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Understanding Landrace Cultivars

Updated: May 2, 2023

Brought to you by the new Higher Learning LV Cannabis for Pain seminar.


This short article provides an overview of the geographical origins of a variety of popular cannabis cultivars.

Participants in the cannabis culture may be familiar with a few of the rare varieties of the plant that are categorized as landrace cultivars (commonly known as strains), including Columbian Gold, Durban Poison, and Afghan Kush. Landrace simply refers to the small number of surviving cultivars of cannabis that evolved naturally in the geographic region in which they were initially discovered (by 20th century humans, that is). Some experts believe that only about 100 of these rare cultivars remain with humans today.

What are Cannabis Landrace Cultivars?

Landrace cultivars hail from global regions such as Jamaica, Afghanistan, India, Africa, Mexico, Pakistan, and Central America. They are believed to have originated in the Hindu Kush region of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is one reason that so many cultivar names incorporate the term "Kush," such as the always-popular OG Kush.

Many cultivators believe that the best examples of cannabis sativa are grown in a region as close to the equator as possible and at a relatively high elevation. Thus, mountainous areas in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and Indonesia are almost perfectly suited to the cultivation of high-quality cannabis. This is no coincidence; landrace cultivars hail from most of these regions. Technically, landrace cultivars are those that have stabilized over time as a result of natural inbreeding.

Precise Acclimation to Local Climates

Other definitions of landrace cannabis include any that has not purposefully been bred or otherwise manipulated by humans. Such indigenous varieties of marijuana, because they have evolved within a particular region, are precisely acclimated to their local climates—and may offer unique medicinal qualities that are specifically tuned to the native humans of that region. Wrote Rick Pfrommer, Director of Education at Harborside Health Center, one of the nation's largest dispensaries:

It's not that [landrace cultivars are] necessarily better, [they're] just different, and perhaps more effective for some patients specific conditions or needs.

Source of All Modern Cannabis Varieties

Most readers are uninterested in a history lesson. However, how are landrace cultivars related to modern varieties and hybrids? Put simply, landraces are the origin of all modern cannabis cultivars and phenotypes. They are the genesis of cannabis in society and reflect its state of development, or evolution, before modern humans began breeding and cultivating the herb for medicine, lifestyle enhancement, and profit.

Cannabis breeders long ago took original landrace cultivars and bred, or crossed, them in an effort to create new cultivars possessing the best characteristics of both parents (and, just as with dogs or humans, hopefully few of their bad traits).

Some cultivars feature shorter growing periods or are more resistant to pests or mold, making them the desire of cultivators. Others, especially sativa varieties, often are more difficult to grow and feature relatively long flowering cycles. However, these cultivars but can also deliver unique medicinal and psychoactive effects that are sought by many patients and consumers.

Most Cannabis Landrace Cultivars Lost Forever

For all practical purposes, it must be assumed that many landrace strains, in their original, pure form, have been lost forever. Endless crosses over several decades in most areas of the world, especially North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe, have resulted in diluted genetics.

The sad reality is that many pure breeds of cannabis are often mislabeled. Many purported examples of seeds, harvested cannabis flowers, or concentrates from pure landrace strains are inevitably not.

The sad reality is that many pure breeds of cannabis are often mislabeled. Many purported examples of seeds, harvested cannabis flowers, or concentrates from pure landrace strains are inevitably not. Instead, they are sometimes the descendents of multiple landraces that have been bred (either purposefully or accidentally), going back an unknown number of generations—and with possibly very different characteristics. Also, genetic mutations easily emerge, especially under different growing conditions, which can cause great stress to mature plants.

For decades, cultivars have been bred to bring out their potency, especially in terms of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the cannabinoid in the plant that delivers psychoactive effects and is largely responsible for its euphoria—but also is a powerful medicine for hundreds of diseases and conditions. Researchers and medical professionals have identified something called the entourage effect that supports the concept of whole flower medicine by observing that cannabinoids and terpenes interact synergistically, in a delicate and nuanced supplementation of the human body’s endocannabinoid system.

The good news is that a significant portion of the cannabis breeding community has been focused on creating cultivars that deliver the greatest medicinal value. Many modern varieties of cannabis are a far cry from the original strains from which they are descended.

