Mastering the Basics: Everything You Need to Know About Cannabis Strains

Episode 188

Show Notes

Answering Your Top 5 Strain Questions

Class is in session folks! Today we’re taking it back to basics with an episode all about strains. Consider this your go-to guide for everything you need to know about strains to help you feel more confident about cannabis. We’re answering five common questions about strains, including what a strain is, why weed varies from state to state, the differences between indica, sativa, and hybrid strains, what terpenes are, and how to choose the right strain for you. This episode is perfect for those who are overwhelmed by the vast variety of strains at dispensaries, or anyone who could use a quick refresher.

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Ellen Scanlon (00:00):

This podcast discusses cannabis and is intended for audiences 21 and over.

Lo Friesen (00:06):

What we understand today as indica, sativa, and hybrid is purely a language that we use as a community to communicate what we want out of the product. So indica tells me that somebody’s looking for something to chill them out, or help them go to sleep, or be like a heavy-body high. Whereas a sativa tells me that somebody’s looking for something really energetic.

Ellen Scanlon (00:32):

Welcome to How to Do the Pot, a podcast helping you feel confident about cannabis. I’m Ellen Scanlon.


You just heard from Lo Friesen, the Washington-based founder of Heylo Cannabis. The show lately has focused a lot on strains. And we’ve been adding to How to Do the Pot’s essential strains, a list of the strains that every woman should have in her stash. Check out our short and fun episodes about Gelato, Green Crack, and Jack Herer. With all this talk about strains, I thought it would be a great time to go over some strain basics, either for the first time, or to refresh your memory. Knowing the basics about strains and what helps distinguish them, can help you feel more confident if you’re thinking about trying something new.


Strains … often called cultivars, but I’m going to stick with strains for this show. They’re complicated. There are so many and they have a lot of abstract names. Even when I walk into a dispensary, see a huge shelf of products with strain names that I don’t recognize, I feel overwhelmed. But I have tips for you, and knowing the name of even one strain that you have liked can be a guide for the staff in the dispensary to help you find more strains that you’ll love. Today, I’m going to answer the top five questions that we get about strains, so you have all the information you need to help find an ideal strain for you.


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First, I have to tell you, there’s no simple explanation of what a strain is. There are characteristics like aroma, the smell, potency, how strong the THC levels are, appearance, and effects that contribute to defining a strain and to naming a strain. Besides that, there might be some special reasons, personal to the grower that lead to naming strains. It is an art and a science. And since cannabis has been illegal for such a long time, most strains were smuggled, bred, and promoted in an illicit market. The naming style has continued, in part to honor the pioneers who kept the plant in the collective conscience, despite prohibition.


The key to many strain names though, is four different strain families. And knowing these will help you decode a lot of the strain names. First, there’s the Kush family. Kush strains are some of the most popular strains available on the market today, and they’re characterized by dense nugs and sweet lemon piney smells. Kush strains typically offer a warm body buzz, with strong mental effects. You’ll feel a euphoria.


Next is the Haze family. Haze strains are known for being clearheaded, bringing energy, and a focused high. This strain variety also generally promotes a deep sense of relaxation that follows its intoxicating effects. Then there’s the Diesel family. Diesel strains offer feelings of calm energy, perfect for inspiring creativity, and they’re known to have a distinct diesel gas and tart citrus smell.


And finally, the Skunk family. Known for their skunk-like aromas. Skunk strain varieties provide a balanced and uplifting effect, and generally a full-body buzz. They were first developed in the 1970s, and this cannabis strain family is considered to be one of the most important strain groups ever created.


Number two, why is weed different from state to state? Have you ever noticed that a strain you enjoyed in LA, gave you a different experience when you tried it in Colorado? That’s because all cannabis flower sold in a state also has to be grown in that state, so it’s been affected by the unique characteristics of that environment. Where and how cannabis is grown has an impact on how it will make you feel. You can think of it like wine. There’s a reason that the region where a wine comes from is often talked about when people describe it. This is known as the terroir, which is a French term used to describe the complete natural environment where a particular wine is produced. And terroir matters for weed too.


Elements like soil, light, and type of climate all influence a strain’s original genetics. So variations in growing conditions can produce two very different cultivated varieties of a single strain. For example, a strain of Gelato from a grow in California, may look, smell, and make you feel different than Gelato grown in Massachusetts. So whether it’s a different state, or also whether the plant is grown indoors or outdoors.


If we zoom out even further and look at the scientific history of strains, we know that all modern cannabis genetics derive from what are called landrace strains. Think of these as beautiful ancestral strains. They have come from all around the world, Jamaica, India, Africa, Mexico, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central America.


