Indica vs. Sativa: What’s the Difference (and When to Use Each)

cannabis plant leaves
By Rebecca Olmos Updated October 22nd, 2022

Fact-checked by Deb Tharp

Medicinal and recreational cannabis are typically labeled as one of two types: indica and sativa. 

These labels traditionally referenced the physical attributes of the plants. Today, sativa and indica (and the increasingly common hybrid strain that combines elements of both) are used to tell consumers what kind of psychoactive effects they might feel once they consume the product. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between the sativa vs indica cannabis plants, their properties, and their ideal use cases. We’ll then explore hybrid strains and how you can choose the right option for your needs.

What is Cannabis Indica?

cannabis plant leaves

Cannabis Indica is one of three subspecies of the cannabis plant, along with cannabis sativa and cannabis ruderalis

Indica refers to the plant’s physical properties. Cannabis Indica plants have many branches, and their buds weigh more, giving the plant a dense appearance. These plants have dark green leaves that are short and broad to help minimize water loss. They typically only grow between 2-4 ft tall indoors (taller outdoors). The indica plant's high resin content make it ideal for hash production.

A more in-depth definition of the cannabis indica plant dives deeper into its origin. In 1985 biologist and academic Jean-Baptiste Lamarck collected samples from cannabis plants found growing in India. This plant's features differentiated it from the already known Cannabis Sativa variation. 

It is believed that cannabis indica plants originated from the Hindu Kush Mountains, where the plant adapted to the cold climate. These conditions possibly explain the cannabis indica plant's high volume of resin production since the resin would be the plant's form of protection from the cold environment. 

Cannabis indica refers to all cannabis varieties from dry regions of south and central Asia, like India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Turkey South, China, and Pakistan. These regions have a dry climate till October when the monsoon season brings high humidity causing early flowering before the autumn rain.


As cannabis has evolved, so have the terms used to describe it. In modern settings, like your local dispensary, the term 'indica' describes a strain or product's possible psychoactive effects. 

Indica "in-da-couch" is a popular reference to indicate that items labeled indica suggest that they might provide a more relaxing, sedating effect. Cannabis marked indica often offers consumers more of a body high. 

Indica plants have traditionally produced higher levels of cannabinoids like CBD and CBN. They also tend to generate higher levels of terpenes like myrcene, humulene, and caryophyllene

Whatever the combination, the blend of cannabinoids and terpenes typically found in indica strains provides effects many medical cannabis patients turn to when dealing with conditions like insomnia, chronic pain, headaches, anxiety, and panic. 

Because of its potential body-heavy effects, consumers often consider indicas to be “nighttime” strains best avoided when the goal is to feel more uplifted or energized. 

Some users report more intense side effects like dry mouth, red eyes, and paranoia after smoking an indica strain.

Popular Indica Strains

Famous indica strains include but aren't limited to:

  • Hindu Kush
  • Afghan Kush
  • Grand Daddy Purple
  • Northern Lights
  • Blueberry

These genetically pure strains can be challenging to find on dispensary shelves. If your dispensary has a wide selection of hybrid strains only, you can often find the desired indica effects by seeking out chemovars rich in the terpenes myrcene, linalool, and caryophyllene. 

What is Cannabis Sativa?

what is THC

The cannabis sativa subspecies is much taller than its indica counterpart. It has tree-like branches that expand and grow upwards with long narrow leaves giving the plant a much more open and aerated appearance. Where indica buds group around the nodes, sativa flowers are found in and along the stalks.

Cannabis sativa was identified in Europe 32 years before the discovery of the indica variation in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, the "father of modern taxonomy." Its tall thin leaves made it a good source of solid fibers similar to the cannabis ruderalis variation that we know and use today as hemp. The plant was nutritious and contained low levels of THC.

Cannabis sativa originates near the Equator in warmer and drier climates with long sunny days, such as Jamaica, Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, and humid tropical regions in Southeast Asia.

Researchers believe that sativa plants adapted their thin leaves to reduce transpiration and ensure good aeration on hot days. These plants have more extended veg periods of 10-16 weeks and produce less dense buds than indicas.


In today's market, sativa is known for a more stimulating "cerebral" experience that can promote feelings of creativity, suitable for social situations and artistic endeavors. It is often a more desirable daytime experience.

Sativa plants traditionally contained higher levels of THC and THCV (a cannabinoid that has been studied for its effects on focus and appetite suppression). Sativa plants tend to have higher levels of pinene and limonene, terpenes typically associated with uplifting and energizing effects.

Because of the more stimulating mental effects, sativa strains are often used by consumers searching for relief of mood disorders, depression, and ADHD. It is important to note that some users have reported feelings of anxiety, insomnia, and dizziness when consuming sativa-forward products.

