Have you ever been to a marijuana dispensary and found yourself looking at the most beautiful display “nug” of your life to then see its nametag and it says … Unicorn Poop?

Unicorn? Poop? Really?! Who comes up with these names? Why are these strains’ names so silly? I have been working in the Maine cannabis industry for almost four years and I have heard this same question a countless number of times. You’re not alone in your curiosity. So, I went down the “strain name” rabbit hole for you.

What does the term cannabis ‘strain’ mean?

A cannabis strain is a unique genetic variety of cannabis. Each strain is defined by many factors including botanical lineage, appearance, chemical profile, scents, flavors and effects it has on the consumer. Every strain has its own special “something” which means it gets its own individual name. Its own “joie de vivre” if you will. But don’t be fooled, it’s more than the name of the cannabis strain that makes it special.

What does the term ‘cultivar’ mean?

This might be a completely new term for you or maybe you’ve heard it at your favorite cannabis store or from that neighbor that grows their own plants in their garage. A cultivar is another name for strain, but it is a tad more specific. It is a plant variety that has been developed for cultivation using selective breeding. The folks in the garden growing your cannabis are trying their best to breed the best genetics possible for you. This means breeding new plants that emphasize special characteristics like smell, flavor, effects, and chemical profile. That’s also why cannabis gardeners who breed and create new strains are called “cultivators.” Go figure!

Fun fact: “Strain” may be the most popular/most commonly used term BUT it’s not the most correct. Why do you ask? I’ll put my science hat on for this. It’s all in the semantics. The term “strain” is usually reserved for bacteria and viruses, not plants. What should I say instead? Cultivar! In the world of botany, cultivar is the best way to describe a different plant variety. However, since most people are familiar with the term “strain” I’ll keep saying it for this blog post to avoid any confusion.

Who is in charge of naming new strains/cultivars?

I always hoped there was a secret society of cannabis connoisseurs that named these plants. I have yet to find evidence that is true, but I’ll keep trying. I also knew a physician who thought they might come from a team of people whose only job was to provide us with brilliant cannabis strain names; like the team at Crayola that name the colors of crayons. That is also not the case. Long story short, it’s the cultivators! The amazing people blessed with green thumbs and big dreams ready to grow all kinds of strains. Think of them as the Willy Wonkas of the cannabis industry. Budtenders, edible makers, business owners, and everyone in between may offer suggestions but at the end of the day the people in the garden are the ones that have the honor of naming their plant “children.”


Where did the first cannabis strains/cultivars come from?

I don’t know about you guys, but I would personally like to shake the hand of whoever had the aha moment of cannabis first. There is no one person in our history books given that honor but

whoever they are I bet they were “chill.” Do you know how long cannabis has been around? Historical documents from around the world suggest cannabis has been doing its thing for over 4000 years!!! How cool is that?! There have been many discussions about which strain was the first ever or if there even was one original. The three oldest strains on record are as follows: Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis. You may recognize the terms sativa and indica but even Ruderalis is new to me. It sounds like it could be a magical spell that helps you get high. If only, right? Out of those three original strains Cannabis Sativa is the winner for how old the name is. It however does not mean it’s necessarily the oldest. Whoever figures out time travel please find out for me; I’d like to know.

How do cultivators choose the names?

“What’s in a name?” – William Shakespeare. This is the fun part. How do we choose the perfect strain name? I could go on and on, but I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can. So, let’s focus on modern cannabis which began in the ’60s and ’70s. At that time, cannabis breeders began transporting feral strains from around the world called “landrace strains,” and transplanting them locally. Those landrace strains were commonly named after their geographical point of origin.

For example: “Panama Red” or “Durban Poison.” A lot of strains grown to this day still have landrace strains in their genetics. Now we’re in the 2020s and cannabis breeders have their own take on naming strains. A common practice is to cleverly combine the genetic parents’ names of the plant. For example: “Orange Creamsicle” is a strain whose parent strains are “Orange Crush” and “Juicy Fruit.” Hence the tasty name. Some strains are named to represent its effects. For example: “Trainwreck,” the effects are described as “mind bending … will hit like a freight train.” Sounds like fun, huh? Some strains are named based on their appearance, smell, flavors, or all of the above. If you shopped the Blueberry Muffin strain at MCE you’ll know why that’s my prime example for this one, if you haven’t, try it as soon as it hits our shelves. You will thank me later. Strains can also be named after personal stories, inside jokes, actually… anything really. That’s the beauty of naming a strain. It’s as unique and personal as the strain itself. And yes, someone looked at a new strain of cannabis they grew and said, “that’s Unicorn Poop!”

How many strains/cultivars are there?

If you live in Maine, you know how many cannabis grows we have in our state alone. So, you probably already know the answer is going to be pretty high…get it? Anyways! The honest answer is, it’s almost impossible to know for sure how many strains there are in existence. This is because new cannabis hybrids are being bred every day. Seriously, every day. On top of the strains that are already known to the general public, there are many new minor strains that aren’t. Leafly is a database that has over 3,600 unique cannabis strains accounted for. That’s a lot of cannabis! And cannabis experts say that there are around 700 unique cannabis strains and all others come from the genetics of those 700. And guess what?! There’s still more to be created! There’s always going to be room for new strains. That’s the best news ever! Just think, your favorite strain might not even exist yet.

Peter Ingram is CEO of the Maine Cannabis Exchange.

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