Nichole Graf, the Washington-based co-founder of the cannabis brand Raven, explains how landrace strains might be found today.

Nichole Graf (07:49):

The idea behind landrace strains is that there’s no hybridization, so they are true to the way they grew on the land they originated from. It’s hard to say with a lot of things that claim to be landrace if they actually are, or if it’s more of a nod to the landrace spirit of that strain that once was, at this point. Typically, landrace strains are really, really difficult to find, maintain, and grow.


There are farms that specialize in landrace strains and have spent their entire careers traveling to source those genetics. Those are the farms I would look to. Or if your grower has a really long story about how they got those genetics, maybe believe them. If you see pictures of the plants, usually the grower will want to share that because they’re usually very unique looking plants.

Ellen Scanlon (08:39):

The strains you’re most likely to find today, all derived from landrace strains, are known as heirloom strains. Since now we know how the environmental factors are really key to how the plant turns out, the heirloom strains have to be a little bit different. Things have changed in the growing conditions. The original genetics of landrace strains have been modified through cross-breeding to make the plants adapt to modern cultivation practices. These changes have then brought about things like shorter growth cycles, and plants that are more resistant to bugs and disease.


It sounds silly to say sometimes, but don’t forget that cannabis is a plant, and plants grown in different places will be a little bit different. And the same goes for you. Your body is different from my body or your friend’s body, and that’s why weed affects everyone a little bit differently. I really recommend starting slow until you know how you want to feel. You didn’t give up on pizza after one bad slice, right? At least I hope you didn’t. It’s the same when it comes to cannabis. When you try a new strain, pay attention to how you feel, and you’ll learn what helps to lead to the right experience for you.


Number three, what is the difference between indica, sativa and hybrid? You’ve probably heard the terms sativa, indica and hybrid used to categorize strains. Technically, all heirloom strains … so most of what’s available in the legal market. Are hybrids. And indica and sativa describe two distinct types of cannabis plants whose structures and size evolved because of where they were grown and how they adapted to conditions within their natural environment.


Sativa strains grew naturally in areas that were closer to the equator. And they adapted to thrive in a hot climate with not that much water. Indica strains historically grew in more temperate, mountainous areas, and these plants adapted to survive the colder winter. For example, the Kush family, which is known for its indica strains, comes from the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan, which have cold, snowy winters and hot dry summers. So the plants adapt to that.


Lo Friesen, the Washington-based founder of Heylo Cannabis, describes this evolution of the cannabis plant.

Lo Friesen (11:24):

Sativa, indica, and hybrid were categories that they used to describe these plants that, first and foremost, came from different regions of the world. And because of genetics, in addition to the environment and the soil that it’s grown in and the climate, the plant grows in different ways.

Ellen Scanlon (11:45):

The original natural environment gave us one set of genetics. And as cannabis spread around the world, the different growing conditions impacted those genetics. Plants change when they’re planted in different climates. And what does that mean for us today? Unfortunately, it means these categories might not be as helpful as they once were.


Lo explains that now, it’s more about paying attention to the feeling that the type of strain gives you.

Lo Friesen (12:16):

What we understand today as indica, sativa, and hybrid is purely a language that we use as a community to communicate what we want out of the product. So indica tells me that somebody’s looking for something to chill them out, or help them go to sleep, or be like a heavy-body high. Whereas a sativa tells me that somebody’s looking for something really energetic.

Ellen Scanlon (12:40):

Even though this sounds like a straightforward distinction, the impact of the changing environments and all the variables that are affected by it, have made sativa and indica less accurate categories than they used to be.

Lo Friesen (12:55):

If we’re saying, I want an indica, and we say OG Kush or something is an indica, well, the chemical profile of the plant is what’s actually going to give you the end experience. And because we’ve cross-bred so many times, you could end up asking for an indica that ends up making you feel the opposite of what you wanted.

Ellen Scanlon (13:17):

Basically, not all strains that are categorized as an indica are still made up of that genetic structure that will give you the mellow, sleepy, relaxed high that indicas were known for. That’s why I’m always advising you to just spend a minute thinking about how you want to feel. If you want to, for example, relax and then go to sleep, take the time to talk to people and look for a strain that describes that effect. Don’t rely on a label saying that it’s an indica or a sativa.


Number four, what is a terpene? Terpene might sound like a pretty technical term when you first hear it, and the very scientific sounding names of the 400 terpenes don’t make that much easier. Kendra Stocking, the California-based VP of sales at Cherry World, shares how to connect terpenes to things you already understand.

