Many cannabis users are familiar with walking into a dispensary and being presented with a multitude of options: a myriad of strains, sativa, indica, hybrid, CBD.
But how did we arrive at such a huge variety of cannabis strains? Once upon a time, marijuana grew in the wild with few variations. But modern breeding has spawned an enormous selection of cannabis strains, all with differing properties and effects.
Essentially, all of the cannabis strains we are presented with in dispensaries are the result of breeding. These are specialized programs where “parent” plants are chosen for their characteristics and then bred together, spawning a strain with the qualities of both parents. This opens up literally infinite possibilities, the most successful of which are usually the ones that end up on shelves.
Breeding plants is fundamental to cannabis innovation, allowing us to produce different strains for different reasons. In fact, breeding is fundamental to the cultivation of any plant. The cannabis legalization movement that has swept the USA has opened the doors to more breeding than ever, allowing even home growers to participate in the joy of plant breeding.
What’s the point of breeding?
Anybody who has ever seriously grown anything in their life will understand that even a single packet of seeds can produce a variety of different plants. Although they are all the same species, they have different characteristics. Perhaps one seed grows up to be robust while another grows to be weak. Maybe one grows taller and the other grows bushier. Even though they came from the same packet, they have different characteristics.
Breeding is essentially the process of choosing the most desirable characteristics for whatever you are trying to grow, and trying to perpetuate those characteristics. Generally, breeding is done to create new strains of cannabis or to strengthen the characteristics of an already existing strain. It is a way of choosing what you want from your plants and breeding them until they produce seeds of the characteristics you adore.
It all starts with mum and dad
Cannabis is one of a handful of plants on Earth that are dioecious, meaning that the female and male reproductive qualities are in individual plants. So in order for a seed of cannabis to be produced, it must be bred between a male cannabis plant and a female cannabis plant. This is contrary to monoecious plants, for example, in which both reproductive organs are present in a single plant.
So in order for a breeding program to be successful, a breeder must have a male plant and a female plant. These are chosen on the basis of their characteristics. For example, if a breeder has a female plant with a large yield and has a male plant that is robust and pest resistant, then the breeder may breed them together. This would produce a seed with both characteristics (hopefully).
The basics of breeding go like this:
A male plant will, within a few weeks of flowering, begin to produce pollen sacs. If left in the same breeding room as female plants, the pollen will travel to the female plants and pollinate them. This will result in all the female plants becoming “pregnant” with seeds. This seed is then the beginning of how new strain are created.
Selecting a phenotype: Not all seeds are created equal
The breeding process doesn’t end there. The seeds produced in the first round of breeding often produce very different phenotypes. For those who don’t know, the phenotype is the physical characteristic a plant displays. Although all seeds may have the same genotype (the genetics present), they will express only a certain number of those genes. The genes that are physically expressed are called phenotypes.
For example, you and your siblings look different, despite the fact that you came from the same parents. Perhaps you have your mother’s figure but your father’s skin. And maybe your brother has your mother’s hair and your father’s eyes. This is an example of phenotypes.
Once seeds have been created, they are planted and observed. The ones with the best phenotypes are then selected (both male and female). The selected plants are technically the first desirable generation of a cross between two parents. In general, seeds turn out to be more like their mothers. With that being said, an experienced grower will immediately observe the differences in male plants. It is equally as important to select a strong male as it is to select a strong female. However, the general rule is that seeds will take more qualities from their mothers.
Typically, breeders are looking to create a set of seeds that are homozygous. This means the seeds contain almost the exact same genes and therefore, will all come out with almost the exact same phenotype. This is exactly what breeders like Sensi Seeds do to ensure that there is very few variation between seeds in the same packet. In order to achieve this, the breeding process must continue.
The next step: Backcrossing
For true and advanced breeding to take place, it is not enough to stop at selecting a phenotype. To strengthen the characteristics of the chosen phenotype, a plant is either crossed with itself or with its original parent again. It is essentially inbreeding with the purpose of achieving homozygosity.
All of the strains you encounter in a dispensary have been bred multiple times using this exact process. Homozygosity ensures that strains grown exhibit the same characteristics and the same effects, meaning users can experience consistency when they purchase strains.
Breeding takes time
When you think about it, breeding is our way of mimicking the natural selection process of nature. We can do it somewhat faster, but the creation of that “holy grail” strain takes time and patience. Once you’ve arrived at your desired strain, it could take months, or even years of backcrossing to make those qualities consistent for future seeds.
In general, it doesn’t even take that long to find a perfect strain. The longest part of the process is the stabilization of the strain that has been chosen, through many rounds of backcrossing. This is the artisan part of the process that is tedious but with tremendous results.
Thanks to legalization, just about anybody can breed cannabis in their homes. Even on a small scale, home growers can play with cannabis genetics, arriving at their very own, personalized strain. And in fact, most of the time, this is exactly how new strains of cannabis are created!
The most important qualities to bring to a breeding program are patience and attention to detail. None of the strains that arrive in top-shelf dispensaries got there overnight. They arrived after years of breeding and backcrossing, as well as strict attention to what’s desirable in a cannabis plant. This might be a high yield, high THC content, being drought resistant or even able to grow in colder, harsher climates! The breeding process is something to be enjoyed and never rushed.