As with any other living species, each cannabis plant is the result of a complex interplay between genetics and the environment.
You’ve probably already heard a few cultivators toss around fancy terms like “genotypes” and “phenotypes” to help explore this phenomenon. But what exactly do these words mean?
Don’t worry if you don’t remember a thing from Genetics 101; we’re going to clear up all the confusion surrounding genotypes versus phenotypes below. This post will also go into greater detail on common cannabis phenotypes and ways to maximise your chances of growing an identical strain. So, get ready for genetics class…cannabis style!
The Genotype: “A Recipe, Not A Blueprint”
When geneticists talk about genotypes, they’re referring to the hereditary “data” a plant or animal receives from its parents at birth. This genetic information is carried in a molecule known as deoxyribonucleic acid, which is just the long way of saying DNA.
Often, people compare genotypes to blueprints or instructions, but modern research suggests those aren’t the best comparisons. Indeed, many biologists would rather we thought of genetic codes as “recipes.” For instance, the eminent geneticist Richard Dawkins recently Tweeted:
“A blueprint is a reversible mapping. Take measurements on a house, scale them down & directly reconstruct the architect’s blueprints. You can’t take measurements on a cake and reconstruct the recipe: there’s no point-for-point mapping. DNA is a recipe, not a blueprint.”
While it might seem like we’re splitting hairs here, this recipe comparison is quite helpful when thinking about weed cultivation. You see, with recipes, there’s a certain amount of leeway that’s not “baked in” to blueprints. Instead of white sugar, for instance, you could put in brown sugar or even stevia and still end up with delicious canna-brownies. However, depending on the ingredients and proportions you used, each brownie will be slightly different in taste, texture, and consistency.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the genotype doesn’t determine anything. You can’t bake a cake without flour, right? Instead, try to think of a genotype as a certain range of possibilities that a cannabis plant may or may not express.
Phenotypes & The Importance Of Environment
So, if the genotype is the recipe, then the phenotype is the actual product. More specifically, phenotypes refer to the physical traits that are expressed in a particular plant. To help you remember this definition, it might be useful to use a mnemonic phrase like “physical phenotypes.”
In terms of cannabis, the list of phenotypes is quite extensive, but here are a few of the most common:
- Leaf colour
- Trichome thickness
- Terpene count
- Leaf shape
- Cannabinoid count
The growing environment is most often the main determining factor for which phenotypes emerge. Like any other plant, cannabis has to adapt to its environment to survive. So, change the environment, and you’ll most likely change how a cannabis plant expresses itself.
In short: phenotypes are the result of a plant’s internal genotype interacting with the multitude of external conditions, especially the environment.
Same Seeds, Same Environment…But Different Results?
Now you might be thinking: if we simply control the environmental conditions and plant our chosen cannabis strain’s seeds there, then they must end up with the same phenotypes, correct? Well, unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Yes, planting similar seeds in the same environmental conditions will increase the odds of producing similar plants, but variation is still possible. Remember that phenotypes are the result of a conversation between the genotype and the environment. The genotype still has a say, and sometimes this could override environmental considerations.
Also, while each seed might belong to one strain, that doesn’t mean they’re all identical twins. Think about your genetic family for a moment. Yes, there are certain similarities between family members, but they aren’t all walking clones! In the same way, each cannabis seed has its own unique genetic imprint, even if it might share broad similarities with family members.
Major Phenotype Distinctions Between Indica, Sativa, And Ruderalis
While we’re talking about cannabis genotypes and phenotypes, it’s worthwhile reviewing this plant’s three main variants: indica, sativa, and ruderalis.
If you’re a cannabis consumer, then most likely you know the standard physiological differences between indicas and sativas (i.e. indicas are sedating while sativas are energising). Initially, however, these distinctions were drawn up due to each cannabis group’s distinctive phenotypes.
Here’s a brief list of the significant features that distinguish these three cannabis variants:
- Short & stocky
- Fat fan leaves
- Enjoys warm, but not humid, climates
- Relatively short grow period
- Very tall
- Prefers humid, tropical climates
- Long grow period
- Pointy leaves
- Shrub like
- Able to withstand cold
- Flowers quickly & automatically
- Low cannabinoid & terpene count
Could Hybridization Change Future Of Cannabis Phenotypes?
As the cannabis industry becomes increasingly mainstream, more and more cultivators are experimenting with cross-breeding different strains. This experimentation has produced hundreds upon hundreds of new hybrid strains with dramatically different flavours, appearances, and effects.
Indeed, all autoflowering seeds are the result of cross-breeding indicas or sativas with ruderalis genetics. The reason these seeds flower so reliably and so quickly has to do with the ruderalis auto-flowering genotype. Unlike pure ruderalis plants, however, autoflowering strains express higher terpene and cannabinoid counts associated with indicas and sativas.
Due to the rise in cannabis hybridisation, it’s getting more and more difficult to find 100 per cent indicas or sativas on the market. Some people even believe the traditional distinctions between indicas and sativas will become increasingly blurred as hybridisation continues. It certainly will be interesting to see how cannabis genetics will evolve as hybridisation becomes the new normal.
Cloning Cannabis: The Best Chance For Consistency
No matter how precise a grower you are, Mamma Nature can be pretty messy. Sure, you could have the perfect seed genetics, and the optimal indoor grow environment, but there’s always a degree of chance seed cultivators need to prepare for.
The only way to maximise your odds of expressing the exact phenotypes you desire is to get into cloning. No, we’re not tripping, man; cloning is an extremely common and safe way to preserve quality genetics in the cannabis industry.
For a simple clone, all you have to do is clip off a healthy node from the lower branches of your desired plant (about 5 inches in length) when it’s in the vegetative stage. Now, transplant this branch into either a plant cube or hydroponic device and monitor its growth.
Although indoor cloning is the best way to create identical strains, that doesn’t mean there could be slight variations in your finished product. Yes, the genotype may be a 1:1 match, but that doesn’t mean environmental conditions suddenly don’t matter. Whether you choose to grow your clones using hydroponics, soil, or some other medium, for instance, will most likely create variations.
Look At Both “Types” When Shopping For Cannabis
Genotypes and phenotypes might sound intimidating to those not scientifically inclined, but they aren’t really that hard to understand. As we’ve explored above, genotypes are like a plant’s recipes while phenotypes are the physical attributes that manifest. So, whether you’re growing strains at home or purchasing them from vendors, be sure not to place undue over reliance on strong genetics. Especially if the strains you’re interested in haven’t been cloned, there’s a high chance your new batch won’t give you the same high!