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July 26, 2021
Keeping The Fire: Why Landrace Strains Matter in the Age of Hype Weed

BY RACHELLE GORDON | Photo courtesy of MedMen

In the modern cannabis marketplace, there are seemingly endless choices. The sheer amount of offerings—from good old-fashioned flower to BHO concentrates to infused food and drink—is enough to make any head spin but the variety doesn’t stop there. 

The number of cultivars of cannabis—also known as strains—available to smoke or use as source material for extract-based products is dizzying. While there are seemingly new varietals dropping on the regular, all modern cannabis cultivars have lineages going back thousands of years to what are referred to as landrace strains.

Cannabis landrace strains are native to certain regions that have stabilized their genetics over time. Typically named for their area of origin (think BC Bud or Acapulco Gold), these cultivars have stood the test of time in terms of both broad universal appeal and agricultural prowess. 

But in an age of hype, where many consumers are constantly thirsty for the next big thing, are landrace strains falling by the wayside? Opinions in the cannabis community are mixed, but one thing is for sure: no matter what people are smoking, the legal industry wouldn’t be where it is today without these classic cultivars.

A brief history of cannabis genetics

The cannabis plant is thought to have originated in Central Asia with evidence of its industrial use going back thousands of years. Scientists believe the first wild cannabis indica came from the Hindu Kush mountain region in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan although it was also present near Tibet and modern day Siberia. In addition to its utilitarian presence, it was also used in shamanic and wellness settings. The plant was known for its short, bushy stature and wide leaves.

Cannabis spread from Asia around 2,000 years ago, making its way to the Middle East as well as Russia thanks to the nomadic Scythian people, whose 2,400-year-old solid gold bongs were excavated by archaeologists in 2014. Vikings carried seeds to Northern Europe while members of the Ottoman Empire introduced the plant to the African continent. This is where the first cannabis sativa genetics are thought to have been developed, as the lanky thin plants thrive in warmer climates near the equator. 

The plant eventually made its way to the West, arriving in South America and Latin America with settlers between the 16th and 18th centuries. 

Some of the most prominent landrace strains include Hindu Kush, Afghani, Thai Stick, Durban Poison, Colombian Gold, and Maui Wowie.

The very first hybrids, skunk & haze

Fast forward to the 1960s. A large number of West Coast counterculture devotees, enamored by cannabis’ ability to promote peace and love, flocked to what became known as the Emerald Triangle in Northern California. Comprising three counties (Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino), this region quickly became synonymous with cannabis cultivation, a distinction it holds to this day. In fact, California lawmakers recently dubbed the Emerald Triangle as the first cannabis terroir, a phrase borrowed from the wine industry that denotes the unique environmental characteristics influencing a crop’s outcome.

By the 1970s, growers began to experiment with crossbreeding, developing what would become world-renowned cultivars. One of the very first was conceived by California’s famed underground Sacred Seeds. Dubbed Skunk #1 for its pungent aroma, the indica-dominant creation was a cross of three heavy-hitting landrace strains: Afghani, Acapulco Gold, and Colombian Gold.

Meanwhile, several hundred miles south in Santa Cruz, another group of notorious breeders known as the Haze Brothers were working on their own project. Utilizing landrace genetics from Thailand, Mexico, and Colombia, the self-named Original Haze took hold. However, it didn’t garner international fame until the 1980s when Dutch breeder Neville Schoenmakers put his own spin on the sativa-dominant strain. 

The founder of the Seed Bank of Holland, Schoenmakers was able to create potent crosses that were easier to grow than the OG Haze. Neville’s Haze, Super Silver Haze, and Northern Lights Haze became some of the most sought-after strains in the world for years to come.

An argument for preservation

Landrace genetics may have set the stage for the cannabis marketplace of today, but their impact goes beyond dispensary store shelves. The ecosystems these cultivars harbor have a symbiotic relationship with the cannabis plants within, unrivaled by indoor commercial operations. These plants have developed within their natural environments unlike the myriad of hybrid strains they begat, demonstrating the impact native soil and water can have on the harvest.

Famed breeder and strain hunter Franco Loja of Green House Seed Company was a voracious supporter of landrace, contending the genetics must be protected at all costs.

“Landraces are the most natural form of cannabis existing on the planet because they have been constantly adapting and evolving, improving their harmony with the environment they live in,” he once quipped. “It is our duty to preserve cannabis landraces for the future of scientific and medical research, and for the basic human right to use a plant that has been used for millennia.”

In addition to benefiting the environment of their origination, landrace cultivars may reduce the overall footprint of the wider cannabis industry. By growing naturally in areas already suited for outdoor cultivation, farmers are less likely to pollute the air with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the terpenes expressed in cannabis. Landrace genetics also tend to be more stable, allowing for increased production efficiency. 

Landrace strains today

Despite the environmental arguments, the advent of adult-use legalization has brought cannabis breeding to a fever pitch. And in a viral age where the next generation of consumers are flexing exclusive drops on the regular, some may wonder if “old school” strains still have a place on the dispensary shelves.

It turns out that alongside the newest Gelato and GSC crosses, landrace-derived strains continue to hold a prominent place. For example, Kush Mountains from CannaBiotix (available at MedMen locations in California) is among the best-selling flower in the state. In Illinois, Cresco’s Durban is a popular choice among MedMen shoppers. And in Nevada, Black Afghan by The Bank has quickly become a fan favorite.

And while true landrace strains can only be acquired in their places of origin, the cannabis genetics found today in legal states across America all started as the OGs of yesteryear. So the next time you’re puffing on a fresh cut, remember that its roots run over 2 millennia-deep.

Rachelle Gordon is a cannabis and psychedelics writer with a particular interest in the use of plant medicine for neurological conditions. She has been featured in publications such as High Times, CannabisNow, DoubleBlind, Cannabis & Tech Today, and MG Retailer. Her favorite cultivars include Tangie and GMO.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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