The science of cannabis genetics has existed in a hazy realm of illegality and prohibition-derived stigma for nearly a century. Relegated by the first anti-pot laws in the United States that appeared in 1913 in states such as Indiana, Maine, and Wyoming, cannabis cultivators seeking connoisseur-grade examples of the art have traditionally worked in cloistered isolation, mired in the ignorance of pseudo-science and urban legend.
This generations-old underground culture of ultra-discreet operation has resulted in a nascent legal industry that suffers a gross lack of hard research and peer-reviewed science. Unfortunately, most cannabis breeders operate in a desperate state of self-reliance, employing guesswork and questionable genetic material.
Newly legal adult use markets across North America—including California, Canada, Massachusetts, and Nevada—are finally allowing researchers to seriously investigate cannabis genetics and breeding. This, in turn, is helping support the natural industry-wide desire to introduce novel products to market that address specific consumer preferences or patient medical needs.
Playing Catch Up
One example of the new generation of entrepreneurial researchers attempting to push the boundaries of cannabis genetics is Nathaniel Pennington, CEO and founder of Humboldt Seed Company (HSC).
As a biologist and geneticist focused on the development of premium cannabis genetics, Pennington has for years been obsessed with creating the best possible seeds and clones to support both commercial cultivators and self-sustaining gardeners.
Over the past almost two decades, the pioneering company he founded in 2001 has gathered a large volume of data regarding the science of superior cannabis genetics, with a focus on varieties that offer rare terpene and cannabinoid profiles. The company’s Blueberry Muffin strain, a decade in the making and increasingly popular in West Coast dispensaries, was described by Leafly as the most accurately named strain on the market.
Despite these successes, Pennington employs a data-driven management style steeped in reality. “We have so much catch up work to do in cannabis breeding. In Humboldt, we’re starting over in a proper way,” he said during an exclusive interview with Cannabis Aficionado from his cannabis farm-come-genetics laboratory in Humboldt County, California.
Not satisfied with the state of cannabis genetics in the Golden State (the world’s sixth largest economy and one of the newest entrants to the legal adult use cannabis market), Pennington began investigating ways to bring together the brightest minds in cannabis cultivation and genetics research. His goal? To leverage his experience in genome annotation and DNA markers affecting plant behavior to push forward the science of commercial ganja genetics.
The Phenotype Mega-Hunt
Headquartered in the heart of Northern California’s fabled Emerald Triangle, Pennington’s response to California’s new cannabis legalization — and the threats and opportunities that it presents for small and mid-sized farmers in the region — has been to hunt and breed the best genetics in use for local farms and nurseries in the licensed marketplace.
He manifested his vision in the form of a phenotype mega-hunt, a type of biological scavenger hunt in which he and a team of subject matter experts, including scientists, cultivators, and breeders, launched a maniacally challenging and detailed search for the best and the brightest of the cannabis genome.
Thus was born the first phenotype mega-hunt in the heart of Humboldt County, widely recognized as the epicenter of outdoor cannabis cultivation in the United States (and home to an estimated 20,000 cannabis farms). This ambitious project began with 40,000 select cultivars, all unique seeds that were grown in a variety of environments for the special project, including open fields, greenhouses (some employing leading-edge light deprivation), and indoor gardens.
“Choosing the best out of 30 is different than choosing the best from 40,000,” said Pennington. He and his team narrowed their candidate field to 10,000 ideal females, from which they selected only the highest quality 0.5 percent of flowering plants. That involved he and his team carefully examining and disqualifying 200 plants for each they labeled a finalist. The group then systematically discarded 90 percent of the 500 to derive 50 top-shelf “winners.”
Cannabis breeders speak a language all their own. Their obsession with phenotypes, terpene profiles, and liquid chromatography testing knows no bounds. However, to appreciate the significance of a project such as Pennington’s phenotype mega-hunt, one need not possess a Ph.D. in molecular genetics.
Phenotypic variation is a topic near and dear to botanical geneticists and breeders seeking to create heartier and more robust plants of any type, including cannabis. Breeders and farmers naturally seek genetics in the form of seeds and clone plants that yield more cannabis resin or that feature larger volumes of particular molecules, such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
However, modern legal cannabis breeders and craft cultivators desire many genetic characteristics other than large volumes of the infamously psychoactive molecule THC. These traits include resilience to disease, tolerance for harsh weather, and ample production of specific constituent chemicals, including non-psychoactive CBD and the more than 200 terpenes and 113 cannabinoids within the cannabis genome.
