Hemp varieties Sativa, Indica, Ruderalis: what is the difference?

Hemp, cannabis, Indian hemp, sativa, indica, ruderalis and commercial hemp are all terms that basically stand for just one plant, and that is cannabis (the Latin name for hemp). But what is behind these terms and what varieties of hemp are there? These questions will be answered in the following article.

It is assumed that the genus Cannabis within the hemp family (Cannabaceae) is native to humid habitats on the Asian continent. The long coexistence between humans and cannabis led to an early domestication of the plant. Very early on, the cannabis plant showed a ready spectrum of uses, such as hemp fibres for textiles or the production of paper, as well as intoxicants and medicines.

The Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinised Carolus Linnaeus) described a single hemp variety, Cannabis Sativa, in the "Species Plantarum" in 1753. In contrast, the French botanist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck proposed two varieties of hemp in 1785: Cannabis Sativa, a variety of hemp grown mainly on the western continent, and Cannabis Indica, a wild species growing in India and neighbouring countries.

In 1924, a third species of the genus Cannabis was added by the Russian botanist Dmitri Yanishevsky. He described Cannabis ruderalis. However, to this day there is no consensus as to whether there are actually three different varieties of cannabis.

Table of contents

1.2 Cannabis Sativa: Origin, appearance and effect
1.3 Cannabis Indica: Origin, appearance and effect
1.4 Cannabis Ruderalis: origin, appearance and effect
1.5 What are hybrid cannabis varieties?
2 Indica varieties vs. sativa varieties
3 What is commercial hemp?
3.1 How does hemp cultivation work?
4 Cannabis varieties: What does the spectrum of effect depend on?
4.1 Cannabinoids and terpenes
4.2 Lack of classification of cannabis varieties

Cannabis Sativa: Origin, appearance and effect

Cannabis Sativa is mainly cultivated in equatorial countries, such as Colombia, Jamaica, Thailand and Mexico. In terms of growth characteristics, the following stand out:

  • Long and thin growth (bushy growth when pruned).
  • Size indoors: one to three metres high / outdoors: up to seven metres
  • Flowering time: ten to twelve weeks
  • Leaves: narrow, long, finger-like

The plants have a high content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and a low content of cannabidiol (CBD). Therefore, cannabis sativa is said to have a stimulating and motivating effect. At the same time, the following effects are possible:

  • Increased well-being
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased concentration
  • Increased creativity
  • Exaggerated silliness (laughing flashes)

Cannabis Indica: origin, appearance and effect

Indian hemp is mainly cultivated in subtropical countries (e.g. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco). Cannabis Indica is characterised by the following features:

  • Short and bushy growth
  • Heavy buds (high yield)
  • Size: maximum two metres
  • Flowering time: eight to ten weeks
  • Leaves: dark green and thick

In contrast to Cannabis Sativa, the THC content in the Indica plant is low and the CBD content is high. Therefore, this cannabis strain has more effects on the body than on the mind. Possible effects are:

  • Calming and anxiety-relieving
  • Sleep-inducing
  • Reduced sensation of pain

Cannabis Ruderalis: origin, appearance and effect

The hemp variety Ruderalis is also known as "ruderal hemp" and grows in cold areas of Russia or in the Asian Himalayas. It has the following characteristics:

  • Unbranched
  • Robust, fibrous stems
  • Size: maximum one metre
  • Leaves: very narrow

In addition, the ruderalis plant has another special feature: it is self-flowering. This means that it does not depend on light conditions to produce flowers.

Interestingly, a bag of hemp seeds was found in a Mongolian burial site over 2400 years old. This was probably the hemp seeds of the Ruderalis variety. The researchers assume that the Mongolians used them for shamanic rituals and even today ruderalis plants are used in Mongolia for depressive complaints.

The Ruderalis strain has a high CBD content and low THC content, which is why Ruderalis hybrids are also suitable for medicinal use.

Cannabis Sativa, Indica and Ruderalis: brief overview

Cannabis Sativa

Cannabis Indica

Cannabis Ruderalis


equatorial countries (e.g. Mexico, Colombia, Thailand, Jamaica)

sub-tropical countries (e.g. India, Morocco, Afghanistan)

cold regions like Russia or the Himalayas


long, thin growth

short, bushy growth



outdoors: max. 7 metres / indoors: 1 to 2 metres

max. 2 metres

max. 1 metres

Flowering time:

10 to 12 weeks

8 to 10 weeks

auto-flowering, independent of the light cycle


narrow, long, finger-like

dark green, thick

very narrow

Cannabinoid content:

high THC content, low CBD content

low THC content, high CBD content

low THC content, relatively high CBD content


cerebral effect, stimulating, motivating

calming, anxiety-relieving effect

calming, anxiety-relieving effect

What are hybrid cannabis strains?

Most cannabis varieties on the illicit market are hybrids. These are varieties that have been bred to produce a certain effect or to have special characteristics. Accordingly, pure cannabis strains such as Sativa, Indica and Ruderalis, but also already bred hybrids are mixed again and again. Through these crossings, the successful hybrid varieties then inherit the best characteristics of the original varieties.

