and using a low THC sativa or balanced hybrid would be the best route.
True hybrids typically have a balanced high, or can start with a boost in energy followed by feelings of bliss and relaxation. A hybrid is created by combining Sativa and Indica genetics, or multiple Indicas and a Sativa, etc. Hybrids are favored for their versatility and broad appeal, as they sit well with most people.
Indicas and Indica Hybrids are typically sleepy, sedative highs. (Think Indica=In Da Couch.) However, indica strains aren’t exclusively for nighttime use, as many Indica lovers enjoy and benefit from the relaxing and calming effects throughout the day. Indicas can be very useful for pain management, as they also have high concentrations of CBD and CBN, which are cannabinoids linked to pain relief.
What are cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds found in cannabis and are responsible many of the plant’s non-psychoactive effects and benefits. Remarkably, there are over 100 different cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.
The first cannabinoid the plant will develop is CBGA, also known as the “mother of all cannabinoids” because it will eventually break down and produce primary cannabinoids like THCA and CBDA, the precursors to THC and CBD.
The main cannabinoid types found in cannabis strains are THC, CBD, CBG, and CBC.CBD is become popular for providing anti-inflammatory and relaxing properties without a significant high. CBG is also gaining popularity for its therapeutic effects. Like CBD, CBG has been used to combat pain and inflammation without the intoxicating effect of cannabinoids like THC.
Does the THC percentage of my cannabis matter?
THC is the only “psychoactive” cannabinoid, and therefore gets most of the attention. Although high THC strains are thought to be the strongest, many connoisseurs are moving away from placing so much importance on THC percentage.
THC is the cannabinoid that makes you feel “high.” However, when other cannabinoids are present alongside THC, it affects how the high settles in. This effect is known as the entourage effect.
The entourage effect boosts the potency and longevity of a cannabis high. Therefore, the Total Active Cannabinoids, or “TAC,” is just as important of a number, and a wide spread between the THC percentage and TAC percentage usually indicates a full bodied, long-lasting high.
Despite all this info becoming more common knowledge, many consumers still find themselves fixating on the THC percentage, and will favor high THC strains over others with lower percentages.
If you are using THC to treat things like anxiety or depression, strains with high THC’s can occasionally exacerbate negative symptoms. For those using cannabis to treat these symptoms, a low THC strain with lots of CBD could be most beneficial. Although it’s easy to assume more THC means a stronger high, the other cannabinoids boost the entourage effect and affect the potency and longevity of the high.
What is THC?
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, refers to the main cannabinoid responsible for cannabis’ psychoactive effects.
What is THCA?
THCA stands for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, and is the precursor to THC. THCA is not intoxicating if ingested. Chemically, it has an additional molecular carboxyl ring, which prevents it from binding to receptors in the brain responsible for getting high. However, when heat or a solvent is applied, THCA converts to THC, and is now capable of producing a high.
Effects-wise, THCA and THC overlap in some areas. Both have potential to treat nausea, but THCA shows far more promise for addressing inflammation. On the flip side, because THCA isn’t intoxicating, some may find it less effective for sleep than activated THC. And while THC isn’t recommended for seizure disorders, THCA shows promise in addressing those conditions.
What are terpenes?
As much as we love our cannabinoids, our strains wouldn’t be the legends they are without their terp content!
Terps, or terpenes are natural oils found typically in plants that put out a distinct scent or aroma. Different strains of cannabis have different terpene compositions that define its flavor, smell and effects.
Think of the THC as the engine, and the terpenes as the steering wheel. While THC determines the psychoactive properties of your cannabis, the terpenes give a strain its therapeutic and mood-altering effect. Many terpenes found in poplar strains are also prevalent in nature.
Limonene, one of the most abundant terpenes found in cannabis strains, has a distinct citrusy aroma and is known for its uplifting properties, making it sought after as a treatment anxiety and depression. Almost all citrus fruits contain large amounts of this compound.
Linalool is responsible for that iconic “marijuana smell” with juxtaposing spicy and floral notes. Linalool can be ultra-soothing and relaxing, and is found in lavender, mint, cinnamon, and coriander.
Caryophyllene, best known for its spicy and peppery notes, is also found in black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and spices like basil and rosemary. This stress-relieving terpene is also present in many hybrids known to cause relaxation and reduce anxiety. Given its unique aromatic notes, it’s fairly easy to detect in a strain.
Myrcene is the most abundant terpene in cannabis, which is where it is mostly found in nature. Strains that contain 0.5% of this terpene are usually Indicas with sedative effects. It has also been reported that myrcene is useful in reducing inflammation and chronic pain, which is why it’s often recommended as a supplement during cancer treatments.
Fun Fact: Mango contains significant amount of myrcene, so eating it before consuming cannabis will strengthen the effects of THC and increase its absorption rate.
