A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974. [Credit] Txmx 2
A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974.  [Credit] Txmx 2

Finding Our Roots in Landrace Strains

CATEGORY Learning Sesh

LENGTH 12 MIN READ

AUTHOR Nora Lenhardt

Take a trip through time to gain a deeper understanding of why landrace strains like Afghan Kush are crucial to modern-day cannabis.   

Free love, flower power, and ganja galore, man. Say what you will about hippies, but their adventurous wanderlust helped shape modern cannabis culture. Wary of contemporary Western conventions, they became the “embodiment of an ethos that strives for making connections through authenticity and openness,” 1 leading some to the relative ends of the Earth in search of a humbler way to spend their days. Today, the mention of hippies evokes wistfulness for a diluted yesteryear – but the souvenirs they brought home are as significant as ever.

A general route (of many) of the Hippie Trail.

A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974. [Credit] Txmx 2
A traditional Buddhist stupa in modern-day Kathmandu.  

From the 1960s to the late 1970s, thousands of young westerners embarked on the Hippie Trail – via van, hitchhiking thumb, or makeshift public transportation. Starting from hotspots in western Europe, they travelled through the Middle East to Southeast Asia, oft-bound for the capital of Nepal – Kathmandu – a destination of enlightenment. Traversing lands and communities seldom accessible to “outsiders,” our hippie brethren experienced a cultural awakening of multitudes, heightened by landrace strains shared by locals. There was cannabis back home at this point of course, but nothing like the new, old regional strains – like Afghan Kush – that had been enjoyed for centuries in remote areas throughout Afghanistan and beyond.

The notion of “landrace” strains has surged within our contemporary cannabis landscape in the last few years – the internet rife with searches, debates, debunking, and plenty of nostalgia. But why – why now? While the answer may be as complex as cannabis’ fraught history, perhaps our longing for landraces reflects our own neo-hippie disillusion with an ever-complicated, modern world.

Now Trending: A Deeper Understanding

While the suggestion of a collective existential crisis that parallels a new-found appreciation for cannabis landraces may seem like a lofty stretch, let’s consider some recent trends. Even before the pandemic drove 15.5 million Americans to become digital nomads,2 by 2017 #VanLife was already “evoking a renewed interest in a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness…[and an] attempt to aestheticize and romanticize the precariousness of contemporary life.”3

In a similar vein, researching family history was the second most common hobby of 2017, second only to gardening or… porn (depending on the source). Whether Americans spend more time tending flower beds or bedrooms aside, genealogy titans like Ancestry.com garner more than a billion monthly searches, pointing to a new wave of souls searching for a “deeper understanding of themselves and where they came from,” echoing the “…1960s and 1970s when free thinkers sought deeper meaning.”4

There is yearning for answers to questions that have confounded civilization for ages: why am I here? Leaving those answers to religion and philosophy, we turn back to cannabis landraces. As evidenced by every search for this article that resulted in publications dated after the turn of the millennium, it seems that as scores of society skirt convention for a profundity, understanding cannabis as a species also turned existential.

Seeking the Definition of a Landrace

Before hundreds of hybrids with wacky names, there were the landraces from which they spawned. Landraces are the OG strains, the pure sativa or pure indica building blocks of every toke today. Never cross-bred within their indigenous environments, landraces evolved over millennia, developing specific traits needed for survival.5 Here, the common conclusion – and inaccurate consensus of most of the internet – is, “oh, so they’re wild.” That’s where it gets murky and we must take a step back in time.

Even though cannabis was one of the first domesticated crops ever, its clandestine use and cultivation over the centuries has yielded improper study and documentation. Today, as we piece together what botanists, archeologists, and historians have learned, it is newly suggested that cannabis’ “single domestication origin can be traced to East Asia,” roughly 12,000 years ago.6 That word – domestication – is key because it refers to when we observe humans having a hand in cannabis’ history – not when the plant was wild. Truly wild cannabis existed as far back as the last Ice Age; some 33,000 years ago, it began to deviate into different subspecies – at first driven by climate and then human intervention.7

From that first domestication point within the vastness of Eastern Asia, simply put, cannabis seeds spread – via nomadic peoples and later, trade routes. As seeds were planted in new terroirs and cultivated locally for different reasons – be it fiber, textiles, religious purposes, medicine, and later, for psychoactive effects – cannabis plants adapted new characteristics.

A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974. [Credit] Txmx 2
In 2019, scientists unearthed an ancient Chinese tomb with traces of cannabis – interestingly, with high amounts of THC. This suggests that cannabis was used for its psychoactive effects by this time – roughly 2500 years ago.