Data-Driven Genetics Research
Pennington emphasized the serious nature of the genetics research behind the phenotype mega-hunt and his personal mission to preserve and build upon the generations of cannabis breeding expertise that exists in the Emerald Triangle.
“Folks don’t come to us because we post cool videos of sports cars to YouTube or are mentioned by the latest rapper,” said Pennington. “Our customers seek us because we provide genetics that truly perform. Last year, we took the California clone community by storm with our Blueberry Muffin that we crossed in 2008, named in 2010, and have been stabilizing and fine-tuning ever since.”
Pennington emphasized the need for cultivators and the entire industry to recognize the relatively primitive state of the science of cannabis genetics knowledge in an effort to continually push the research envelope and improve breeding techniques.
HSC decided not to restrict access to the selected phenotypes that resulted from the 2018 phenotype mega-hunt. “If this project created 50 premium clone strains in 2018, why would we not do that again in 2019 and do an even better job?” said Pennington.
In the world of cannabis genetics, his ambitious vision aligns with the reality of science: The knowledge gained from the distinct population crosses of his first phenotype mega-hunt will serve to expedite future efforts. “Knowing that it’s a make or break situation for many of the state’s small farms, we felt a moral obligation not to restrict access to the best cannabis strains,” Pennington continued.
Phenotype Mega-Hunt and the Quest for Rare Strains
According to Pennington, the holy grail of cannabis breeding is the discovery and exploitation of rare genetic traits in an effort to develop new and stable cultivars. The overall goal is to develop strains capable of delivering to consumers novel medical efficacy, wellness benefits, or lifestyle enhancement.
When he began considering the state of the cannabis genome, Pennington knew that he needed to start fresh with a traditional breeding strategy to discover this plant’s true capabilities, outside the limits of prohibition and its disorganized underground markets. “We bring distinct, distant populations together in breeding to examine their ‘phenotypic array.’ Essentially, DNA reproduction loves new DNA! It loves DNA it hasn’t seen before…or for millennia,” he said.
Industrious organizations such as Humboldt Seed Company are discovering and combining rare cannabis genetics in the hope of producing traits and benefits that haven’t been seen. “As much as we’ll find things that are appealing, we’ll find things that are very unappealing,” said Pennington.
The pioneering cannabis genetics researcher completed our interview by offering some sage advice to those who might consider similar projects: “This isn’t for the weak-at-heart farmer. It’s a tremendous amount of work and diligence involving massive data collection and analysis. But it’s totally necessary to target and craft the most beneficial cultivars for the dual benefits of commercial viability and medicinal efficacy.”
When queried about the future of the Northern California’s legal adult use cannabis cultivation industry, Pennington assumed a pensive, yet optimistic, stance. “To survive, I think we must be as innovative as possible. Innovation is an area where the companies with the deep pockets don’t necessarily have an advantage.”
Cannabis Classification System Announced for 2022 Emerald Cup Awards
One of the factors that make the Emerald Cup so important to California’s cannabis market is its continued strive for excellence and innovation. For the 2022 awards, the judging process is undergoing a transformation and with it comes a new cannabis classification system that will classify entries based on terpenes, flavour, and effects for anybody — from customers to budtenders, dispensaries, judges, and cultivators.
Cannabis Is More Than Just THC
The days of just searching out the highest THC totals are rapidly receding as research has now proven that terpenes are at the base of the entourage effect that customers desire are rapidly fading.
Terpenes, on the other hand, have mostly added to the consumer confusion already caused by overly broad Indica/Sativa/Hybrid terminology, whimsical strain names, irrelevant THC/CBD percentages, and other ambiguous factors that make selecting the best or correct strain a less-than-satisfying ordeal for even the most experienced cannabis connoisseurs.
