That which we call Indica, by any other name would smell as sweet. An essay on the history of the term Indica and the taxonomical conflict between the monotypic and polytypic views of Cannabis, Jacob L. Erkelens, Arno Hazekamp, 2014

That which we call Indica, by any other name would smell as sweet. An essay on the history of the term Indica and the taxonomical conflict between the monotypic and polytypic views of Cannabis

Jacob L. Erkelens, Arno Hazekamp
Bedrocan BV, The Netherlands

Cannabinoids, 2014, 9, (1), 9-15.

What’s in a name ?

An interesting feature of the worldwide subculture devoted to cannabis is the endless number of names given to its preparations (marijuana, pot, weed, kiff, bhang..). On top of that, there is a continuously grow-ing list of names used to describe different varieties and strains of the cannabis plant. As a result of centu-ries of breeding and selection, a large variation of can-nabis strains has been developed. These are commonly distinguished, by plant breeders, recreational users, and medical cannabis patients alike, through the use of popular names such as White Widow, Northern Lights, Amnesia, or Haze. Already over 700 different varieties have been catalogued [1] and many more are thought to exist, each one with a potentially different effect on body and mind. With the recent growth in medicinal use of cannabis, the need to clearly distinguish between varieties and their expected (therapeutic) effects has become more important than ever.
Although variety names remain the most common method to distinguish between the many cannabis products available, it is largely unclear how such names reflect an actual difference in chemical compo-sition. Perhaps the current cannabis jargon just serves to give the cannabis subculture an air of sophistication, in the way that a wine connoisseur would describe his favourite alcoholic drink. And because cannabis is an immensely lucrative cash-crop, the growth in names may also be driven by the attempts of individual grow-ers to distinguish their own product from that of com-petitors. What is certain is that the unscientific nature of the cultivation and naming of cannabis strains adds to the verbal chaos surrounding cannabis use. Although this may simply be regarded as an anthropological curiosity, a more fundamental issue exists at the root of this, because over the last few centuries there has been a continuing scientific controversy regarding the taxo-nomic classification of cannabis.
Today, a firm belief is held by growers and users of cannabis that there exist at least two different main types of cannabis; sativa and indica. However, over the centuries opinions have been going back and forth over whether cannabis is most accurately classified as one single species or as multiple. The roots of this conflict are mostly found in the nineteenth century with tendrils stretching back in time as far as the Late Middle Ages. This essay will focus on the use of the word indica and its development throughout this history, because the problem of botanical classification is best shown through the particular history of this word. The purpose of the essay is not to ascertain which argument is the strongest, but to shine a light on the history of this issue and explain how this rather obscure taxonomical fight managed to spread out far beyond the field of science, into medicine, law and finally the worldwide subculture of cannabis.

Historical background

The starting point for our historical exploration is the entry on Cannabis sativa in the German edition of the Herbarium (German: Kräuterbuch) of German botanist and physician Leonhart Fuchs, published in 1543. In his book, Fuchs mentions that there exist two kinds of hemp, i.e. wild hemp (German: Wilder Hanff) and domesticated hemp (Tamer Hanff), but that he has only ever seen the domesticated variety.