Kendra Stocking (14:27):

When I first got into cannabis and I was teaching people about terpenes, I used to tell people that … think of terpenes as essential oils, right? It was really easy to make that comparison. Linalool is lavender. Lavender helps calm you down. Indica are more sedative because they’re higher in linalool. So if you can recognize those smells in the strains of cannabis, that should help drive you to understand what way you want to feel.


So if something has a bright, uplifting smell … just think about aromatherapy. Essential oils. It all comes from plants too. Essential oils are just steamed extractions of terpenes from lavender, or limonene from lemon. Limonene is limonene, whether it comes from a lemon or if it comes from a strain. It’s the same thing, it’s just in different amounts.

Ellen Scanlon (15:16):

I think of terpenes like essential oils, and relate them to scents and then to feelings. With food, we are used to the smell and taste being pretty connected. But with cannabis, the smell is a better predictor of how you’ll feel, and it doesn’t really play into taste in the same way. Terpenes are also hard to talk about because they’re not always found on cannabis packaging. So you can spend the time to learn which ones make you feel your best, but not know whether specific terpenes are in the weed that you’re buying.


Because of this, I am asking myself, do you all really want to learn more about this? So I would love to know. DM me or send a message to and just let me know what you’re thinking about terpenes.


Number five, how do I choose the right strain for me? All of the questions that I get about strains are really just asking how to choose the right strain for you. And my best advice is to think about how you want to feel after you consume. It helps to be present and open to possibilities. And as cannabis is becoming more legally available, getting high is becoming less of the activity, and it’s more about finding cannabis that will enhance the situation that you’re in. California-based chef Amanda Jackson likes to think about it like shopping for crystals.

Chef Amanda Jackson (17:00):

I think you should buy weed like you buy crystals. Seriously, pick it up. Smell it, if they’ll let you. Do that, and take it home. That’s the one you should pick, the one that made you go, hmm. That’s the kind of accountability I’m looking for from more people. Well, what’s strain should I buy? I don’t know what you like. You know what I’m saying? I don’t know you.


There are so many different strains out here. Don’t be intimidated by it. Lean into the curiosity rather than leaning into a guru. Because that is what gets a lot of y’all into trouble anyway, is looking for a savior in these spaces. And then when we lead you the wrong way, you’re upset. And really, this was a path that was yours to take in the first place.

Ellen Scanlon (17:42):

I agree with Amanda. Trust yourself when you’re choosing a strain. As much as a friend or a budtender can try to help, if you’re really honest and open about what feels good to you, that will lead you to the strains that are going to work the best for you.


Nichole Graf also agrees and makes a great point. We are not really used to things being such a personalized experience.

Nichole Graf (18:10):

Well, and I think at the end of the day, what good weed is for you is going to differ from what good weed is for me. I think it’s a much more personalized experience than we’ve been led to believe. And I think that’s true culturally in a lot of different applications, where we’ve been told that the desirable thing is this thing that everyone else is doing and that is widely accepted as the best version of whatever. And that’s just not the case.


What’s good for those high-time stoner bros who have declared that weed to be the chronic, the fire, the dopest shit around, is not … it’s not my chronic, bro.

Ellen Scanlon (18:50):

And remember what I just said about terpenes. Maybe your partner loves the smell of lavender, but it gives you a terrible headache. That’s an example of how personal and how strong strain preferences can be.

Nichole Graf (19:06):

Smell is a really good indicator, person-to-person, of what makes good weed. Because if you open a jar of what someone tells you is their favorite weed and you’re like, I do not like the smell of that at all, that’s probably not great weed for your body chemistry. Still try it. It’s still a fun experiment to see if your experience matches up with your first smell of it.


But by and large, something we’ve found that feels very earth-medicine, holistically-minded is if your body reacts strongly with attraction when you smell a joint, opening a jar, that’s usually a good sign that there’s something in that substance that is jiving with your body chemistry. And you should try it and see what happens. If it makes you feel good, it’s good weed. If it is something you find yourself coming back to or missing the experience of and wanting to recreate that, that’s good weed for you.

Ellen Scanlon (19:57):

Finding the right strain for you is like finding the perfect outfit to wear to an awesome party. So shop around. Think about what makes you feel your best. And don’t be afraid to try something new, especially if you haven’t found the right fit yet. It will be a little unique to you, and you’ll know the right one when you feel it. You’ve got this.


Do you have any other questions about strains? Email me at or DM @dothepot. Thank you for listening to How to Do the Pot. For lots more information and past episodes, visit Thanks to our writer Devin Andrade, and our producers, Madi Fair and Nick Patri. I’m Ellen Scanlon, and we’ll be back soon with more of How to Do the Pot.



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