Once upon a time, some guy attended a Grateful Dead concert in Indiana. There, he bought one ounce of high-quality cannabis with a potent, vaguely chemical-like odor and arranged to have more mailed to his home on the East Coast. As the legend goes, he then crossed those cannabis seeds with a Colorado strain named Dog Butt, inventing a new hybrid he called Chemdawg. Today, you can find the strain at just about any dispensary near you.
For decades, origin stories like this one—perhaps based on fact, but often told more like folklore—were all most cannabis consumers had to go on in trying to understand the strains they smoked, as prohibition made it nearly impossible to categorize them through more scientific methods.
“Humans are storytellers,” explains Trey Reckling, founder of Seattle Central College’s Cannabis Institute, where he teaches a class on strain science and folklore. “If people don’t know the truth, it’s natural they want to fill in the gaps in a way that’s enjoyable for the listener, like a hunter or fisherman telling their tale.”
The modern trend in naming cannabis strains began in the 1960s and ‘70s, around the same time as the burgeoning War on Drugs, when breeders imported naturally-occurring strains from around the world which would become the basis for dozens of subsequent hybrids. Many of these original “landrace” strains have names reflecting their geographic origins, like Panama Red, Acapulco Gold and Afghan Kush.
“If people don’t know the truth [about strains], it’s natural they want to fill in the gaps in a way that’s enjoyable for the listener, like a hunter or fisherman telling their tale.” – Trey Reckling, Founder of Seattle Central College’s Cannabis Institute
From there, self-styled breeders operating outside the law built up the genetic diversity of stateside cannabis through hybridization. Varieties like Chemdawg became identified by a combination of their parent strain names, while others were named for prominent cannabis advocates like Jack Herer, Oregon’s late “Emperor of Hemp.”
With so many breeders working independently and word of mouth as the only means of disseminating information, Reckling acknowledges that “there are probably a lot more strain names than true genetic variety, because you have some that get renamed several times . . . In [my] class, we pay a nod to that folklore because it’s part of our community, but we want to respect it for what it is—not something you can rest on, like you can with science and legitimate data.”
Indeed, our current, inherited methods of identifying strains may be massively flawed. Neurologist and cannabis advocate Dr. Ethan Russo observed as much in 2015, stating, “The sativa/indica distinction commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility . . .
The degree of interbreeding is such that only a biochemical assay tells a potential consumer or scientist what is really in the plant.” Luckily, with legalization efforts succeeding in an increasing number of U.S. states, the science has finally begun catching up to the folklore thanks to increased genetic testing and ambitious cataloging efforts.
The Phylos Galaxy, for example, is an online resource using samples to map out an ever-expanding genetic “galaxy” with which users can trace the lab-tested origins of their favorite strains. There’s also Steep Hill Labs, a cannabis testing company now selling kits that help home-growers identify the genetic makeup of their latest hybrids. Still, there’s no registry for cannabis strains, or even clear-cut regulations for how growers should test and label potential new varieties.
Along with legalization, brand marketing has become another new influence on how we assess our cannabis, with more strains being distinguished not just by their adopted name but by their producers, as well—i.e., Artizen Blue Dream. Then there are celebrities like Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg, who lend their name to specific cannabis brands in which marketing may matter just as much as quality level or genetic makeup.
Reckling remains hopeful that continued genetic testing will ensure consumers and growers are more reliably informed about the strains they smoke, yet confident the rich folklore surrounding cannabis will live on long after federal prohibition has ended. “We won’t ever be able to remove the mystery of it, because that’s part of the culture,” he maintains. “People say Lamb’s Bread was Bob Marley’s favorite strain, so for some people that has a special place in their heart, whatever the genetics say.”
Brush up on the origin stories behind some of your favorite strains—just remember to take each tale with a grain of salt!
OG Kush: The exact origins of this ubiquitous indica are unknown, but it was supposedly transplanted from Florida to L.A. in 1995 with The Bubba. Together, the two parent strains gave birth to Bubba Kush.
Albert Walker: Descended from Afghan Skunk and bred in the Pacific Northwest, this strain gained fame as a supposed favorite of the Grateful Dead’s road crew and band members.
G-13: In perhaps the tallest tale of all, this indica was among the strains gathered by federal agencies to study at a secret University of Mississippi installation in the ‘60s. An anonymous technician snuck out one cutting of the plant and bred it for posterity.