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5 Cannabis Breeders Who Changed the Game

January 17, 2019

Cannabis—like asparagus, dates, mulberry, ginkgo, persimmons, and spinach—is a dioecious species, meaning that the male and female reproductive structures involved in propagation are typically found on different individual plants, rather than on a single plant (as in a monoecious species). Cannabis is also an annual, so it dies off each winter, but not before dropping seeds that will sprout the following spring, allowing the cycle of life to continue for another year.

Only the most successful cannabis hybrids will be stabilized and grow popular enough to earn a permanent place in the hearts of cannabis enthusiasts.

In nature, those seeds form in the late autumn—when the male plants pollinate the females. Each time such pollination takes place the result is a genetically unique seed—one that contains DNA from both of its parents—but without the direct involvement of human beings, the amount of genetic diversity seen from generation to generation is practically pretty limited.

In theory, each time two unique varieties are crossed in this way, the result is a wholly new strain. But in practice, only the most successful of these hybrids will be stabilized and grow popular enough to earn a permanent place in the hearts of cannabis enthusiasts. Adding to the complexity (and potential confusion) of this process is the fact that until relatively recently, all of this breeding still took place in the underground, so the documentation of who created what and how is often unknown or in dispute.

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But that’s just all the more reason to properly identify and honor the amazing cannabis breeders of yore who performed the alchemical feat of bringing into the world all-new, genetically distinct cannabis varietals that truly changed the game.

Dave Watson (a.k.a. “Sam the Skunkman”)

One of the most fascinating and controversial figures in cannabis history, Dave Watson (far better known as “Sam the Skunkman”) is lauded by some and vilified by others, but nobody can dispute the outsized role he’s played in the once very small world of cannabis breeders.

Watson’s journey began in Santa Cruz, California in the 1970s, where he was linked to two of the earliest cannabis breeding outfits to ever gain notoriety—the Haze Brothers and Sacred Seed Collective—both of which were instrumental in developing the early hybrid strains that helped transform American “homegrown” cannabis from a ditchweed laughingstock to the envy of the world.

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In 1985, Watson was reportedly arrested on cannabis charges in California. A month later, he landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, allegedly with a box of 250,000 seeds that included Skunk #1, Original Haze, and Afghani #1—all of which had been bred or stabilized by his cannabis compatriots. Watson met immediately with emissaries from Amsterdam’s burgeoning cannabis scene, which at the time relied largely on imported hashish to supply its coffeeshops.

Along with Robert Colonel Clarke (Author of Hashish! and Marijuana Botany), he would go on to form Hortapharm, a company dedicated to collecting cannabis seeds from around the world, both to create a stable genetic library and to breed new hybrids with desirable traits. By the late 1990s, they were doing business with Dr. Geoffrey Guy, founder and chairman of GW Pharmaceuticals, which is now licensed by the British government to cultivate cannabis for use in making “whole-plant extracts” with specific ratios of THC and CBD for use as prescription medicines.

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GW has since created “the first cannabis plant-derived medicine ever approved by the FDA,” but at the time, the company was in its earliest stages and still looking for cannabis seed stock to use in developing its pharmaceutical preparations.

Ben Dronkers

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In the late 1960s, Netherlands native Ben Dronkers sailed on merchant ships to exotic ports of call, where he initially sought out fabric to start his own clothing company, but eventually began collecting local cannabis seeds instead. In time, his collection was truly unparalleled and boasted genetics from throughout Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. He then used those landrace strains to breed his own hybrids.

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In 1985, Dronkers formed Sensi Seed Bank and began offering for sale the strains he’d collected and hybrids he’d created, including after crossing his own discoveries with recently arrived American varietals.

Among his most endearing and enduring contributions: Jack Herer, one of the all time most popular cannabis strains, named for one of the all-time most influential cannabis activists.

DJ Short

“#DjShortNewberry #DjShort. The red hue is from unintentional light bleaching. Photo and grow cred goes to: @secondgenerationgenetics” (@secondgenerationgenetics/Instagram)

According to a lengthy 2013 Grantland profile titled “The Willie Wonka of Pot,” DJ Short—the legendary, nearly mythical cannabis breeder behind Blueberry and many other classic strains—is part of a long line of plant medicine workers. His great-grandmother “used to grow pot, opium, tobacco, sage, and lavender in a backyard garden. The curtains in his grandmother’s house were made of hemp. His family used to joke, ‘If the house catches on fire, stay in for a little while and breathe.’”

In 1973, he bought a box of cereal that came with a seed sprouter as the prize inside. That inspired him to try growing the seeds he’d collected.

