Why do we say indica or sativa

When describing the effect, why say indica or sativa?

When talking about a strain’s effect, why do we say indica or sativa? Technically, these are botany terms; they classify the subspecies of the cannabis plant. They have a lot more to do with plant genetics and characteristics than the way a bud will make you feel. It begs the question, why do we use these terms? As it turns out, there is sound logic behind the use of this classification, even when it comes to describing an effect. In case you have ever wondered, here is why we label a bud as an indica or sativa.

Why do we say indica or sativa? The Quick Answer

When we say indica and sativa, we refer to two things: the geographic origin of a strain and its physical characteristics. These details have an influence on the plant’s terpene profile, which can ultimately impact the effect we feel. 

cannabis classification

Image courtesy of The Universal Plant


Terpenes are the natural essential oils produced by a plant when it’s under stress. Every plant that grows on the earth creates its own unique blend. The full extent of terpene interaction is not yet fully understood however, we do know that terpenes have therapeutic properties. Much like the use of aromatherapy, the effects of these compounds are not universal. However, we know that terpenes interact with the endocannabinoid system and encourage an entourage effect. They target our CB1 and CB2 receptors to promote an increase in cannabinoid uptake. Basically, when you ingest the right terpenes, they can act like a bud booster. They encourage the body to absorb as much THC as possible.

How does location influence a plant’s terpene profile?

Climate, sun, and rainfall affect a plant’s ability to grow. To survive against these natural predators, the plant must physically adapt its size and shape, and this has an impact on the terpenes the strain can produce. When you look at the differences between an indica and sativa strain, you can clearly see how location affects the plant shape and ultimately, the effect.



Strains that originate from Asia and the Middle East tend to be short and bushy, with broad fan leaves. In most places, these bushes are prone to mold but because of the humidity, climate, and sun exposure, certain plant genetics can thrive. Under these conditions, the plants produce more relaxing terpenes like myrcene and linalool. These strains are classified as indica.



Strains that originate from tropical places tend to grow tall and have long, thin leaves. The climate is hot and very humid so growing this way allows air to circulate. Plus, this shape allows these plants to grow up past competing vegetation and stretch to get as much sun as possible. To deal with all the bugs and pests, the leaves and buds will produce terpenes that act like natural repellents, such as pinene and limonene. Many people find these to be energizing and these strains are classified as Sativa. 

Shopping for Terpenes

For many cannabis users, sativa gives creative energy and indica puts you ‘in da couch’. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for every situation and there can be a number of reasons why. 

  • Every endocannabinoid system is unique and can respond to each strain in a different way. 
  • Genetic mutations and variations can result from plant reproduction. Crossbreeding with other strains will also change the compounds it produces.

If every cannabis strain contained its original genetics and terpene profile, you could use the terms indica or sativa to shop for an effect. However, because everyone’s different, there would still be situations where this would not work. 

Terpene Testing

So what’s the next best thing? Test for the terpenes profile! With cannabis having been legalized in Canada, many private labs offer terpene testing and the rates are fairly reasonable. If your cannabis producer does not provide test results, it’s easy to go get them yourself. If you don’t know how you respond to certain terpenes, pay attention to the effect of a tested bud and record the results. That way, you can start to recognize the terpenes you best respond to and tailor your cannabis experience.