Popular Sativa Strains

  • Sour Diesel
  • Jack Herer
  • Acapulco Gold
  • Panama Red
  • Strawberry Cough
  • Green Crack
  • Tangie
  • Train Wreck

What's the Difference Between Indica and Sativa?

indica vs sativa comparison table

Sativa vs Indica: Popular Products Comparison

There are hundreds of sativa and indica options available to recreational and medical cannabis consumers. Here are just a few examples to illustrate some of the differences you may find when visiting your local dispensary:

Sativa vs Indica Nugs

Sativa (Hybrid)

XJ-13 $68/3.5grams

  • Genetics: Jack Herer x G13
  • Top Terpene: Terpinolene
  • THC average: 20%
  • Top Reported Effect: Energizing

Indica (Hybrid):

Wedding Cake $55/3.5grams

  • Genetics: Triangle Kush x Animal Mints
  • Top Terpene: Limonene
  • THC average: 24%
  • Top Reported Effect: Relaxing

Indica vs Sativa Edibles


  • Kiva – Cherry
    • $24/100mg
    • 5mg/piece
    • Advertised Effects: Excite and Energize


  • Smokiez – Watermelon Live Resin Chews
    • $22/100mg
    • 10mg/piece
    • Advertised Effects: “perfect for hammock hangs”

What are Hybrids?

Hybrids are a cross between any two strains that can carry some effects of both the sativa and indica subspecies. Almost all modern strains are technically classified as hybrids, and you will rarely find pure (or landrace) sativa or indica strains. 

According to High Times, the first hybrid strains started developing during the 1960s when consumers began searching for higher THC levels. At the time, cannabis was grown almost entirely outdoors, so breeders needed plants that finished growing early enough to cultivate outdoors in the North American climate. Although Northern Mexican and Jamaican (cannabis sativa) strains flowered faster, they didn't deliver high THC levels. So breeders crossed them with Panamanian, Colombian, and Thai (cannabis indica) strains that produced high levels of THC and flowered longer. 

Then through a process called inbreeding – taking male and female sibling plants with desirable characteristics and breeding them – they created many of the 'original' sativa and indica strains we know today.


Many consumers assume hybrids are an equal balance between the cerebral and the body effects of sativas and indicas. However, they fall more on a spectrum. A truly "balanced" psychoactive effect is often the case with edibles rather than cannabis flower. Because hybrids are from two different strains, the effects largely depend on their parent strains and their unique genetic makeup of terpenes and cannabinoids. 

When browsing available hybrids, it is often helpful to ask if the strain "leans" more indica (relaxing) or sativa (energetic).

Popular Hybrid Strains

The following strains are sometimes under firm labels of indica or sativa. This is because of the specific batch's chemotype – the genetic makeup of cannabinoids and terpenes. 

  • Pineapple Express
  • OG Kush
  • GG4
  • White Widow
  • Chemdawg
  • Gelato
  • GSC

Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid: Which Should You Choose?

When first deciding what cannabis subspecies is right for you, it's essential first to determine your desired effects. Do you want something to inspire and create? To relax? To socialize? To sleep? Or are you searching for a specific medical benefit, such as pain or anxiety relief?

There is much debate within the community on whether or not indica vs sativa is a valid way to compare two strains in today's hybrid market. However, choosing from indica, sativa, or hybrid labels can be an easy starting place to help narrow a large list of chemovars. 

While it isn’t a hard rule, consider that:

  • Indica indicates a more relaxed effect,
  • Sativa is more energizing,
  • and hybrid offers a more balanced experience that falls somewhere in between. 

But suppose you wish to dive deeper and apply what you’ve learned about the origins of sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid. In that case, you can search or ask about terpene profiles and cannabinoid content to better understand how any given strain might make you feel.

As a final note of caution for new consumers: while the effects of strains can be similar among a wide variety of users, everyone's endocannabinoid system and body are different. Taking note of which strains make you feel energized or calm or sleepy, and experimenting with new strains, is the best way to find what works for you specifically.

Navigating the strains and products available at a dispensary can be overwhelming. It can be difficult to learn a strain’s terpene and cannabinoid profile. Some cannabis brands don’t show this information on their products, while others don't even test for these features. Be patient with the process and trust your own experience as the industry works through these kinks.

Dr. Ethan Russo, former Director of Research and Development for the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, once said, "It is essential that future commerce allows complete and accurate cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles to be available."

The information in this article and any included images or charts are for educational purposes only. This information is neither a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional legal advice or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about laws, regulations, or your health, you should always consult with an attorney, physician or other licensed professional.

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