A Brief Tour of Internet Bullshit About Cannabis Landraces was the working title for this post.
You get the idea.
So, let’s start from the top of Google Page 1.
1. “Most landrace genetics are 100% Sativa or 100% Indica.” (Alchimia)
[Edit: Please see the new study by Small & McPartland, where they have established that there are naturally diverged ancestral populations of Sativas and Indicas, which respectively developed in Central and South Asia, published April 2020. The terms Indica and Sativa can be used accurately to refer to some original Asian domesticates, but not to describe modern hybrid slop. Though note that many landraces are hybrids between what Small now recognizes as two formal botanical varieties, var. indica (Sativas) and var. afghanica (Indicas).]
John McPartland calls the Indica–Sativa–Ruderalis system the “vernacular taxonomy.” It’s ultimately derived from some dubious seventies studies by Richard Evans Schultes. Indica and Sativa, in their vernacular sense, are problematic categories for understanding any type of Cannabis. They’re useless to apply to the hybrid slop on the average menu in Amsterdam or North America, and they’re awkward to apply to many landraces too.
Cannabis isn’t a plant that respects limits or boundaries, and that applies to people’s preconceptions about Indicas and Sativas as much as it does to borders, cultures, or geography.
But let’s stick to the simple Indica versus Sativa morphology. Because they’re interfertile, Cannabis populations often intergrade between types, particularly in regions of high biodiversity such as northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. To intergrade means “to pass into another form by a series of intervening forms.” In Cannabis, intergrading occurs in all directions: between domesticated and wild-type, between stereotypically Indica and Sativa strains, and within the population of a single strain.
If we start in the Indian Himalaya, for example, domesticated field plants (i.e., landraces) intergrade with the weedy ruderal stands allowed to grow in and around villages. At one extreme there are the large-seeded, large-leaved plants in the fields. At the other, there are the small-leaved, small-seeded weedy plants around waste heaps, paths, or ditches. In-between, are plants exhibiting a continuous series of intermediate forms. This is what’s known as a crop–weed complex.
Similarly, as a crow flies from Nepal to Afghanistan, when it approaches the Hindu Kush, the more common become stereotypical Indica characteristics such as broad, oblanceolate leaflets or early maturation. By Pakistani Kashmir, Indica-type leaflets and aromas are commonplace, though strains still tend to be tall and to mature as late as early November. At Tirah Valley or Paktia, dwarf or semidwarf early maturing variants become more common, as do Indica leaflets. Again, the broad geographic picture is intergrading.
But here’s a crucial caveat. One of Google’s favoured landrace experts, Brian D. Colwell, writes that “In general, landrace cannabis strains are amazingly consistent within strain, either 100% Indica or 100% Sativa…” In fact, when it comes to regions such as the Hindu Kush, reality is often otherwise. In Pakistan and much of Afghanistan, stereotypical Indica-type plants most often exist as extreme variants within the population of a single landrace. Even in Tirah or Chitral, in a field of one landrace you typically find a spectrum of traits ranging from broad-leafleted to narrow-leafleted, tall to short, and every permutation thereof. Strains that consistently conform to the Indica stereotype appear to be a rarity, as much among landraces as modern types.
Even in the ’70s, narrow-leafleted variants were commonplace in nearly all ostensible ‘pure Indicas’ then as now, as demonstrated in early photos of Afghani #1 by Mel Frank. Likewise, landraces from the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean are dwarf or semidwarf, but within a population their plants tend to exhibit narrow leaflets more often than broad. Himalayan landraces are essentially Sativa in morphology, but they exhibit cannabinoid chemotypes like those of Indicas, probably because they exist in crop–weed complexes. Individual plants from authentic Indica-type landraces produce a variety of effects, from stereotypical Indica sedation to notionally Sativa-type effects. The Indica and Sativa categories don’t apply neatly to these populations.
What this comes down to is that long before the Hippy Trail era, many landraces employed for hashish production in Asia had already originated as hybrids between Sativa and Indica types.
