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Can You Smell The Difference Between Indica & Sativa?

Nov 26, 2019 11:15:00 AM

The once clear differences between indica and sativa cannabis plants seem to be growing more difficult to distinguish with the constant crossbreeding between strains. For the cannabis newcomer, it can be difficult to decide what strain to pick out. After all, if someone is looking to use marijuana to treat insomnia, choosing a sativa would be like using gasoline to put out a fire. The process of breeding landrace sativa's and indica's has accelerated since more and more places legalize cannabis around the world. Most strains on the shelf today are hybrids that will lean to one side of the spectrum or the other. This has birthed many amazing genetics, but has muddied the waters of what constitutes an indica vs sativa. This begs the question, how does one tell the difference between sativa and indica?

A Brief History Lesson

Differentiating the two cannabis subspecies has always been a topic of debate. Cannabis was identified as a botanical in Europe by Carl Linnaeus in 1753. He used samples that had been growing in Europe and named it Cannabis Sativa. This would remain the one and only scientific name for cannabis for the next 32 years. A new discovery was made when Jean-Babtiste Lamarck received some cannabis samples from India. The differences between the two kinds were too great to ignore. He then created another species called Cannabis Indica. Herein lies the foundation for the sativa vs indica debate. According to a study published by the BMJ, Botanists back then had to make big decisions based on very little data, suggesting that they aren’t different species at all. It would be easier if there were only two subspecies of cannabis, but alas, there is a third and far less popular variety called Cannabis Ruderalis Russian botanist Janischevsky discovered the subspecies based on the plants that grew wild in Russia and Central Asia. Ruderalis plants grow smaller than indica varieties, leading to a notably low yield. One thing that makes them popular among cultivators is that they automatically flower. Typically, cannabis plants will only flower when the light cycle is an even 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark. Ruderalis autoflowers due to being native to an area so far from the equator. Today Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Ruderalis are considered to be varieties of Cannabis Sativa rather than their own species. 

Can you actually smell the difference?

The short answer to the burning question is yes. Since this is a question of aromatics, let's get into what we’re smelling when we take a whiff of some sweet juicy nugs. The oils in cannabis that provide flavor and aroma are called terpenes. These oils are not exclusive to cannabis, but actually exist in every plant on the planet. These oils do more than just make weed taste good, they are also responsible for the different nuanced feelings associated with indica and sativa. Terpenes actually change the way that THC works in our bodies! They are the reason we can smell the difference between sativa and indica because each smell is associated with an effect. Science is the best!

How can you smell the difference?

Now that you have an idea of what to look for, let's get into technique. Though we wish that we could transform you into experienced cannabis connoisseurs through this one blog entry, unfortunately we cannot. It will take time to train your nose to tell the difference between an indica and sativa strain. To start the process, let's talk about what these terpenes are and what they smell like. Sometimes you can find the terpene profile for certain strains. This is helpful when you’re first starting to train your olfactory system. You might notice that “sativa related” terpenes are present in indica strains and vice versa. This is why it’s important to pay attention to the concentration of these terpenes. 

Limonene - This terpene is found in lemons and other sour citrus fruits. It shows up abundantly in sativa strains. It is one of the terpenes responsible for the racy and high focused feeling associated with sativas. 

Myrcene - Myrcene is the most abundant terpene in all cannabis, so it’s bound to be present in both indica and sativa strains. It’s found in hops and mangos and can make cannabis smell fruity to hoppy depending on the concentration. 

Linalool - This terpene is abundant in indica strains. Lonalool is one of the terpenes in lavender that provides a heavily sedative effect. 

Pinene - Much like limonene, it’s pretty easy to guess where else to find pinene. This relaxing terpene is found pine needles. 

Humulene - Much like myrcene, humulene is abundant in hops. This terpene smells like beer and wood. 

Beta-Caryophyllene - This is another terpene that tends to exist in indica strains as it provides a relaxing and mellow high. It is found in many herbs and spices such as black peppercorns, sage, and rosemary. 

Rather than taking this list of terpenes to the dispensary, just pay attention to the general flavor profiles of the different strains. Indica and sativa can be generalized by tasting notes and where the smells hit in the nose. 


Look for notes of citrus, mango, sour cherry, and sometimes light floral notes. The smell of sativa strains will hit higher in the nose closer to the nasal cavity. While sativas are often fruity, many will have sour notes due to the strong presence of limonene. Myrcene will be present in sativas even though it’s associated with indica strains, it will just be in smaller amounts. This is where the mango flavor comes from. 


Indica strains will have notes of earth, banana, forest, berries, papaya, must, hops, and spices. The aromatics will hit low in the nose closer to the nostrils. Many associate musty and funky smells with indica strains, but many have fruity notes as well. Myrcene will be abundant in indica strains, so notes of hops are a good indicator that the high will be relaxing. Indicas can sometimes be floral as they could have high amounts of linalool, but the scent is often overpowered by the more funky aromatics. 

Final Thoughts

Depending on how intensely you plant to train yourself to smell the difference between strains, you could keep a weed journal of the different notes that you pick up. One of the best things about cannabis is that one strain will be completely different from person to person. Each experience is magical and unique. 

Topics: sativa indica

Rio Kaplan
Written by Rio Kaplan

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