[Credit] Xinhua Wu
A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974. [Credit] Txmx 2
Hippie Trail traveler overlooking Band-e Amir lakes located within desert mountain terrain, Afghanistan, 1977. [Credit] Bruce Barret

Afghan Kush: From Isolation to Exaltation

As human civilization expanded, cannabis seeds followed, resulting in four primary landrace regions: Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.10 Obviously, Middle Eastern terrain is different than say, South African terrain, which only underscores cannabis’ remarkable adaptability. Nearly all landrace strains are named after their homeland, giving insight to specific traits they may harbor.

The exact number of landraces isn’t known and may never be; some experts argue that not all landraces have been discovered, while others suggest that they’re all extinct, “naturally” cross-bred with other strains over the years as new regional pollinators emerge. Regardless, it is often the remoteness of their indigenous origins that mystifies and sends strain-hunters to some of the most isolated parts of the world. And no place is perhaps more remote than the Hindu Kush mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.

From rugged peaks that soar above 18,000 feet to river valleys glimmering amongst desert terrain lies Afghan Kush’s original home (as well as other Kush varieties). You’ll find many sources that cite this area as the true birthplace of all cannabis, but as we’ve discussed, the latest research designates its origins as farther east in Asia. Still, we can ponder whether ancient peoples traversing these mountains in search of what’s beyond left cannabis seeds in their footsteps – or – was it wild here, as some suggest? It’s all plausible. Regardless, Afghan Kush has been a part of local religious, medicinal, and leisure traditions for a long, long time.

Old Afghan lore reveres Baba Ku (a healing god) for bringing cannabis to northern Afghanistan and introducing hashish to ancient Afghans.11 As one of the world’s only pure indicas, Afghan Kush was arguably his most supreme gift – to Afghans and to the world. It’s an indica icon by intricate evolutionary design.

A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974. [Credit] Txmx 2
1970s poster for hashish treats in Kathmandu, Nepal.
A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974. [Credit] Txmx 2
Hashish menu at Hotel Eden in Kathmandu, 1971. 

In order to survive the extreme mountain terrain, Afghan Kush grows closer and wider to the ground compared to its slender-yet-towering sativa relatives in warmer areas. Its flowering time is also quicker and the months between wary winter weather produce robust, resinous buds that have been used to make charas – a hand-rolled hashish extraction – for centuries.12  It should be noted that there are many methods for making traditional hash, varying by location throughout Afghanistan; the fat, viscous trichomes that “practically fall off”13 when picked, however, shine in every recipe. While the exact coordinates that first sprouted cannabis seem to be in constant flux, high-quality hashish is infamously Afghani. In fact, Afghanistan remains the world’s top producer of hashish,14 and it’s the innate purity of this current-day export that hyped hippies to their core.

Hybrids on the Horizon

At this point, it should be clear – but emphasized anyway – hippies did not discover landrace strains like Afghan Kush. With wide eyes and open minds, they seized new “…opportunities to connect with locals using something [they] had in common – smoking dope.”15 To perpetuate their expanded new world once back home, they “collected” (i.e., smuggled) seeds of the various landraces they enjoyed along their trek.

While that semi-exploitative reality may not align with the hippies we’ve caricaturized, it jives with a sense of unabashed wonder that inspired them to take the Hippie Trail (also fittingly regarded as the “Hashish Trail”) in the first place. Both can be true; sharing the love meant sharing the bud.

A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974. [Credit] Txmx 2
Enjoying hashish with local rug merchants, Afghanistan, 1977. [Credit] Bruce Barret

Seed banks and western cultivators soon got to work, profusely crossbreeding unsullied landraces to create many popular hybrid strains we know and love today. Naturally, this is where questions of purity creep in – are hybrids as good as landraces? Again, it’s not that simple and quite subjective. Though, now that you know  more about landraces, it’s easier to see why both are important – and why landraces must be preserved.

Certainly, many hybrids today can be more potent and yield a plethora of positive characteristics made possible by modern-day cultivation methods. But. Because landraces only breed with themselves (remember, never cross-bred), their genetic makeup – their actual DNA – is less diluted and as close to pure indica or sativa as you can get. These ancestral genetics are utilized to strengthen desirable hybrid characteristics in new strains. Simply put, hybrids cannot and would not exist without landraces.

Considering Afghan Kush once more: its quick flowering time, resinous buds, and distinctly “indica” effects are celebrated by growers and consumers alike. Not to mention, Afghan Kush is incredibly resilient, as evidenced by its ability to survive its harsh homeland. Turns out, it’s also known to be more resistant to pests and mold.16 Coveted qualities like these differ landrace to landrace, resulting in the vast array of hybrids available today.

Sustaining a Species

Perfected by Mother Nature over millennia and propelled by traditions far and wide, landraces must now be protected for the sake of cannabis itself. Seed banks and botanists are continually gaining valuable knowledge from these legendary strains while also working to defend the indigenous ecosystems where they thrive. As cultivators, we at Aeriz realize the significance that landraces hold within cannabis’ history, and why they’re essential for a future of high-quality cannabis.