Eventually he began collecting cannabis seeds from the bags of cannabis he bought as a teenager, carefully logging them and making detailed notes, as much later related in his own 2003 book Cultivating Exceptional Cannabis: An Expert Breeder Shares His Secrets:

Colombian Gold (“The smell was that of sandalwood incense, almost frankincense, and the flavor was that of a peppery incense cedar … truly psychedelic, powerful and long lasting”), Chocolate Thai (“deep, rich, chocolate, nutty, woody/spicy”); Jamaican (“Too damned strong and speedy! … It is a heart-lifting herb and I have a sensitive heart. So I am careful with the samples of the commercial J-ganga that I try”).

Then one day, in 1973, after moving to Oregon, he bought a box of cereal that came with a seed sprouter as the prize inside. That inspired him to try growing the sativa seeds he’d collected as a youth, but he found they took too long to mature and yielded too little. Next he tried smoking some indica, but found it didn’t stoke his inspiration or spark his imagination the same way as sativa.

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So he set up a 16-square-foot closet grow and began to breed his own strains, mixing sativa and indica varietals and scrupulously smoking the results until he produced not just Blueberry, a marquee strain with the hue and aroma of fresh berries, but also Flo, Blue Velvet, Azure Haze, Whitaker Blues, Vanilluna, and many other varieties that have collectively changed the game—as has DJ Short’s tireless research into cultivation and breeding practices, a lifelong pursuit he continues today.

DNA Genetics

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Never lose focus of your passion in life and our passion remains this wonderful Plant🌱 and Don and I could not be more focused then we are today. Life has its Ups and it’s Downs but you always got to stay true to your #roots #rootofthefruit #itallstartsfromseed #growyourown @dna_genetics 16 years strong #ourterpsdontlie

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Don and Aaron (the D and A of DNA Genetics) met in Southern California and initially enjoyed the symbiotic relationship of weed dealer and customer. Then they became friends. And finally business partners.

There was never any question that they’d enter the cannabis business, as both men share a true and abiding passion for the plant. But rather than try to compete in the still grey market medical cannabis industry developing in the United States at the time, in 2004 they decided to pull up stakes and open up shop in The Netherlands.

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The move put them in direct contact with Amsterdam’s legendary cannabis scene, which had been serving as a center of breeding and seed banks since the days of Dave Watson and Ben Dronkers back in the 1980s.

As new kids on the block, Don and Aaron brought with them not just enthusiasm and youthful energy, but also a whole new generation of prized California genetics which they used to create next-level cannabis hybrids like LA Confidential, Chocolope, Tangie, and Kosher Kush.

More recently, they’ve moved their operations back to California, where they’re firmly established among the largest and most respected cannabis brands in the game today.

Lawrence Ringo

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Sour maui July 26th

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Before humans began actively breeding cannabis strains for desired traits, the plant produced much less THC than it does now, and lots more CBD—perhaps even a 1:1 ratio of its two best known and most plentiful cannabinoids. But because CBD isn’t intoxicating like THC, underground breeders seeking higher highs for decades unwittingly bred CBD out of the cannabis gene pool.

Sour Tsunami, bred by Lawrence Ringo, was the first stabilized CBD-rich strain found in California—a discovery that led to a revolution in medical cannabis.

Well aware of CBD’s therapeutic potential, however, in 2010 a non-profit organization called Project CBD formed to boost research into the compound, and help identify and proliferate what few CBD-rich cannabis varietals remained in circulation. From its inception, Project CBD partnered with California’s commercial cannabis testing labs to flag any bud testing high in CBD, in order to build up a breeding stock of high-CBD strains.

Sour Tsunami—bred by Lawrence Ringo of Southern Humboldt Seed Collective—was the first stabilized CBD-rich strain they found in California, a discovery that led to a revolution in medical cannabis.

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Ringo himself had begun growing as early as 1971, though he remained largely in the underground until 2010 when he founded his seed company. That’s also when he had his crops lab tested for the first time, and discovered the unique medicinal properties of Sour Tsunami were due to its high CBD content (around 11%). From then until the end of his life in 2014, he focused on developing additional CBD-rich strains, including Harle-Tsu, Canna-Tsu, Swiss-Tsu, and ACDC.

David Bienenstock's Bio Image

David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

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  • Rory Hanna

    Getting a bit bored with this almost complete lack of interest in Autoflowers by Leafly.

    In the last 5 years I’ve moved completely away from photoperiods to Autoflowers. The rapidly growing Autoflower industry was started by the Joint Doctor, yet there’s no mention of this?

    • les

      I agree completely! And there is a lot of ignorance surrounding autos, its small it weak, it has no flavor. Modern autos can be quite large, and potency now matches that of most photo period strains. Mephisto’s AvT was lab tested at 27% THC. Dutch Passion’s latest strains are all large, powerful strains that produce great harvests. But its the same snooty growers who won’t even talk to you about modern LED grow lights, self important purists. I’ve a friend in Amsterdam who sells to coffee shops. They won’t buy any modern strains, only the “Classics”. Hr made the mistake once of telling a coffee shop his Amnesia was an autoflower. They owner threw the back back at him and said we don’t sell low end cannabis………..