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If You Had to Choose Just One Pot Varietal ...

Curious smokers now have easier access to a plant that, like the grapes in wine, is an expression of centuries of migration, ingenuity, and taste. Of course, unlike wine, which is strictly regulated for origin and quality, varietals are identified mostly based on the growers’ and ­retailers’ say-so, which means the unique attributes of each strain—especially when it comes to the quality of the high—might just be in your head. Here, a guide to and family history of some of the most popular and beloved strains. (How do these strains get named? There is absolutely no rhyme or reason.)

Cannabis Anatomy

1. Stalk: Sativas have very tall stalks, while indicas are squatter.

2. Stem: Not fit for smoking but can be used to make tinctures or cooking oil. Cannabis growers typically try to minimize stems.

3. Fan leaves: Despite iconic status, they contain negligible amounts of THC and smoke harshly. They should not be visible in purchased marijuana.

4. Cola: The site from which buds sprout. The largest is always at the top of the plant.

5. Calyx: Part of the female plant’s flower; the main component of processed cannabis.

6. Trichomes: Tiny glandular hairs that sprout from the stem leaves and buds and give good bud a shiny, crystal-covered appearance.

7. Pistil: Often attractively colored, it indicates the presence of THC-containing flowers but itself contains no THC.

Early Sativa Strains
For smokers taking their first puff in decades, these vintage strains are a good place to start. Bred stronger than the same strains were in the 1960s but still on the weaker side, these buds tend to be fluffier, with a lighter hue and notes of citrus, and produce the classic “high”: giggliness and a propensity toward rambling conversational tangents.

energetic, beginner / sweet, piney
Early Thai imports came in distinctive “stick” form, with buds tied around a stem. Like other older sativa strains, which originated in tropical climates, Thai doesn’t grow well in North America and can be difficult to find, though Thai seeds have been crossbred into newer strains like Haze. The high is considered energetic yet relaxing.

Acapulco Gold
energetic, beginner / earthy, sweet
Acapulco Gold was an early favorite of the Latin American weed strains. The flowers’ orange hairs coated with red, green, and brown resin give it a golden hue. The bud is known for its sweet, earthy smoke, and for its euphoric effects. Though not as easy to find as it once was, its name recognition keeps it alive.

Panama Red
energetic, moderate / sweet, berrylike
If you are looking for the typical cliché hippie drug experience—one puff, and suddenly the world is transformed—this is the strain for you. Known to be particularly psychedelic, Panama Red lent its name to a song by New Riders of the Purple Sage. A native of its namesake, Panama, this strain can be hard to cultivate closer to home.

If sativas get you high, indicas, which were imported from Central Asia and the Middle East in the late 1970s, get you “stoned.” For this reason, many connoisseurs dismiss indicas as less fun or creative, but they also contain more of the compounds that make cannabis a good treatment for lack of appetite, nausea, insomnia, or pain.

relaxing, moderate / pungent, earthy
This ancient variety is believed to be as close as you can get to smoking the weed of the original B.C.E. stoners. For that reason, it’s not terribly popular, and may be difficult to find in its original form, though it has since been incorporated into hybrids like Afgooey. Like most indicas, this is chill-out weed, the sort of thing to smoke if you feel like melting into your couch.

Hindu Kush
relaxing, moderate / pungent, piney
Is there some irony that this soothing, pain-relieving strain is named for one of the most violent places in the world, where Aryan horsemen once rampaged across these eponymous mountains? Something to consider when smoking this dark-green bud. Much more popular than other pure indicas, so much so that it has become a ­byword for the drug more generally.

Hash Plant
relaxing, expert / woodsy, spice
Hippie revelry not your thing so much as Orientalist decadence? Consider this Pacific Northwest strain, just in case Balzac, Baudelaire, or the rest of Club des Haschishins drop by. It’s a strain originally developed to produce hashish, but can often be found in unprocessed bud form. Since it was bred to be as dense as possible, its smoke may be a bit harsh for beginners.

First-Generation Domestics
Domestic “homegrown” marijuana emerged in the 1970s when California growers discovered sinsemilla methods, which greatly increased yield and, more important, allowed for control of specific traits by planting genetically identical cuttings. These growers created some of the all-time great strains, known for being much more potent than earlier imports.

Haze/Purple Haze
energetic, moderate / sweet, earthy
One of the most well-known early American-bred strains, Haze developed in California during the ’70s, first appearing several years after the Hendrix tune. Yet the name is apt; the lyrics could be describing its especially psychedelic high. The variety also sparked a “purple craze,” wherein hints of purple, usually found in the flower’s buds, became a mark of quality.

Alaskan Thunderfuck
relaxing, moderate / pungent, earthy
Once American breeders perfected indoor growing methods, cultivation spread far outside cannabis’s native climate. This strain was reportedly developed in Alaska’s Matanuska valley, near Anchorage and Sarah Palin’s Wasilla. Despite the aggressively ridiculous name, Thunderfuck provides a head high that’s serene without putting the smoker to sleep.