Generally, the differentiation between the varieties is as follows:

  • Sativa x Sativa: Crossing of two different Cannabis Sativa varieties.
  • Indica x Indica: Cross between two different Cannabis Indica varieties.
  • Sativa x Indica: cross with sativa-dominant trait
  • Indica x Sativa: Cross with indica-dominant trait
  • Autoflowering hybrids: crosses with ruderalis genetics

Indica varieties vs. sativa varieties

When it comes to recreational cannabis use, a well-known sativa strain is Durban Poison with a spicy, dark flavour of liquorice, anise, clove and lemon. Among the indica varieties, on the other hand, the Northern Lights variety with a fruity taste is particularly well-known.

A hybrid strain (crossing of cannabis sativa and indica) that achieved international fame as a commercial strain is White Widow with its sweet, fruity and spicy flavours.

Probably the strongest cannabis strain is Nova OG from California (as of 2017). The grower (breeder) Manali West has specialised mainly in high-potency strains. Nova OG is a hybrid of Stardawg Guava and an OG/Diesel cross. The THC content is over 35 percent.

What is industrial hemp?

Industrial hemp includes all varieties of hemp that are cultivated for industrial and commercial use. As a rule, this is the hemp variety Cannabis Sativa var. (cultivated hemp), the components of which are used for the following purposes, among others:

  • Hemp fibres as raw material for the textile industry
  • Hemp seeds for the production of hemp oil
  • Hemp seeds for the production of hemp flour
  • Hemp seeds as products for athletes due to their nutrients
  • Hemp flowers and hemp leaves, e.g. for the production of essential oils or CBD oil.

In Switzerland, hemp may only be grown with certified seeds. This means that 52 varieties from the EU catalogue of varieties are available to farmers. These varieties are not suitable as intoxicants or for medicinal use. This is because the THC content in this crop is very low. It must not exceed one percent. In comparison, the THC content must be below 0.2 percent in Germany and below 0.3 percent in Austria.

How does hemp cultivation work?

Farmers have it relatively easy with hemp for industrial purposes. Due to its many positive properties, the plant hardly needs any water. The roots grow up to three metres deep. In addition, cultivation is easy because the plants need almost no plant protection due to the quickly reached stand closure.

The seeds are usually sown in April and harvested from the beginning of August, when many flowers have formed. Special machines are used, such as an axial or Claas combine harvester, which cut the plants high.

The yield is between two and eight tonnes a year, about twice as much as flax. Compared to cotton, the yield of hemp plants is even higher.

Cannabis varieties: What does the spectrum of effect depend on?

For many years, the sativa plant was considered to have an energising effect and cannabis indica a sedative effect. In 2018, however, the famous cannabis researcher Ethan Russo argued that the properties of the plant say nothing about its effects. Russo received support from the chemist Jeffrey Rabor, who analyses terpenes.

To explain:
terpenes are organic substances that are responsible for smell, aroma and taste, among other things.

Both scientists come to the conclusion that not all sativa varieties automatically have an energising effect, nor do all indica varieties have a calming effect. Thus, the spectrum of effects depends on many different factors, such as the chemical profile of the variety, but also on the dose, the form of application (smoking, vaporising, eating) and personal expectations.

Cannabinoids and terpenes

Russo and Rabor advocate paying more attention to the cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis than to the classification into varieties. This is because each cannabis plant has an individual cannabinoid profile.

The same applies to the terpenes, whose number and content varies in each cannabis plant. It has long been known that terpenes are involved in the effects of cannabis. For example, pinene can have a euphoric effect and linalool a relaxing effect.

The composition and the amount of different cannabinoids, terpenes and other components of the hemp plant cannot be assigned to either sativa or indica varieties. Rather, each individual plant would have to be considered or analysed separately.

Lack of classification of cannabis varieties

This theory is supported by a study in which scientists analysed over 100 cannabis samples for medical cannabis in Canada. It was found that the genetics of the sativa and indica strains did not show significant differences, but the cannabinoid and terpene profiles did. This is why researchers are calling for less attention to be paid to genetics when classifying cannabis, and more to the cannabinoid and terpene profile.


Where does Ruderalis grow?

According to genetic and morphological data, Cannabis Ruderalis is native to Central Asia. Thus, the hemp plants grow in areas such as southern Russia, Kazakhstan, between Altai and Caspian Sea as well as in Azerbaijan. Some of the hemp plants grow mainly in depressions and ravines, but also on roadsides and fallow farmland. Ruderalis has special characteristics: On the one hand, it is self-flowering and on the other hand, it also grows under difficult conditions (cold).

What does Ruderalis do?

The Ruderalis plant has a low THC content and a high CBD content. For this reason, it is often used for crosses to breed medical cannabis varieties. It is also used in the breeding of hybrid strains for recreational use. The use of pure ruderalis, on the other hand, is rare.

What is the difference between indica, sativa and hybrid?

Cannabis Indica and Sativa are two cannabis strains that have different characteristics. Generally, cannabis sativa is considered to be high in THC. The CBD content, on the other hand, is low. Again, Cannabis Indica usually has a high CBD content and a low THC content. They also differ in terms of origin, appearance, flowering time and in their effect. Hybrids are cannabis plants that come from crosses with different cannabis varieties.

What is Haze Sativa or Indica?

Haze cannabis varieties belong to the sativa-dominant species, or almost pure sativa hybrid varieties. However, because of their demanding character, cultivation is not easy and many growers shy away from it. Due to the high THC content and the terpene profile, Haze strains can have an uplifting, euphoric and even psychedelic effect. Haze unfolds a somewhat lemony, but also spicy-woody aroma.