By contrast, in the tropics of Southeast and South Asia, outside of areas ruined by modern hybrids such as Cambodia, what you find are “pure Sativas”. But authentic Lao ganja landraces have also typically originated as hybrids between landraces. In Laos and Thailand, the picture is likely to be particularly complex, as landraces may be partly derived from Yunnanese populations.
Arguably, the Western fixation on leaflet width per se is something of a distraction, particularly in the strict context of taxonomy, where what’s more significant is total leaf area. Many crops with compound leaves, such as Cannabis, develop large leaves as an adaptive trait under the artificial selective pressure of domestication. By contrast, small leaves develop when plants grow as weeds or escapes in the wild. Domesticates can transition to wild-type phenotypes in around 50 generations. From a taxonomist’s perspective, using the leaflet shape of large-leaved plants to differentiate between supposed species of Cannabis is to misunderstand taxonomic theory. Sativas and Indicas are domesticates, variations created by humankind, so they can’t be assigned as species. And assiging them to any other taxonomic rank is a tricky business best left to trained taxonomists.
But beyond the debate over whether Indicas and Sativas should be recognized as species, subspecies, or the like, the bottom line is that evidence suggests most landraces have arisen through hybridization between landraces. This is true even of those employed for ganja production in the tropics— “pure Sativas”, in other words—which farmers in Thailand and Laos refer to as hybrid strains, most being hybrids between ganja landraces, others apparently between ganja and East Asian hemp landraces. It’s also conceivable that Central Asian domesticates were introduced to Yunnan in the 13th century.
2. “[Landrace] varieties are very stable and present very few variations—if any—from one plant to another.” (Alchimia)
Once, an early customer who grew out the Lebanese I collected in Bekaa Valley emailed me. He couldn’t believe the plants (at this point in vegetative stage) were from the same strain, because they were so morphologically diverse. This is particularly the case in northern landraces, i.e. those cultivated for traditional resin in regions such as the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, and Middle East.
Landraces typically exhibit extensive variations around their basic theme, much like a Beethoven symphony. This trait of a basic theme with immense variation within it results from traditional methods of selection, i.e. open pollination with limited selection of choice female plants. As Ernest Small, arguably the leading authority on Cannabis, writes, “Landraces usually have a much wider genetic base, corresponding with a broader range of variability and a broader range of adaptation to stresses, especially to the local environmental conditions and biotic agents where they were selected.”
3. “Pure cannabis strains (also called landraces or purebreds) have developed in [their] natural environment and [have] never been crossed with any other strain but inbred through many, many generations.” (Alchimia)
Again, it bears emphasizing that landraces have a very broad genetic base, particularly compared to true cultivars and modern pot hybrids. Few aficionados realize that most landraces have originated as hybrids between landraces. Major waves of diffusion of culivation and consumption of Cannabis such as in the Axial Age, 13th century, and colonial era are the primary cause of this.
Recent examples of this type of diffusion of domesticates include the transfer of seed from Afghanistan to Tirah and Lebanon in the 1970s, to Himachal Pradesh and Nepal in the 80s, and to Morocco in the 2000s. The result is the irreversible loss of hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of biodiversity.
4. “Outside of Central Asia, all landrace strains are the result of escaped (or “feral”), cultivars, strains that were selectively bred by humans, which then gradually adapted to their environment over time.” (Leafly)
In fact, the main landraces found outside Central Asia are southern (i.e., ganja) landraces, which were transported around the globe by people bringing ganja and/or seed. Ganja is the traditional name for bud. The British Empire exported ganja to Indian indentured labourers in the Caribbean, lascar crew carried seed and ganja from India to Africa to Brazil, and so on. Similarly, the major historic diffusions of Cannabis cultivation out of Central Asia during the Iron Age and medieval period appear to have involved the transport of seed. In other words, the history of Cannabis in Asia most likely involved domestication at different sites and times combined with sudden, major waves of diffusion of cultivation and domesticates such as occurred in the ’60s and ’70s.
5. “Good examples of landrace strains are Lamb’s Bread from Jamaica, Hindu Kush from the Middle East, Swazi Gold from South-Central Africa.” (Greencamp)
It’s a widespread misunderstanding that single regions such as the Hindu Kush necessarily have a single landrace. The reality is far more diverse and nuanced.
