Cultivar v. Chemovar: Debating the Debasement of Cannabis Vernacular

Nicholas Demski
Written by Nicholas Demski

How the subtle differences in Cannabis plants require specific nomenclature for correct identification

Imagine you’re standing on the sidewalk and you stop to read something written in chalk. It says, “MOM.” You stand there for a moment to ponder why someone would do that. Then, someone else walks toward you from the other direction, they stop and say, “wow!”

“What?” You ask them.

“It says, ‘WOW’” They reply.

“No it doesn’t,” you respond, “it says ‘MOM.’”

An argument ensues.





Sometimes, arguments over words are a matter of perspective. ‘MOM’ can be perceived as ‘WOW’ solely depending on your points of view.

One might assume that when discussing cannabis lingo, such as the difference between ‘cultivar’ and ‘chemovar,’ that’s the only thing going on.

Thankfully, the discrepancy between these words is not as boring as a matter of perspective.

What is the difference between cultivar and chemovar?

More often than not, you’ll hear the word cultivar. It’s a word that describes what most people might describe as a ‘strain.’ Though I cringe when I hear that word–and a cannabis plant somewhere dies a slow death–it’s a comparison that makes it easy to understand. Just remember, cultivar is short for cultivated variety, and is defined as a plant that has been “created or selected intentionally and maintained through cultivation”. It’s used to reference the strain, breed, type. Pick your layperson word, but don’t actually use the word ‘strain’ when referencing our favorite green plant. It hurts my degree in biology.

A cultivar is what a grower might cultivate. So, think Northern Lights, O.G. Kush, or Girl Scout Cookies. These varieties of cannabis are considered different cultivars. They are phenotypically different plants that have been given names based on their appearance, smell, and physiological effects.

A chemovar, on the other hand, is distinguished through a more scientific approach. [1,2] By observing the terpene profile, cannabinoid presence and potency, and quantity of standard biomolecules like lipids and waxes, scientists are able to identify different chemovars.

Since Northern Lights can crossbreed with O.G. Kush, for example, it can be more challenging to distinguish them botanically. That’s why they establish cannabis variety identities through chemovars–measurable chemical markers in cannabis that allow us to differentiate between multiple plant chemistries, and thus, the physiological effects the plants will trigger.

No room for misinterpretation.

Scientists don’t have the luxury of using generic names for plants that vary so wildly in their appearance yet have strikingly similar compound structures. As Dr. Ethan B. Russo put it, cultivar names are “eminently malleable, and are as simple to alter as writing a new label.” [3] Dosing requires precision, and as the cannabis industry integrates further into the legal, medical realm, a plant’s chemovar needs to be known to better ensure reproducible cannabis experiences and effects.


  1. Hazekamp, A. and Fischedick, J., “Cannabis – from cultivar to chemovar”, Drug Testing and Analysis, 2012, open access. (Impact factor = 2.993; cited by 32)
  2. Hazekamp, A. et al, “Cannabis: From Cultivar to Chemovar II—A Metabolomics Approach to Cannabis Classification”, 2016, Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 1, open access (Impact factor = N/A; cited by 24)
  3. Russo, E. “Current Therapeutic Cannabis Controversies and Clinical Trial Design Issues”Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2016,7: 309.(Impact Factor = 3.831; cited by 5)

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Nicholas Demski

Nicholas Demski

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  • My opinion is that Cannabis has to be considered like all other plants and to identify and protect the right of the breeder and the trust of the users, a name (vernacular or chemovar does’n matter) has to be deposited in an official office like CPVO in Europe and it has to garantee that the identity of the variety is exactly what correspond at the name for ever. This could work only for vegetative propagated materials. High genetic variability of seed multiplication made impossible the correct identification of the cannabis varieties.
    Gianpaolo Grassi

  • A cultivar should be the specific phenotype type within a variety of plant. Girl scout cookies is too broad and does not indicate the specific cultivar. There are many unique culivars within the strain of girl scout cookies. So don’t use strain but here needs to be a distinction between the line/strain/group that is girl scout cookies vs which cut of gsc it is. I might have 10 cultivars within the genetic line of a northern lights cross. Because we start with seed and therefore every plant is a unique cultivar. (if we choose to keep it going through multiple generations as a selected variety for cultivation)