Maui Waui
energetic, beginner / tropical, sweet
Its Hawaiian origins lend it a sweet and pineapplelike flavor. Known to be very giggle-inducing, the high was compared by one online reviewer to being in a kangaroo’s pouch while it bounces. Good for a party, maybe not so much if you need to keep it together. Connoisseurs wonder how batches grown on the U.S. mainland might suffer if not grown in Hawaii’s rich, volcanic soil.

Second-Wave Hybrids
In the 1980s, the Dutch introduced a whirlwind of crossbreeding into the world of weed, combining sativas with indicas in an effort to improve growing and generate novel effects. The differences between many of these strains may be difficult for anyone but a true weedhead to distinguish, but there are a few definite classics.

Skunk No. 1
energetic, moderate / pungent, sweet
A legendary strain named for its funky, pungent aroma, Skunk debuted at and won the first Cannabis Cup in 1988. Known for its chunky buds, strong high, and quickly maturing plants, it has become a favorite of crossbreeders. On its own, Skunk’s high is energetic. Smoking it might also result in an empty fridge.

Big Bud
relaxing, moderate / spice, earthy
A grower’s favorite since it yields many (duh) big buds relative to the number of worthless leaves. Smokers looking for something more distinctive may be disappointed. This indica has a body high and a spicy taste, making it a good choice as a sleep aide but not a standout for those looking for a particularly psychedelic experience.

Sour Diesel
energetic, moderate / fuel, skunk
This incredibly popular sativa named for its fuel-like smell might be an acquired taste. Then again, who hasn’t enjoyed the smell of a gas station? One of the few strains known for their popularity and availability on the less pot-friendly East Coast, it’s regularly available from New York delivery services, as is the sub-strain NYC Sour Diesel.

White Widow
energetic, expert / earthy, pungent
A cross of a Brazilian sativa and an Indian indica, White Widow has white resin crystals, covering the entirety of the plant—including the leaves, which normally don’t contain much THC—that make it especially potent. It’s a favorite of Amsterdam coffee shops, but new ­users might want to get comfortable with mellower strains before attempting this one.

relaxing, moderate / sweet
There’s only one place in the U.S. that can grow cannabis with federal permission: Ole Miss University, which has a long-running, very limited medical-marijuana study. Legend has it this strain was stolen from there. This is probably stoner marketing bullshit, but the plant’s pain-relieving body high gives the story a wisp of plausibility.

Northern Lights
relaxing, expert / sweet
The rare indica-dominant strain that has always earned rave reviews, often winning awards at the Cannabis Cup for its particularly physical high. Believed to have first been cultivated in Washington State, it was big in mid-’80s Amsterdam and has spawned sub-breeds, like Atomic Northern Lights and Blue Lights.

Latter-Day Strains
The latest pot varieties are tailor-made to consumer preferences, with breeders developing strains for their striking appearances or flavors. These newfangled breeds have their skeptics: Robert C. Clarke, who wrote the book on cannabis (Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany), says most growers are just shuffling the same deck.

OG Kush
relaxing, expert / piney, woody
Of all the Kush-style strains, this one gets the OG-designation for being to indicas what N.W.A is to gangsta rap: maybe not the first but the standard by which all others are judged. A particularly potent strain, this piney bud is a favorite among medical users and results in a zoned-out high.

Red Congolese
energetic, expert / spice
An orange-red bud with three ­continents’ worth of ancestors: an ­African plant crossed with Mexican and ­Afghan strains to create a cerebral high and a spicy palate of sage, ­cinnamon, and pepper. The effects are considered unusually clearheaded—the right strain to start your day.

Granddaddy Purp
relaxing, expert / fruity
A “couchlock” strain popular in the Bay Area, this variety is the trademark of the breeder Ken Estes, whose company Grand Daddy Purp could become the face of Big Pot should legalization go national. Growers appreciate its high yields in indoor conditions; smokers love the dreamy high.

Girl Scout Cookies
energetic, beginner / sweet
Created by crossing OG Kush with a South African sativa, this variety has birthed a whole line of “cookie” varietals—Thin Mints, Fortune Cookies, and Animal Cookies—all known for being particularly easy on the throat. The high is said to be particularly blissful.

Jack Herer
energetic, expert / earthy
A Dutch-bred sativa named after the eponymous pot activist and author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes, a manifesto that argues that cannabis could literally save the world. The strain will certainly put a smoker in an optimistic cast of mind: Reviewers praise the euphoric, giggly high.

Fruit Strains
energetic, beginner / fruity
Blueberry-, cherry-, and strawberry-flavored pot, often blended with a classic variety, is new a source of fascination for connoisseurs, who are as interested in novel tastes as they are in potent highs. It might smell more like blue­berry flavoring than actual berries, but the similarity is undeniable.