The Emerald Cup competition will serve as a testbed for a new classification system for cannabis flowers. The event organisers and their testing partners at SC Labs decided to further break down the flower categories based on the chemometrics of each cultivar (better known as “chemovar” — the evolution of the term “dominant terpene”) evolving beyond last year’s flower category sorting by primary terpene content, in order to level the playing field and eliminate as much bias as possible in the blind/anonymous sampling done by Emerald Cup judges each year.
This paradigm-shifting insight sparked months of additional research and discussion, culminating in the Emerald Cup Cannabis Classification System based on PhytoFacts® powered by SC Labs.
The all-new classification system builds on last year’s approach of sorting flower entries by primary terpene content, leveraging a decade of Cannabis phytochemistry research between PhytoFacts®, developed by Napro Research in 2013, and a powerful database of over 250,000 terpene tests aggregated by SC Labs, dating back to their launch of terpene testing on Cannabis in 2013. The key class names were chosen to represent current terminology, are widely used in the business and are familiar to dispensaries and consumers. Each class is further explained using taste notes, effects, and popular strains or cultivars to promote understanding and acceptance.
The New Cannabis Classification System
The classes of the Emerald Cup Cannabis Classification Based on PhytoFacts® powered by SC Labs include:
“Jacks + Haze” Class
- Mostly ‘Sativa’-leaning varietals
- Tasting notes – Fruity, Pinesol, Haze
- Effects – Energizing, Cerebral, Artistically Inspiring
- Common Cultivars – Classic Trainwreck, Jack Herer, Durban Poison, Super Lemon Haze
- Terpenes Profile: Terpinolene, Caryophyllene, Myrcene
“Tropical + Floral” Class
- Mostly ‘Indica’-leaning varietals
- Tasting notes – Sweet, Floral, Tropical Fruit
- Effects – Calming, Soothing, Relaxing
- Common Cultivars – Super Skunk, Hawaiian, In the Pines, Dream Queen
- Terpenes Profile: Ocimene, Myrcene
“Sweets + Dreams” Class
- Mostly ‘Indica’-leaning varietals
- Tasting Notes – Fruity, Sweet, Woody, Hoppy, Herbaceous
- Effects – Relaxation, Couch Lock, Analgesic
- Common Cultivars – Blue Dream, Tangie, Forbidden fruit, Grandaddy Purple, Purple Urkel, Grape Ape, Cherry AK, God’s Gift, Purple Punch
- Terpenes Profile: Myrcene, Pinene, Caryophyllene
“OGs + Gas” Class
- True ‘Hybrid’ varietals
- Tasting Notes – Gas, Fuel, Sweet, Citrus, and Pepper
- Effect – Uplifting, Stimulating, Analgesic, Relaxation
- Common Cultivars – Classic OG Kush, ChemDawg, Sour Diesel, Gorilla Glue
- Terpenes Profile: Any combination or shifting codominance of Caryophyllene, Limonene, Myrcene
- True ‘Hybrid’ varietals
- Tasting Notes – Deserts, Doughs, Citrusy & Spicy
- Effects – Stimulating, Racy, Uplifting, Comforting
- Common Cultivars – Classic Bubba Kush, GSC, Gelatos, Cakes
- Any shift in codominance of Caryophyllene & Limonene
“Exotics” (Rare Terpene Combinations) Class
- True ‘Hybrid’ varietals
- Tasting notes – varied based on chemistry of entry
- Effect – varied based on chemistry of entry
- Common Cultivars – rarest terpene profiles entered into the Emerald Cup Competition
This game-changing development in cannabis classification levels the playing ground for the 2022 Cup as well as market competitiveness amongst brands. The system seeks to become an open-source, globally recognised grading solution for Cannabis, with six simple classes/names/descriptions. In the same way that a Chardonnay would not be tested against a Merlot in the wine business, this new system permits strains with comparable profiles to be judged against each other. This new classification system will also be used at the California State Fair Cannabis Awards in July 2022.
The 2022 Emerald Cup Awards will be presented live on stage on May 14th at the Green Street Festival in Downtown Los Angeles, California.
The Sativa Preservation Society Project Will Protect Rare Haze Genetics
Space Coyote, the totally cosmic cannabis company, has launched the Sativa Preservation Society Project — a movement that protects Haze genetics while paying homage to the custodians and cultivators who kept the seeds alive.
