Though humanity’s use of cannabis dates back before written history, it wasn’t until the enlightenment era of the 18th century that scientists (then called philosophers) took an interest in the plant. By this time, cannabis was used around the world for its fibers; more than 90 percent of all clothing derived from hemp, and hemp provided the cloth for ship sails — in fact, the term “canvas” is a derivation of “cannabis.” Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the father of the modern system of naming organisms, determined that all cannabis fell into one category, which he named Cannabis sativa.
At this time in history, some cultures were using cannabis for its psychoactive properties. A number of peoples in West Africa smoked water pipes as religious rites, and large populations in India and China drank cannabis beverages and created cannabis cuisine for spiritual practice.
It is through these sources that French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck determined that there must be another variety of cannabis that inspires “a sort of drunkenness that makes one forget one’s sorrows and produces a strong gaiety.” Plus, Lamarck noted that cannabis plants can grow differently, with one variety being tall and thin and the other short and stocky. The latter, a newer discovery, he named Cannabis indica, for it was in India that he first sampled the drug.
Fast forward 150 years, and we reach the final distinction in cannabis varieties. In 1924, Russian botanist D.E. Janischewsky determined that there is a third type of cannabis, this one of the “ruderal” variety. In botany, ruderal plants are those that grow despite the inhospitableness of their environment; Janischewsky observed that throughout Russia and Central Europe, this cannabis variety — which is much smaller than indica and sativa varieties — grew almost anywhere, like a weed.
As a result, today, cannabis enthusiasts widely utilize these three categories of cannabis in cultivation, sale and use. Even the wild-growing ruderalis has been introduced in grow operations to diversify genetics and add new characteristics to hybrid strains. Cannabis experts continue to rely particularly on indica and sativa to describe their strains, as demonstrated on sites like Weedmaps, and most dispensaries label their goods with these terms, as well.