Phenotype, Selective Breeding, Taxonomy

Cannabis Taxonomy & Nomenclature

By Nico Escondido

Cannabis & Taxonomy

Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification. In taxonomy, plant and animal classifications are organized in the following order; Life, Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. All plants fall under the Kingdom classification of Plantae. Further down the line, Cannabis starts to differentiate itself under the taxonomic category of Family, belonging to the Family Cannabaceae. Next comes the Genus of Cannabis sativa L. followed by the three known species C. sativa L., C. indica Lam. and C. ruderalis Janisch.

The scientific name of a plant includes the genus, species and cultivar (i.e., strain) names, with the first two (genus and species) in the usual Latin and the latter names in the words of a common language. For example, if you were to call the Blueberry strain by its full name it would look like this: Cannabis indica Lam. Blueberry.

The initials that come between the italicized taxa and the common languages words of the name indicates the authority who first named the species. For example, the “L.” in Cannabis sativa L. refers to Carolus Linnaeus who devised our taxonomic nomenclature system and first classified the Cannabis genus in 1753. Similarly, the “Lam.” refers to Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, the noted evolutionary biologist who discovered the indica species in 1785.

It should also be noted that Linnaeus named the genus Cannabis sativa L. before he knew there were any sub-sets of the genus. He considered the genus to be monotypic – having just a single species – as he was only familiar with the European hemp that was widely cultivated in his time. Hence, just Cannabis L. would probably have been less confusing for our purposes today, had he known then what we know now.

In The Beginning

In the beginning, the universe created Cannabis sativa L.. Known simply as Cannabis, she is a beautiful plant and like all Earthly beings what she desires most is companionship. Luckily, like most plant varieties, Cannabis sativa L. has both female and male counterparts. The female flowers comprise the buds that everyone knows as marijuana. They contain high amounts of cannabinoids and terpenes and they are what we use for medical and recreational effects. A male Cannabis plant is generally non-smokable and instead of budding flowers, he produces small sacs of pollen.

The rest of the story follows along the lines of the old “Birds and the Bees” story – and quite literally in some senses. But what most people don’t realize about marijuana genetics is that there are, in fact, thousands of different strains, some very similar to one another and some vastly different from each other. This is because, unlike most plant varieties, Cannabis is naturally occurring all over the world. Thus, in the very beginning there were only a couple of different varieties, each on a different continent, in its own little corner of the planet. These original varieties are known as landrace strains.

While to the untrained eye most strains may appear identical in most every aspect, it is important to understand that there are many aspects of which marijuana can differ. Many of these aspects invoke several human senses to fully absorb. For instance, you have the look of buds. Some are dark green, light green, purple, brownish, reddish, even white. Then you have the aroma; skunky, floral, fuel-like, piney, fruity and so on. Then you have the taste; citrusy, sour, sweet, berry, grapey, grassy, spicey and the list goes on. And we haven’t even gotten into potency or the actual effects of a strain, not to mention quite a few cultivation-related aspects, such as flush, moisture levels, etc. (though these aspects are not of genetic orgin).

Taxonomy, Genotypes & Phenotypes

The original landrace strains all fall under the taxonomic classification of the Cannabis sativa L. genus. However, under this genus there have been identified three putative species (though we usually only see the two main smoking varieties).

Within the genus of Cannabis there exists: C. sativa, C. indica and C. ruderalis, with the latter being the much lesser known variety, used largely for its fibers. Although all the original landrace strains fall under the same genus of Cannabis, they each also fall into one of these categories of species as well. These three categories, or taxa, are largely indigenous of Asia but early histories of these plants can be found all around the world. The C. sativa species is most commonly found in mountainous regions (Asia, South & Central America) and the C. indica species is found more often in low-lying areas.

Still, these species of the same genus contain very similar, yet slightly differing genotypes. A genotype is the total combination of genes on the chromosomes and, sometimes, in other parts of a cell. Genes play two pivotal roles in organisms. First, they provide the physical mechanism by which individual traits and characteristics are reproduced and passed from generation to generation. This applies to both seeds and clones. Second, and perhaps most important for our purposes here, genes regulate the morphological and physiological processes that determine the expression of specific characteristics of the phenotype.

Phenotype refers to the overall appearance, performance and adaptation of the plant cultivar in a given environment. Phenotypes are the traits that Cannabis breeders are constantly monitoring in their attempts to bred better marijuana. Phenotypes differ from genotypes and the relationship is best described as follows:


Phenotype = Genotype + environment.


This tells us that varying environmental factors and conditions can induce a specific phenotype expression by impacting the role genes play. Breeders who are interested in creating new or better strains will search for new phenotypes by visual inspection and comparison to previous generations of the same line. When dealing with seeds or clones of the same lineage, breeders may chose to alter certain environmental conditions (such as atmospheric conditions like temperature or tweaking light cycles slightly) in order to find hidden characteristics that may be desirable to smokers or growers that where previously buried away in the genetic code of that particular strain