First of all, thank you very much Angus for granting this interview to Grassyou and giving us the opportunity to meet The Real Seed Company.
1-Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us something about yourself. What was your first contact with cannabis, and how did you end up being who you are today? What is cannabis for you?
So far as cannabis goes, the first time I got high was as a kid smoking sensi in the jungles of Guyana, which historically is where large-scale commercial Caribbean ganja cultivation moved to after prohibition came into force in places like Trinidad and Jamaica. Guyana is geographically part of South America but culturally part of the Caribbean. By chance, I crossed paths with two Rastas who were searching for diamonds, which there are a lot of in Guyana’s jungles. First, they produced some pouches of rough diamonds. Then, they produced some wraps of sensi. I was more interested in the sensi.
This was old-school ganja bundled into brown paper, which you just rolled up into a joint. I still remember the peppery tropical smell of it. But more than that, I remember the experience. Allen Ginsberg calls it ‘kif consciousness’ and describes it better than I can: ‘a certain realm of consciousness you get to through marijuana. Slightly magical, slightly implacable, slightly vast, slightly awesome, slightly sacred, slightly profane.’ Ordinary experience became ‘a great sacred occasion… the occasion… the sacred moment.’ It’s fair to say it impressed me, a lot.
The next time I encountered cannabis was some Nepali charas a friend got from his dad, a painter. I found myself back in that same place, but with this rush of ideas and inspiration. I sat down and just wrote page after page – all of which a friend then walked off with giggling, so god knows if it was real inspiration or just nonsense. Either way, I think I’m lucky my first encounters were with real traditional sensi and charas.
2-What were the first varieties you grew?
I’m a collector, not a grower or breeder. But my first attempts at growing were outdoors in north Wales, where I grew up. It’s not a good climate for cannabis, and the seeds were from imported African ganja. My first successful grows were indoors with a hybrid called Triple Treat, by Jim from Afropips. It’s a cross of a true Malawi Gold landrace with Blueberry and Sweet Tooth, a lovely smoke. But for me it’s always been about traveling to collect landraces. That’s what I know about.
3-How and why did the idea of forming The Real Seed Company arise and how was it carried out? Was it a difficult road?
I’ve always loved the highs and aromas you get from good traditional cannabis, the old-school ganja and resin from places like Thailand, Swaziland, Lebanon or the Himalaya. That’s what I wanted, and I realized a lot of other people felt the same way, including growers. Originally, The Real Seed Company was more like a hobby, making me just enough money to cover the travel. My plan was to write a definitive travel-based account of the plant, particularly focusing on Asia, which for cannabis is really the heart of it all, both in terms of the botany and the culture.
4-What was the first place you visited to get seeds?
For the website, it was Pakistan—Peshawar and Chitral, in 2007. In Peshawar I met an old Afghan gent who sold impeccable Mazari charas and first garda, the most refined grade of resin. Through him, I obtained seeds of the real Mazari landrace, by which I mean the plant that Afghan farmers themselves call Mazari or Mazar-i-Sharif. This is a very large plant that’s harvested as late as early December around Balkh, in the north, which is Afghanistan’s historic charas heartland. Its other name is Balkhi. When up in Chitral, in the highest mountains in the Hindu Kush, I found seeds in Yarkhun and Laspur. The plants there are also very large, though tend to broader leaflets than the Mazari. Neither are stereotypical Indicas.
5-What is the most complicated part of your job? And the most satisfying?
Communicating is the most challenging. There’s extensive misunderstanding about cannabis, and it reaches right to the top, from hobbyists to among the most respected experts. The preconceptions people bring with them make answering their questions very tricky. The extent of disinformation and misinformation is dire.
The most satisfying is knowing that, however trivially, I’m doing something for the biodiversity of Cannabis. That, and seeing people growing these old plants and enjoying them, particularly the highs.
6-How is a normal day in your life?
When I’m in one place long enough, and I have the time, I work on writing. But I don’t have a typical day as such.
