Indica vs. Sativa: How to Distinguish Between Cannabis Plants

By: Karina Buggy  | 
While the token iconography for marijuana typically depicts fresh cannabis plants, buds like the one shown here are what farms trim for distribution and consumption, regardless of which cannabis strain you're working with. Martin Deja / Getty Images

Understanding the major differences between indica vs. sativa strains of marijuana is important for cannabis use due to the different effects they incur on the human body and mind. Although both the indica strain and sativa strain can have medical benefits, they are used for different purposes.

The cannabis plant comes in many different strains, typically categorized as cannabis indica, cannabis sativa or a hybrid of the two. Indica and sativa plants have unique characteristics, from physical differences and varied THC levels to their therapeutic effects and medicinal efficacy.


A Brief Overview of Cannabis Plants

Cannabis plants, which produce marijuana, are a species of flowering herb. Indica, sativa and cannabis ruderalis are the subspecies of the cannabis plant. Cannabis ruderalis plants are generally small and produce minimal, weak bud, so indicas and sativas tend to be preferred over ruderalis strains.

There are now over 1,000 strains of cannabis, thanks to the drive to create hybrid plants. These hybrids carry the properties of both parent plants. A hybrid can be bred from a combination of an indica and a sativa strain, or from two pairs of indica plants and sativa plants.


The chemical compounds that make up the cannabis plant include nonpsychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) and psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Common benefits of CBD include pain relief, reduced anxiety and decreased inflammation, while THC is the chemical compound that produces the "high."

The legality of marijuana varies from place to place. Recreational use for people beyond certain age thresholds is permitted in some countries and states, whereas other states only allow marijuana use for medical applications. Others still outlaw the substance altogether.


All About Indica

Cannabis plant against a yellow background
Indica is a bit darker shade of green, with shorter, wider leaves. Anton Petrus / Getty Images

The Cannabis indica plant is characterized by a woody stalk and broad, dark green leaves. Indica plants tend to be bushy and produce dense buds or "flowers." They often have a musty or earthy smell similar to a skunk.

Cannabis indica is commonly associated with medical marijuana due to its relaxing (or even sedative) effect. Typically, cannabis indica strains are high in CBD but low in THC. CBD-predominant strains are commonly used at night since it will promote relaxation and sleepiness, allowing the user to drift off into a restful sleep.


The higher CBD-to-THC ratio in cannabis indica can also offer pain relief by reducing inflammation. Some users may use cannabis as an alternative to pain medication, or as a supplement to prescriptions to better manage pain.

Aside from relieving pain, indica has also been shown to improve immune function, which makes it an excellent holistic remedy for people suffering from severe medical conditions like arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cancer or other chronic pain conditions.

Popular Indica Strains

Indica strains typically offer a relaxing effect and reduce anxiety, like many medical cannabis strains. Popular indica strains include Northern Lights, Granddaddy Purple, Purple Haze and OG Kush. Many names of the different strains are inspired by the brown-purple hue of mature flowers.


All About Sativa

Close-up of fresh cannabis plant on sunny day
Sativa typically has longer, narrower leaves that are a lighter shade of green. Morsa Images / Getty Images

Cannabis sativa plants are native to Central and South America as they thrive in hot, dry climates. Sativa plants grow tall with long, thin leaves and produce fluffy, sweet-smelling buds. Sativa strains tend to be THC-predominant, which is associated with a stimulating effect that may promote energy and creativity.

Since sativa strains have more THC (which can result in a "head high" and increased alertness), it is more commonly used recreationally and is not strongly recommended at night if you're intending to get a full night's sleep.


Sativa can increase energy and have uplifting or even euphoric effects, so some people use it to help treat psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression or PTSD. However, the results of scientific studies regarding its effectiveness in treating certain symptoms are mixed.

Popular Sativa Strains

Sativa strains can be used to affect mood due to its mind-altering effects, whether you are hoping for an energy boost or increased focus. Popular sativa strains include Sour Diesel, Pineapple Express and Strawberry Cough. Flowers from sativa plants tend to retain their bright-green leafy texture into maturity.

Popular Hybrid Strains

Hybrid strains offer the most opportunity for fine-tuning your experience and preferred effects of cannabis products, blending the properties of indica and sativa strains.

A hybrid strain can vary widely in its effects: It can induce a head or body high, be a catalyst for alertness or effective sleep aid, or produce pain-relieving effects. Popular hybrid strains include White Widow, Blue Dream, Wedding Cake and Girl Scout Cookies.