Classic Indica Cannabis strains
Here’s a list of some iconic indica strains that are always a perfect pick:
Grandaddy Purple, a strain high in myrcene, has been a favorite amongst indica lovers for years. A cross of Mendo Purps, Skunk, and Afghani, this strain has a complex grape and berry aroma from its Mendo Purps and Afghani parent, and an oversized and tight bud structure inherited from the Skunk genes.
Known for its deep purple hue and crystal white resin, GDP’s effects are a fusion of cerebral euphoria and physical relaxation. Great for those treating pain, stress, insomnia, appetite loss, and muscle spasms. You can expect a Grandaddy Purple terpene profile to feature an abundance of Myrcene, Pinene, and Caryophyllene.
Northern Lights is a timeless strain and comes from a cross of Afghani and Thai. This strain has a distinctly sweet/spicy flavor profile, and equally memorable effects. With a strong euphoric buzz that permeates the body and a soothing mind high, this strain is a favorite amongst medical patients struggling with depression, stress, pain, and insomnia. The top terpenes in the Northern Lights are typically Myrcene, Caryophyllene, and Pinene.
G-13 is worth mentioning not only for its legendary high, but for its urban legend status. G-13 is believed to have originated in a government research facility in Mississippi in the 60s or 70s. There, with help from the University of Mississippi, pure Afghani Indica clones were used to attempt the creation of a “super indica strain.”
As the story goes, Neville Schoenmaker convinced someone working there to bring him a cut from one of the strains, labeled G-1 to G-23. G-13 was chosen as the most stable. This strain has a unique aroma of skunk and cheese with a floral, berry scent on top. Dominant terpenes are Limonene, Beta-Myrcene, and Alpha Pinene.
Since we’re talking government conspiracy strains, we can’t leave out MK Ultra, a cross of OG Kush with the aforementioned G13. MK Ultra is an indica dominant cannabis strain named after Project MK Ultra – the CIA conducted mind-manipulating experiments on civilians and government officials during the 1950s. The effects are heavy and hypnotic, with the dominant terpenes being Myrcene, Alpha Pinene, and Beta-Caryophyllene.
And finally, it wouldn’t be an indica list without Master Kush, also known as “High Rise” “SoCal Master Kush” and “Purple SoCal Master Kush.” This strain comes from a cross of two landrace strains from different areas of the Hindu Kush region. This classic marijuana strain is known for a subtle, earthy, citrus smell with a hint of musky incense, often referred to as a “vintage” flavor. This strain is heavy and full-bodied without any hindering, mind-numbing effects. Rather, Master Kush offers a sharpened sensory awareness that can bring out the best in any activity.
Classic Sativa Strains
Arguably the most talked-about and sought-after Sativa strain is Jack Herer, named after a lifelong cannabis activist. Although the exact genetic formula is a guarded secret, Jack Herer is thought to be the product of Haze, Northern Lights #5 and Shiva Skunk.
The sticky nugs have a mouth-watering orange-lemon scent and taste, with notes of dank pine. The high is a balance of physical and cerebral and produces a relaxed but conversational high. Jack Herer’s appealing flavor and well-rounded effects has made it hugely popular with medical marijuana and recreational cannabis users alike and has won nine Cannabis Cup titles. The dominant terpenes are Terpinolene, Beta-Caryophyllene, and Ocimene.
Green Crack is an another eternally-hyped Sativa-dominant hybrid created by inbreeding Skunk #1. Although it is typically sativa leaning, there are less popular indica versions of this strain. This strain received its legendary name from Snoop Dog himself, although it is more commonly known as Green Cush, Green Crush or just Crush (to smokers who prefer not to perpetuate drug stigmas and reference crack cocaine.) The flavor notes are tangy and fruity with hints of mango.
The high is distinctly cerebral with a sharp mental focus, bursts of energy and waves of euphoria. This strain’s dominant terpenes are Myrcene, Beta-Caryophyllene, and Alpha-Pinene.
Durban Poison, a Landrace strain and one of the most requested Sativa strains at Mankind Dispensary, originates from the South African port city of Durban.
Let’s dive into some history: Cannabis has been cultivated on the African continent since at least the 14th century. Ed Rosenthal, an American cannabis activist, discovered the original strain and brought it back to the United States in the 1970’s. The dominant smell and taste of Durban Poison is earthy and sweet, with subtle pine and licorice notes.
Over the years it has become a Sativa staple for its intense, buzzing head high that boosts sensory awareness to an almost disorienting degree. Almost entirely cerebral with no hints of debilitating heaviness or couchlock, this strain can be especially helpful for stimulating creativity. Durban Poison can also be a strong social lubricant, helping smokers to feel chatty and more at ease. The leading terpenes in this strain are Terpinolene, Beta-Myrcene and D-Limonene.
Sour Diesel is a favorite amongst Sativa Divas everywhere, though Sour Diesel’s lineage contains a mystery. Researchers suspect that it was created accidentally from strains in the Chemdawg an OG Kush line. Particularly, Chemdawg #91 suspected as a likely parent, along with possible candidates like Massachusetts Super Skunk. The aroma is reminiscent of sharp diesel fumes with hints of citrus, and the effects are blissy, cerebral, and energizing.