7-In the last 10 years there’s been a boom in seed banks, many selling the same things: autos, feminized, bulk.… Few people want regular seeds. Many want to get on the cannabis train and few for the love of the plant. What do you think about the current cannabis world? Where are we going?
God knows. I don’t get involved in it. What interests me is traditional cannabis and cannabis culture, particularly from Central and South Asia.
But sure, it’s bitterly ironic how cannabis was once the defining symbol of the counterculture. Once, smoking meant you were against racism, militarism, and narrow-minded conformism. It meant you knew life was about more than money. Getting high took you beyond all that. Those were the ideas, the ideas of my parents’ generation, that I was engaging with when I first encountered cannabis. In fact, I was reading On the Road. I understood it all quite literally and naively.
By the time I’d realized the importance of cannabis seeds, thanks to a guy called Tony at Tony’s Hemp Corner in London, Ken Kesey was doing a last tour of the UK, not long after which he died. All the symbols from his era have long been emptied of whatever meaning they had. You only have to look at how Kesey lived and compare it to the smallness of people these days, their relentless money-grubbing and the superficiality of their countercultural trappings.
8-What do you think about feminized and autoflowering varieties?
Variety is the spice of life. If people want these things, then so be it.
9-The loss of diversity of cannabis has been a fact since the ’70s and ‘80s. Lately, it seems that people are more interested in local varieties, known as landraces. In fact, there are new landrace seed banks, although of dubious origin. What do you think of that? Do you think that people are selling real landrace varieties or simply looking for money?
I know almost nothing about any of the other landrace outfits. In principle, if people are collecting and distributing real landrace seeds, then I welcome it. Likewise, collectors need to make a profit to be able to do more collecting. But they should also be honest and transparent about what they’re selling and provide reliable information. That’s the minimum, frankly.
[UPDATE: Ripping off Afghan collectors when Afghanistan is torn apart by famine; charging 200 EUR for 10 seeds with 10% germination rate; spreading misinformation and disinformation about traditional cultures and strains…. all speaks for itself!]
10-Can you tell us what pure landraces you have tried and which are your favorites?
My favourites tend to change over time. But generally, my preference is for uplifting highs, so I’ve always loved Himalayan charas and Southeast Asian ganja.
11-Is it difficult to find sexually stable males? Are there many hermaphrodites in crops? Do farmers know how to make good selections? How do they do it?
Grown outdoors in soil, sensibly, most landraces should give you stable males and females, with few exceptions. The main reasons that Western growers might encounter “hermaphrodites” are that they’re stressing their plants: growing in pots, over-watering, over-feeding, using unfamiliar light regimes, and so on. In other words, so-called “hermies” are usually an intersex stress response.
That said, in ganja populations – in other words, traditional “Sativas” – it is in some cases extremely difficult to eradicate this intersex or “hermie” tendency. During the era of legal mass production of ganja in Bengal, even after specialist “ganja doctors” had checked the fields repeatedly for rogue male flowers, there would often be a one-in-a-thousand intersex or hermaphrodite plant that exhibited this trait late in flower.
As for traditional selection, typically this involves keeping seeds from good, potent plants. You most often see it in regions that grow ganja, which means seedless or semi-seedless flowering tops. In hashish cultivating regions like Lebanon or Afghanistan, selection is evidently less intensive, with seeds being pooled during hash production, so potency is mostly the cumulative result of countless generations of unconscious selection by farmers.
A reason for the “hermie” tendency in Sativas may well be people keeping seeds found in batches of ganja to cultivate. This would create a selective pressure for this tendency, given the likelihood the seed came from pollen from rogue flowers.
12-Many varieties you offer are from their place of origin, others are reproductions indoors. Will landraces be lost sooner or later in their place of origin?
Where possible, we get seeds from the original country. But in some cases, it’s not possible to get the same landrace again from the same source. The Afghan merchant who I obtained the Mazari from has since died, for example.
Landraces are vanishing faster than ever, mostly due to the Internet, which has rapidly accelerated the speed at which modern hybrid seed is being introduced to countries such as India. I see people are now growing them in Pakistan. It’s a matter of years before millennia of biodiversity is permanently wiped out – tens of millions of years of biodiversity, in fact.