Technically, when landrace seeds are grown outside of their indigenous habitat, they’re considered “heirloom strains.” Nomenclature aside, it’s the genetics that matter, the genetics that remain. Within our current rotation, Romulan continues the legacy of landrace strains like Afghan Kush. While its exact origins are up for debate, most agree that Romulan is “fairly close to a pure indica Afghani landrace,”17 eliciting a deeply sedative effect.

A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974. [Credit] Txmx 2
Romulan flower cultivated by Aeriz.
A Kombi travels through the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, 1973-1974. [Credit] Txmx 2
On the Hippie Trail, 1977. [Credit] Bruce Barret

“What is it about these ancient strains that have lasted for centuries? Why is it that I can still smoke the same strains as Neolithic Chinese peasants? How have these old genetics stayed around since the Egyptians were building pyramids? Because those antique cannabinoids continue to speak to a wild, nihilistic part of our souls, year after changing year, harvest after harvest.” 18

Like living time capsules, landraces preserve DNA of civilizations past, revealing a glimpse into the interconnectedness of man and nature. As our world grows increasingly global, yet somehow feels like a thousand disparate bubbles, it’s no wonder there’s a revived curiosity for things that root us to the universal reality of time.

Whether discovering where your great-great-great+ grandparents emigrated from, traveling à la neo-hippies to places untouched by modernity, or lighting up an ancient landrace, reflecting on your place within the big picture is uniquely human, and the embodiment of the everlasting era of cannabis.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

  1. Mitchel Friedman, “The Hippie Trail,” The Agenda: Travel Inspirations from Tablet Hotels, August 9, 2019, https://magazine.tablethotels.com/en/2019/08/the-hippie-trail/.
  2. MBO Partners, The Digital Nomad Search Continues, September 2021, https://info.mbopartners.com/rs/mbo/images/MBO_Partners_2021_Digital_Nomad_Research_Brief.pdf
  3. Rachel Monroe, “#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social Media Movement,” The New Yorker, April 17, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/24/vanlife-the-bohemian-social-media-movement
  4. Rebecca Dalzell, “Family History Archives,” Ancestry.com, April 27, 2017, https://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/genealogy-second-most-popular-hobby-us/
  5. Amsterdam Genetics, “Landrace Cannabis Strains,” Amsterdam Genetics, September 2, 2022, https://www.amsterdamgenetics.com/landrace-cannabis-strains/
  6. Guangpeng Ren et al. “Large-scale whole-genome reqequencing unravels the domestication history of Cannabis sativa,” Science Advances, July 16, 2021, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abg2286
  7. The Real Seed Company, “McPartland & Small Publish New Cannabis Taxonomy,” The Real Seed Company, April 14, 2020, https://landrace.blog/2020/04/14/mcpartland-small-publish-new-cannabis-taxonomy/
  8. Ernest Small, Cannabis: A Complete Guide, (Ontario, Canada: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 460.
  9. The Real Seed Company, “On Indicas & Afghanicas,” The Real Seed Company, April 13, 2020, https://landrace.blog/2020/04/13/on-indicas-afghanicas/
  10. Gregg Padula, “Identifying Strains: Landrace vs. Heirloom Cannabis Strains,” Solar Cannabis Co., August 9, 2022, https://solarthera.com/identifying-strains-landrace-vs-heirloom-cannabis-strains/
  11. Khalifa Genetics, “The Revered Afghan Landraces,” Khalifa Genetics, 2018, https://khalifagenetics.com/the-revered-afghan-landraces/
  12. Pure Sunfarms, “Digging Deep: The Roots of Afghan Kush,” Pure Sunfarms, August 25, 2019, https://puresunfarms.com/the-roots-of-afghan-kush/
  13. Rocky B, “Afghan Kush Plant: Landrace Strains Guide,” Primo, April 1, 2019, https://itsprimo.com/thc/afghan-kush-plant/
  14. Preeti Aroon, “Which country produces the most hashish?” Foreign Press, July 28, 2010, https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/07/28/which-country-produces-the-most-hashish/
  15. Tony Walton, “Gateway to the East,” On the Hippie Trail, 2011, https://anarcholoco.wordpress.com/istanbul-gateway-to-the-east/
  16. Rocky B, “Afghan Kush,” 2019.
  17. M. Colbert, “Cannabeginners: The History of Romulan,” High Times, August 24, 2023, https://hightimes.com/strains/cannabeginners-the-history-of-romulan/
  18. M. Collamer, “Landrace Strains,” Emerald Media Group, April 3, 2017, https://theemeraldmagazine.com/landrace-strains/

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