Celebrators of the cannabis culture’s stoner heritage, Space Coyote’s aesthetic and ethos embraces the vibes and psychedelic Seventies scene, where the creativity and community of cannabis intersect.
Co-founder and self-confessed ‘Sativa Diva’ Libby Cooper calls it the “ultimate passion project”.
“We’re truly passionate about saving these genetics that are the actual grandmothers of every modern-day sativa strains that people love — all of these desert strains, all of the fruity strains,” Cooper tells me from the Space Coyote van en route to Hall of Flowers.
Founding the Sativa Preservation Society Project
The concept of the Sativa Preservation Society Project was years in incubation as the Space Coyote team deliberated over how to bring it to life. It was important for them to give back to the community while helping to educate about the history of cannabis culture.
The stars aligned earlier this year when the team met Bam Vachher-Gnanathurai, nursery and plant breeding manager from the Posibl Project in Salina. A mutual love of the unique effects of Haze genetics made for a truly cosmic outcome.
“Bam is super passionate about sativa,” said Cooper. “When we went and met up with Bam for the very first time, he rolled a blunt from Cuban Black. It was such an amazing experience to smoke that flower.”
“The initial conversation of the Sativa Preservation Society coming to life happened during that smoke session. It was like, ‘holy shit, we could actually do this.’”
The Haze Experience
The Sativa Preservation Society Project is launching with three incredibly rare cultivars — Cuban Black Haze, Uptown Haze (also known as A5 Haze), and C5 Haze — all of which were originally cultivated in the 1980s by legendary grower Neville Schoenmaker. The flower will be available as bagged eighths and as infused prerolls.
Cooper likens the Haze experience to being “a bit like mushrooms” — colors are brighter, your smell is enhanced and your hearing is sharper.
“It’s really like a cup of coffee without any jitteriness or anxiety usually associated with sativas. This is pure energy without any sort of adverse effects,” explains Cooper. “You really feel as if your eyelids are getting peeled back — you’re awake, you’re uplifted. Basically, I smoke it and I immediately start stretching.”
“Many sativa genetics are dying out due to a number of reasons,” says Cooper. “Typically, they are more difficult to grow, have a longer curing time, and the fluffy buds are easily crushed in transit.” All of which makes sativas less cost-effective in California’s highly competitive legal market.
“This truly is the first time these original sativa strains are going to be commercially grown,” says Cooper. “It really wouldn’t have been possible, funnily enough, without this group named Posibl.”
Learn more about the Sativa Preservation Society Project in the video above. While you’re at it, find your nearest Space Coyote here.
Peach Oz: This Sweet And Juicy Cultivar Will Stimulate Your Creativity
If you’re looking for a premium cultivar with legendary genetics and a euphoric high, look no further than Peach Oz, the latest addition to Wonderbrett’s stellar strain menu.
A cross of Peach Rings with OZ Kush and a descendent of Zkittlez, the sweet, stimulating citrus taste profile of Peach Oz will get your creative juices flowing.
While the cultivar may be new to the public, according to Wonderbrett Co-Founder and famed Breeder Brett Feldman, it’s five-years-old in the world of genetics.
“There’s only a small handful of heady smokers who follow these things,” says Feldman. “I wanted to bring it to the masses to share the experience with everybody. That’s where my passion comes from with this strain. Similar to an amazing dish at a restaurant, you want to share it with your friends.”
Grown in small-batches at scale from the company’s state-of-the-art Long Beach cultivation facility, the strain was first created by Dying Breed Seeds, then perfected by Cannabis By Corey, before making its way to Feldman.
Bursting with flavors and aromas that bring to mind the sweet ocean breeze and fragrant fruit orchards of the California sunshine state, Peach OZ’s four dominant terpenes: Caryophyllene, Linalool, Limonene and Humulene, create a distinct sweet taste of ripe peaches, citrus candy and cream.
“When any strain has that unique, recognizable consistency in its flavor, whether that be peach, lemon or orange, that’s what myself and other breeders appreciate most and look for when bringing a genetic like this to market. It’s mind-blowing what Peach OZ can do that, translating a fruit flavor to a smoking experience,” explained Feldman.
Peach OZ is available at select dispensary and at Wonderbrett’s flagship dispensary in L.A.