Just as a modern human living in Kentucky might be a descendant of American founding father Benjamin Franklin while, in most respects, the two humans are very different, cannabis cultivar crosses often feature a morphology (shape and size), growing characteristics, and psychoactivity that differs significantly from their landrace ancestors. Sometimes, crosses and hybrids are more appropriate and therapeutic than landrace cultivars for particular diseases or ailments.

Cannabis Phenotypes & Heirlooms

When seeds from landrace cultivars are cultivated outside the zone in which they evolved, they produce what geneticists and breeders label phenotypes. Phenotypes are transmogrifications of the plant that result in similar, but different characteristics. This includes morphology, development (such as the length of flowering cycles), and biochemical properties (potency and cannabinoid/terpene profiles). Phenotypes that are direct descendants of landrace cultivars, with no breeding or crossbreeding, are known as heirlooms.

In landrace cultivars grown outside their area of origin, a change occurs in the cannabinoid and terpene profiles of the resinous trichomes found on the female flowers of these heirloom varieties.

In landrace cultivars grown outside their area of origin, a change occurs in the cannabinoid and terpene profiles of the resinous trichomes found on the female flowers of these heirloom varieties. Because they necessarily receive different light cycles, sometimes artificial light instead of natural, and different soil (not to mention dramatic variances in water, humidity, and nutrition), these cultivars must modify and adapt to their new environments. This changes the inherent characteristics of these strains, including their medicinal efficacy.

Because they have evolved over millions of years, landrace cultivars are considered to be more “balanced,” with terpene and cannabinoid profiles that are in harmony with the needs of the plant, its environment, and the humans and animals living in the region that consumed it. (All mammals feature an endocannabinoid system and experience efficacy from the cannabinoids and terpenes produced by plants like hemp.)

Origin of American Cannabis Cultivation Culture

The cannabis cultivation cultures in Northern California and Hawaii have their genesis in heirloom cultivars introduced to the United States during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. The climate in Northern California sometimes closely approximates that of parts of Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush mountains.

Because the weather of the central West Coast of the United States roughly approximates that of the environment in which many landrace cultivars evolved, such genetics brought back from some regions of Indonesia and the Middle East have traditionally thrived in Northern California and Oregon. With them, the cannabis culture in the U.S. has also thrived. Both Hawaii and the entire West Coast have become synonymous with high-quality outdoor grown cannabis—just as Columbia is known for producing some of the world’s best coffee beans.

Cannabis genetics brought back from some regions of Indonesia and the Middle East have traditionally thrived in Northern California and Oregon.

Patients and lifestyle consumers wishing to expand their cannabis horizons should pursue landrace and heirloom cultivars to learn more about the roots of cannabis throughout the world. Cultivators wanting a change of pace should strive to obtain seeds and clones (cuttings) from heirloom cultivars in an effort to keep them alive for current and future generations and give patients additional options for medicine.

Classic Cannabis Landrace Cultivars

In the past, landrace cultivars that happened to be sativas were eschewed by gardeners for indicas and crosses that featured shorter flowering periods. This was because these varieties were more profitable for commercial cultivators. However, the recent wave of recreational and medical cannabis legalization at the state level in the U.S. and federal legalization in Canada (since October 2018) has spawned markets for special cultivars. Many of these are landrace sativas (such as Durban Poison).

Examples of popular and classic landrace cultivars include the following:

  • Afghan Kush: A pure indica strain purported to have originated in the Hindu Kush Mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

  • G13: A landrace from Afghanistan that typically leans toward indica. However, two phenotypes of this strain exist, the second of which is a sativa.

  • Durban Poison: An unusually potent sativa from the South African port city of Durban.

  • Acapulco Gold: The infamous landrace sativa that hails from the Acapulco region of Southwest Mexico and typically features high levels of THC.

  • Rooibaard: A sativa from the coastal area of the Transkei region of South Africa.

  • Colombian Gold: The fabled cannabis hybrid that is sometimes a bit sativa-dom that originates in the Santa Marta mountains of Colombia in Central America.

  • Hawaiian: A sativa-dom hybrid from the islands of Hawaii.

  • Malawi Gold: A pure sativa is from the Salima region of Malawi in Southeast Africa.

  • Thai: A sativa from, as its name implies, Thailand. Hybrids derived from Thai include Fruity Thai and Juicy Fruit Thai.

  • Panama Red: This sativa from Panama became popular in the late 1960s, during the hippy psychedelic era.

  • Punto Rojo: A sativa from Columbia that is considered by some to be even better than Colombian Gold.

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