13-What do you recommend someone who wants to preserve varieties and not lose them should do? With what quantity of seeds should they begin to play? Should they use a refrigerator or freezer?
Gatersleben, a highly respected gene bank, uses 100 plants to reproduce its cannabis landraces. That seems to be a bare minimum. For a hobby grower, I think not less than 25 plants is advisable.
To store seed long-term, the seed must be properly dry, and temperatures should be below freezing. For shorter term, storage can be below 5 degrees centigrade. But, either way, seed must be kept dry using plenty of silica gel and preferably a dehumidifier.
14-Which variety have you faced the most challenges to obtain? How do you get seeds in dangerous places without knowing anyone?
It’s always best to know someone. There’s no substitute for local knowledge and contacts. Lucas went through quite an ordeal while collecting a strain from northern Afghanistan last year. Collecting in Pakistan in 2007 had its wild moments, like being in Islamabad during the Red Mosque Siege. There were gunfights in the centre of the city, within earshot of my hotel, and threats were being made to kill all foreigners. Waking up to that after an afternoon nap with a headful of Tirah garda was something of a shock.
15-If you had to choose three varieties from your catalog, what would they be?
This is just about personal preferences, and it would change depending on the day. Also, I like to have a broad range to choose from. Right now, Manipuri, Nepalese, and one of the northern Afghans.
16-Any new varieties on the way?
Sure, we always have new varieties on the way. But I prefer not to preannounce things.
17-Any variety that you would like to obtain that you have not yet been able to?
Yes, I would always like to have more Thai landraces. One of my biggest regrets is losing contact with a farmer I knew in Thailand.
18-How do you see yourself in the future? Any new projects in mind?
My two main focuses are getting the book finished and collaborating in serious long-term seed bank and research programs.
19-How would you classify cannabis? There seems to be little agreement on terms. Indica, sativa, WLD, NLD, BLD. Personally I think we have not yet found an adequate way to define it.
I see Cannabis as one species, with two subspecies, namely hemp and ‘marijuana’. The problem for people who believe Cannabis is more than one species is that there simply hasn’t been adequate research to support their belief.
For example, the three species taxonomy proposed by Rob Clarke and Mark Merlin is based on just four studies by Karl Hillig. If I remember correctly, out of 150 or so accessions Hillig studied, just 12 represent the wider Hindu Kush region. Of those 12, only three appear to definitely be true landraces, with the other nine obtained in Amsterdam.
Similarly, a lack of adequate material or studies is a major problem for people who believe in the existence of pristine truly wild Cannabis. More probably, this is a cultivated crop for which no original wild ancestor can be identified. What you most likely have is a spectrum from domesticated to ruderal, with no pure wild populations unaffected by pollen from cultivated crops. In other words, Cannabis is fundamentally a creature of domestication, a cultigen.
20-There are more and more findings of the use of cannabis over thousands of years. It seems that cannabis originated in China. How have different cannabis plants emerged? Maybe human selection and climate adaptation?
The cause of the fundamental variation in Cannabis is humans selecting for what they want, be that seeds, fibre, or THC. That’s why it’s one species, as is the case with dogs. Domestication appears to have happened at multiple different times and sites. Based on a recent study by John McPartland, it seems its most likely place of origin is Qinghai on the Tibetan Plateau.
By the time of the Axial Age, there’s a clear cultural picture. To the east of Qinghai, the ethnically Han-dominated regions of China-proper were interested in fibre. To the north and west of Qinghai, on the steppe and in Xinjiang, the populations were primarily Iranian and Indo-European and, based on archaeological finds and documents such as Herodotus, appear to have ascribed great significance to getting high. Already, you have two subspecies for two distinct culture zones, Han and steppe, plus adjacent oasis centres of desert Central Asia.
21-We have been waiting for regulation for many years. So many that it seems it may never arrive. When it finally does, do you think it will be for the better or worse?
