Is a cannabis cultivar the same as a strain?

Published on January 7, 2020 · Last updated November 16, 2020
cannabis cultivar versus cannabis strain, what is cultivar, what is a marijuana strain

As a longtime gardener, I was so delighted by cannabis the first time I included it in my garden. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever grown—it’s the only dioecious plant that needs me to sort males from females, its smells are fantastic and pungent, and its stickiness is so unique (and sort of annoying).

But there are a few other, less fortunate things, that make it unlike other crops, including some inaccurate terminology used by growers and consumers alike. While we’re finally starting to accept that indica and sativa are unreliable labels for categorizing plants, my biggest beef is with the use of the term “strain,” when what is really meant is “cultivar.”

Many cannabis enthusiasts are eager for normalization of the plant they love so much, and I believe that using accurate lingo to talk about the plant would go a long way in that effort.

Indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid strains: understanding the differences between weed types

What’s a cultivar?

“Cultivar” is short for “cultivated variety.” This is a horticultural category (as opposed to a taxonomic one) to describe a plant that’s been selected and improved upon by humans. It can be a hybrid (either intentional or not), or selected from the wild, brought under cultivation, and distinct enough to warrant a naming. No matter the origin, it’s something that’s been touched by the human hand through selection.

In writing, cultivars always appear in single quotes, non-italicized, following the genus and species, like this:

  • Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’
  • Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Tuscan Blue’
  • Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’

The International Cultivation Registry Authority is responsible for the registration of all cultivars. The system is voluntary, focused on making sure cultivar names are distinct. It should be noted that cultivar registration is unrelated to Intellectual Property rights. Those sorts of legal rights must be sought through plant protection programs, patents, and trademarks, which are an entirely different ballgame.

It should be noted: offspring of cultivars are all genetically identical replicas, reproduced by cloning or vegetative cuts. For a cultivar to come from seed, a breeder needs to go through several generations of backcrossing for a reliably stable offspring.

What’s a strain?

Strain is the term most often used in microbiology and virology. It refers to a genetic variant or subtype within a microorganism. Think: flu strain.

The term is not often used to describe plants. It does sometimes show up in breeding, but mostly as it relates to genetic modification. If genes of a wheat plant are altered, the offspring of that modified plant might be deemed a strain.

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A few other worthy terms to know


Like genus and species, subspecies is a taxonomic rank, just below species. Subspecies are geographically isolated from other members of the species in a habitat. Although it’s genetically possible for the subspecies to interbreed with other members of the species, it doesn’t happen in nature due to the isolation. Because of that sequestration, subspecies can take on different characteristics from other members of the same species.

Some examples include:

  • Euphorbia characias ssp.characias (Mediterranean spurge found from Portugal to Crete)
  • Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii (Mediterranean spurge found from Southern France to Anatolia)


Just like genus or species, variety is a taxonomic rank, more specific yet than subspecies. A variety is a form of a plant that’s different from the rest of the species in habitat. Think: a usually purple-flowered vine that also produces some rogue flowers in white.

Here’s the real rub with varieties: Gardeners have a tendency to use the terms “cultivar” and “variety” interchangeably. I’m super-duper guilty of this one. But they’re not the same. Unlike cultivars, varieties aren’t the results of human-initiated breeding. They’re 100% found in nature.

Some examples include:

  • Acer palmatum var. atropupureum (Purple Japanese maple)
  • Cercis canadensis var. alba (While flowering redbud)


Not a taxonomic rank, this refers to domesticated, locally adapted populations. They’re impacted by both human selection as well as the natural environment. While a landrace population might look relatively uniform, we can generally think of them as rich genetic reservoirs, full of the building blocks for modern breeding programs.

They’re also, more and more, a thing of the past. We think of landrace populations as being largely pastoral in nature, maintained in rural regions by more traditional farming practices.

Cleaning up cannabis lingo

What we call “strains” should absolutely be called “cultivars.” These are cultivated varieties, hybridized and bred by humans. The clones you buy are genetic replicas of their parent, and any seeds you buy should hopefully have been properly stabilized and come true to their namesake.

Where it gets a little tricky is that there is no accountability or oversite of cannabis cultivar names. So, one clone or seed of “OG Kush” might come true to the parent, but it also might be totally different from someone else’s “OG Kush.”

What we call “landrace” is permissible when we talk about populations that were grown in isolation. A few examples that come to mind are Lamb’s Bread from Jamaica and Hindu Kush from the Middle East.

As for “indica” and “sativa”—it’s really time to let these go. Some people believe them to be historical subspecies of the plant, having evolved in different parts of the world, but given that these populations were always under human cultivation, I find “landrace” a much better term for regional populations.

Perhaps we can think of wild, uncultivated populations, like ruderalis, as a subspecies. But indica and sativa? They are all but outdated terms, used in recent times to describe feelings of the high rather than descriptors of the plant and its origins, but even then, they are inaccurate.

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Johanna Silver
Johanna Silver
Johanna Silver contributes regularly to Martha Stewart Living and Better Homes & Gardens. She's also the former Garden Editor of Sunset Magazine. She lives with her husband and young son in Berkeley, CA. In her garden she grows fruits, veggies, a little weed, and as many cut flowers as she can possibly fit.
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