For those suffering from anxiety and depression, Sour Diesel can be sought after great for boosting mental energy and fighting fatigue. The dominant terpenes are D-Limonene, Myrcene, Beta-Pinene, Alpha-Pinene, and Camphene.
Strawberry Cough is another Sativa-dominant strain with mysterious origins, but it’s thought to have been created by crossing the classic Haze with Strawberry Fields. It has a distinct aroma of fresh-ripened strawberries with notes of spicy herbs, and pepper, and a high so intense that you’ll be coughing before you put down the pipe. With brain-boosting cerebral effects and creative motivation, this strain is perfect for socializing or engaging in hobbies. This strain also has a body relaxation that can calm aching muscles without causing any sedation. The dominant terpenes are B-Caryophyllene, Myrcene, Limonene, and Humulene.
Classic Hybrid Strains
And lastly, we have the Hybrid strains that keep us coming back for more! These Hybrid strains can sit anywhere on the spectrum from Sativa leaving to Indica-leaning, depending on breeding conditions. In a sea of hybrids, these strains remain of the most notable and sought-after hybrids.
Blue Dream is a slightly Sativa-dominant hybrid made by crossing Blueberry and Haze. It first made a name for itself in the medical marijuana community, though no one knew who made it or where it came from outside of speculating that it was birthed in Santa Cruz, CA.
Eventually, the strain caught the attention of legendary breeder DJ Short, who has worked hard to give us the version we have today. The CBD and CBN levels typically reach 2% and 1%, making this a popular strain for treating myriad ailments. This strain is well loved for its beautifully balanced effects.
Starting with a strong cerebral rush accompanied by motivation and heightened focus, the high then tapers to an ultra-relaxed and calming full body buzz, making this the perfect high for projects, chores, or social activities. The dominant terpenes are Myrcene, Beta-Caryophyllene, and Limonene
If you are looking to unwind while keeping your head straight, OG Kush is always worth consideration. This strain originated in Florida over 30 years ago and is known sometimes as “OGK,” “Premium OG Kush” or just “Kush.”
This slightly sativa-leaning hybrid’s genetics are unknown, but are rumored to be Chemdawg x Hindu Kush and potentially Lemon Thai. This strain is universally loved by both Sativa and Indica fans and can almost guarantee a serious case of the giggles and munches.
This strain is where the term “OG” comes from and has been used in many cannabis strains over the years. It’s heavily debated what OG stands for; some say, “Original Gangster,” implying the first of its kind, while others say “Ocean Grown,” implying costal roots. No matter the origin, OGs typically promise relaxing but centered high with a loud, herbal and earthy profile. The dominant terpenes include Myrcene, Limonene, Beta-Caryophyllene, and Linalool.
Pineapple Express has become a household name due to the 2008 stoner classic film of the same name. Seth Rogen claims to be the inventor of Pineapple Express, or at least for giving the strain that name. The name itself refers to a weather pattern that describes moisture flowing from areas north of Hawaii into the Pacific Northwest.
A strong weather system with such a goofy name must have tickled Rogen enough to name his cinematic strain after it, and boom, Pineapple Express was born. This sativa dominant hybrid is a cross of Trainwreck and a Hawaiian landrace strain. With energetic and euphoric effects and a bright, tropical taste, this strain is an instant hit and perfect for any time of day. The dominant terpenes are Myrcene and Beta-Caryophyllene and Beta-Pinene.
Original Glue, GG4, Gorilla Glue #4
Original Glue, better known as “GG4,” or “Gorilla Glue #4,” is a potent and popular hybrid known for its heavy-handed high and chocolaty, coffee-like notes. Equal parts euphoria and relaxation, the effects have you feeling perpetually “glued.” The strain is a cross of Chem’s Sister x Sour Dubb x Chocolate Diesel, has won countless awards and remains a favorite amongst hybrid lovers.
No strain-list is complete without mentioning the iconic Trainwreck strain. Mexican and Thai Sativas were bred with Afghani Indicas by two brothers back in the 1970’s. As the story goes, the two brothers had to pull their crop early because a nasty train wreck happened near their grow site and they didn’t want it discovered, thus the name.
With a classic citrus and pine taste and a bite that’s reminiscent of menthol, the flavor and smell are pungent and instantly recognizable. This sativa-leaning hybrid stands out by displaying its indica effects well, with a pain-numbing body buzz that pairs well with the cerebral stimulation. Trainwreck is perfect for treating stress or chronic joint or muscle pain.
Best Cannabis Strains of 2022
Now that you know a little bit more about cannabis strains, what makes them unique, and which ones have retained popularity over the years, its time for you to pick your perfect strain! Still can’t decide? Head over to “Best Cannabis Strains of 2022” to see what strains stood out.