It’s all down to whether sensible laws are passed and properly enforced. Done right, it can redress a lot of the wrongs and injustices of the prohibition era. Similarly, done right it can prevent the emergence of ‘Big Marijuana’. Right now, there’s an urgent need to break up monopolies in tech, agriculture, and so on. I’d like to see corporate cannabis reined in before it even gets to that point. To do that, we need to vote in sensible governments.
22-What do you think about what happened with Phylos Galaxy? Sam Skunkman and Robert Clarke are gone. It started with a good cause, but money corrupts people.
If commercial interests are going to usurp people’s genetic collections for themselves, it might be tolerable if they were committed to the long-term preservation of germplasm. Were Phylos and associated outfits ever committed to that?
23-What do you think about patenting plants? In my opinion, no kind of life should be patented.
If a person or institution devotes years of their time and resources to creating a cultivar (ie, a true registered cultivar), then I have no problem with that cultivar becoming their intellectual property. But I’m absolutely opposed to landraces themselves being treated as intellectual property. In my view, most of the ethical dilemmas around landraces can be resolved through an appellation controlee type system such as is applied to liquor and so on in the EU. Again, the only way to achieve that, and to secure the rights of communities that have maintained these landraces, is by using the state. Government is the only game in town when it comes to standing up to predatory practices and the remorseless logic of money.
24-Does it bother you that someone uses your varieties to create new hybrids?
No, not at all. And importantly, these aren’t ‘my’ varieties. In fact, I wish more people would devote their time and energy to working with landraces, the way people did in the ‘70s. Mostly, I’d like to see people inbreed authentic landrace lines, rather than just hybridising everything.
25-What hashish do you like the most? Which way of doing it seems better?
The most refined traditional hashish is dry sieved. The best I’ve seen is from Nepal and Afghanistan. But ‘better’ is always about context and personal taste. If you’re looking for a really uplifting buzz, sometimes rustic hand-rubbed charas from less well-known places like Kumaon or Jumla can be better.
Now I would like to make a round of quick questions about your tastes.
26-Sativas, indicas or hybrids?
Oh god, don’t you start…
27-Outdoor or indoor cultivation?
28-Organic or mineral cultivation?
29-In what way do you like to consume: Smoking, bong, vaporizer?
Smoking or eating.
30-Only grass or mixed?
If mixed means tobacco, then never. I can’t stand tobacco.
31-What do you like to do in your free time?
Whatever I choose.
Any advice or something you want to tell Grassyou users who are reading us?
Advice? Life is short. Be nice to people.
Thank you very much for your seeds and for dedicating your time and your advice. I hope that these varieties are never lost and that people know how to preserve them. A hug and good luck, friend.
What a wonderful interview with someone that has his head in the right spot. Humble,informative, and dedicated. At the advice of Ronnie Bevan’s partner, Travis Ashbrook, went to Kandahar in April of ‘75. Brought back seeds which we grew in Puerto Rico and Texas. Crossed them with some top shelf Oaxacan spears that other brothers were bringing in. Named them WhoaGhani. Long lost through time and travails. Will be purchasing seeds from your wonderful catalogue. While in Puerto Rico, we were given a seedling supposedly from Africa. It had the most unique smell and was very strong. Unfortunately, after several seasons in P.R., Texas and SoCal the strain was bumbled away. Funny though, in ‘84, I was given seeds from the Super Sativa Club and Neville’s Seed Bank that included Primo Hollanditus and Nigerian/Kandahar. Both of these varieties exhibited the same strong sativa characteristics and most importantly, the very same aroma and flavour as the aforementioned African seedling we were given in P.R.. After running these varieties for nine years ,once again let these slip through my fingers. Mind you,always pollinated each with their own males to attempt to keep the strains true (as well as hybridizing attempts with other cultivars). Since ‘92 until now, the search continues for this elusive yet obviously replacable flavour and phenotype. Thank you again for your efforts!
Thank you Kendall, appreciate it – and honoured to have you commenting here. I’m always fascinated to hear from people who were in Afghanistan during this era. Do you have an email I can get hold of you on? I’d be interested to speak to you about your experiences there. I’m at email@example.com – thanks, Angus