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.
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.”  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.
- Hazekamp, A. and Fischedick, J., “Cannabis – from cultivar to chemovar”, Drug Testing and Analysis, 2012, open access. (Impact factor = 2.993; cited by 32)
- 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)
- Russo, E. “Current Therapeutic Cannabis Controversies and Clinical Trial Design Issues”Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2016,7: 309.(Impact Factor = 3.831; cited by 5)