The UNODC Afghan Cannabis Surveys list several different strains such as Watani and Mazari. To what extent the names correlate to specific landraces isn’t clear. But even a small region of the Hindu Kush such as Chitral appears to have more than one recognizably distinct landrace under cultivation.
The widespread misconception that the term Lamb’s Bread refers to a specific strain is an example of how public understanding of landraces is mired in confusion. Lamb’s Bread is an epithet for ganja that arises from Rasta sacramental traditions, themselves derived from Hindu and Christian practices, not least the Holy Communion.
The names most closely associated with Swaziland are ‘Swazi Red’ and ‘Roibaart’ (‘Redbeard’), because of Swazi ganja often having prominent red stigmas.
The same points apply to Brian D. Calwell’s claim that “Landrace strains native to Central and Southeast Asia include but are not limited to Aceh, Altai (South-Central Russia/Mongolia), Cambodian, Luang Prabang, Nepalese and Thai.” None of these places correspond to a single landrace.
6. “One of the biggest flaws of landrace strains [is] they adapt extremely poorly to the environment.” (Greencamp)
This is completely untrue. As explained by Ernest Small, the wide genetic base of landraces typically gives them a broader range of variability and adaptation to stresses and disease than modern hybrids and cultivars.
Even the widespread notion that Hindu Kush strains are necessarily unable to cope with damp or rain isn’t born out in practice. A customer of The Real Seed Company successfully grew a second-generation Chitrali landrace in an outdoor guerilla grow in Hawaii. It took several severe storms and showed no sign of mold. The Mazar-i-Sharif and Syrian landraces have exhibited similarly impressive resistance to northern European and coastal North American climates.
8. “Documents that date back as far as 2900 BC let us know that cannabis has been an integral part of human culture throughout the world for thousands of years.” (Leafly, Greencamp, Wikileaf, Honest Marijuana Co., etc.)
This seems to be a reference to the mythological Chinese emperor, Fuxi, who legend says was miraculously born with a serpent’s body around 2900 BCE. Fuxi is credited with developing agriculture, writing, and so on, much like a similar legendary figure, the Yellow Emperor. But there are no such “documents.” The earliest examples of Chinese writing date much later, namely to the Shang Dynasty (c. 1800–1200 BCE), and involve divinatory inscriptions on oracle bones. True early references are inscribed jade tablets from the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), where the character for Cannabis has a negative connotation of numbness and stupefaction. The Shennong Ben Cao Jing and its commentaries deal more extensively with Cannabis and may reflect practices that could date back as far as the Neolithic. But the original text itself was compiled from oral traditions c. 200–250 CE, and the commentaries are later still.
9. “Our ancient stoner ancestors probably consumed cannabis as an edible or as a weed tea. It probably wasn’t until later that some ganja genius got it in his or her head to inhale the smoke of a burning pot plant.” (Honest Marijuana Co.)
The earliest way to consume cannabis to get high was almost certainly by smoking. Pottery braziers, some dating to the Neolithic, have been intepreted as used for this purpose, notably a find of what appear to be charred Cannabis seeds in a third millennium BCE burial from Romania. Central Asian burial braziers dating c. 500 BCE, as described in the Histories of Herodotus (c. 450 BCE), most likely represent continuations of this steppe practice. Drinking cannabis from vessels developed after smoking, most likely in imitation of wine, which was associated with the urban cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean.
10. “As far as most experts are concerned, there are no less than around 100 landrace strains still in existence.” (Seed Supreme)
This is news to me….
And we’re still on Page 1!
Truly, the Internet is overflowing with nonsense.
It’s customary to blame social media, but Google itself is a major culprit in the spread of misinformation and disinformation. For now, the solution is to read authoritative books and publications.
For a reliable guide to the botany of Cannabis, read Ernest Small’s Cannabis: A Complete Guide. For a considerably less reliable but still extensive guide to its history, there’s Robert Clarke and Mark Merlins’ Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany.