The seeds of change

A brief history of seeds
Cannabis seeds are among the most miraculous seeds ever created. According to Chris Conrad’s fine book, Hemp for Health, some historians suspect that cannabis seeds were responsible for humanity’s discovery of settled agriculture, and others believe that our pre-human ancestors ate cannabis seeds back in the days when cave dwellings and loin cloths would have been seen as modern conveniences.

If they did eat cannabis seeds, our primate cousins were certainly on to something. Modern nutritionists have discovered that cannabis seeds contain nature’s most perfect combination of essential fatty acids, oils, dietary fiber, vitamins, proteins and amino acids. It is possible to eat cannabis seeds, and nothing else, and have a nutritionally adequate diet. Ancient Chinese, Middle Eastern, Asian and island cultures valued cannabis seeds as food and medicine, and they used cannabis plants themselves for food, fibre, medicine and intoxicants.

Although cannabis seeds might not get you high, they do produce cannabis seed oil, which has become increasingly popular as a nutritional supplement. Pioneering companies are producing cheese, milk, flavourings and sweet treats made from cannabis seed and seed oil.

Every seed a little miracle: each seed contains unique characteristicsEvery seed a little miracle: each seed contains unique characteristicsThe joy of breeding

Cannabis seeds can be tasty and health-enhancing, but today’s seedheads are more likely to be placing seeds in rockwool starter cubes than in their mouths. They’ve found the sheer joy of sprouting the many varieties of cannabis marijuana which have been produced by breeders in the last three decades. The number of cannabis varietals far surpasses that of wine grapes, and each breed has nuances of taste, smell, growth characteristics and high that make it unique.

Professional cannabis breeding is a labour-intensive labour of love. The best breeding programs cost time, expertise and money. Some breeders, like the legendary DJ Short, are wizards of genetic calculation. They are hidden away in the mists of the marijuana underground, toiling to preserve and expand nature’s store of cannabis genetics, even as jack-booted thugs seek to eradicate the species. On this level, seed breeding is the ultimate defensible science: the use of human wisdom and desire to create more and more types of cannabis, and thus more and more types of highs, and to preserve a beleaguered plant in the face of insane eradication efforts.

We won’t be eating primo cannabis seeds: they’re too expensive to even think about eating. Varieties like Black Domina, Big Bud, Shiva Skunk, AK-47, and Bubbleberry retail at more than $150US for ten seeds. With germination rates averaging 50 to 80% (depending on the seed’s origin and pedigree) each little round seed is worth more than its weight in gold. In fact, some marijuana smugglers have taken to smuggling primo seeds because pound for pound, the top-selling seed varieties are more profitable than the dried cannabis they ultimately become!

Bob Dylan said: “Money doesn’t talk, it screams.” This is certainly true in the seed business, which is an illegal but openly-marketed enterprise which is not legally permitted to produce or ship its product.

The seed biz is inhabited by seed breeder-producers and by marketers who sometimes procure from dozens of breeders to offer a cornucopia of seed choices. Some breeders operate their own seed banks and retail outlets.

The very existence of the marijuana seed business is a testament to the outrageous insouciance of pot culture. Even in the face of so much Babylon persecution, there’s an ever-increasing number of people selling and buying seeds. Advertisements for seed companies from England, Holland, Canada, the United States and Australia pepper the pages of marijuana magazines. Some of the advertisements are sensational or seedy, depending on your point of view.

Marc Emery’s seed catalog contains tasty bud shots and poetic seed descriptions, but some seedheads were startled by a recent High Times seed advert which featured a hot, totally nude woman with her legs thrown back over her head and a plate of buds perched directly on her upturned crotch.

Every seed a little miracle: each seed contains unique characteristicsFrom seedy buds to Sinsemilla

Obviously, you could spend (and make) a lot of money in the seed biz, but let’s not forget the fact that 25 years ago, you couldn’t even give seeds away!

Back in the good old days ? before the war on drugs, helicopter raids, interdiction zones, snitch networks, and basement grow rooms ? marijuana growing and smuggling were relatively relaxed businesses.

The Colombians, Mexicans, Jamaicans, Lebanese, and Asians who grew most of the pot that ended up in North America had little incentive to separate male plants from females. The crops were grown outdoors in huge fields. Few growers had time to go running around in the sun checking for golden impregnation powder falling from male plants. When sinsemilla occurred, it did so by mistake. Pollinations ruled the cannabis nations, and seeded buds were the norm rather than the exception.

Back then, a majority of marijuana was sold “uncleaned.” You didn’t get only finely-manicured unseeded female buds, you got baggies of bricked Mexican, four fingers thick for $20US, about a third of which was stems and seeds. You’d get male flowers covered in golden pollen. You’d get female flowers with pale immature seeds, flowers with mature brown seeds mottled with hieroglyphs; pungent, burnished and tough.

“Goddam stems and seeds,” people would murmur as they cleaned their stash, tossing everything but leaf into the garbage disposal or dog’s mouth. Some people were just plain desperate: they didn’t understand or care that stems and seeds had very little THC content, and they included seeds and stems in their bowls and joints. A lot of people said that smoking seeds gave you a headache, and it may well be that seeds contain substances better eaten than heated and inhaled.

Seeds and stems made smoking an incendiary adventure. Snap, crackle, pop went the seeds, exploding joints in half and causing bowl contents to erupt like volcanoes. Burning embers sizzled holes into prized bellbottom jeans and paisley shirts. Couches caught on fire. Noses and mustaches looked like moon craters or volcano cones. Smoking pot with seeds in it was like drinking wine in which floated pieces of cork.

As the war on drugs heated up and marijuana smugglers were faced with the need to decrease their load sizes and increase potency and profits, they realized that unfertilized female flowers provided more punch for the bunch.

Nowadays, cannabis historians debate the origins of sinsemilla obsession, but the trend toward unseeded flowers occurred in part because many growers believed that unfertilized female flowers, when left to grow to maximum maturity, would produce more THC than a similar seed-bearing bud. They also knew that unseeded buds would produce more smokeable material than seeded flowers.

As seeds have become fashionable again, people are evaluating the crystal content, goo level and psychoactive kick of seeded buds. They report that although it’s a hassle having to remove seeds from the buds (a hassle made less ugly by the fact that many of those seeds are worth money), seeded tops are damned potent and have a different type of high than unseeded pot of the same age and variety. In fact, some growers assert that seeded buds are “more natural,” and thus have a higher level of THC than sinsemilla.

“I like my plants to have sex,” a breeder told me.

Romancing the clone

“There are many reasons why clones are better to use than seeds.” So sayeth grow guru Ed Rosenthal in the December, 1998 issue of High Times. Perhaps Ed could have expanded on his answer a little bit.

Clones have their advantages, but as many growers who have recently started to again grow from seed will attest, they can also be problematic. The obvious advantage of growing from clones is that you’re guaranteed to have an all-female grow room. You will also know exactly what you’re getting: clones will be virtually identical to their mamas. They are their mamas.

The problems with clones are inherent in their advantages. Because they are not produced through a natural sexual process, successive generations of clones often lose their vigor. They no longer retain the punch that mother plants once had. Potency drops, aroma flattens, growth rates slow.

Clones can also be vectors of disease and insects. Growers tell horror stories of spider mites traveling on clones from grow room to grow room, until an entire city was infested with creepy crawlers which originated in one evil grow room.

Some people believe clone crop seasons are shorter than seed crop seasons, but some clones take 70-90 days to get to harvest. Seed crops grown from some of the earlier maturing varieties can go from sprout to harvest in as few as 90 days. People growing for maximum production might feel that the two or three weeks per harvest cycle they save growing clones, along with not having to rip males out of the grow room, makes growing from seeds a waste of time and money. It all depends on what you’re growing for.

If you’ve decided that you want to try growing from seeds, you want to get the finest seeds possible. Then the problem becomes how to find the best seeds.

The protective calyx sheath scraped away to reveal the ripe fruitThe protective calyx sheath scraped away to reveal the ripe fruitHow to find the best seeds

Obviously, if you find seeds in some kick-ass herb, those will be among the ones you want to plant. Maybe a friend has some seeds that come from fine bud; chances are that you’ll never know the origins of your stash seeds. But if you decide to buy seeds from seed banks that you see advertised in magazines or on the internet, you have entered a “let the buyer beware” zone.

Ben Dronkers, one of the sages of the Dutch marijuana movement and proprietor of Amsterdam’s famous Sensi Seeds Bank, puts it quite bluntly:
“There are a lot of assholes and rip-offs in the seed business. Too many phonies,” he told CC in an interview from Amsterdam. “They sell bullshit. They take the name of my seeds and sell them as if they developed them. People buy them and they don’t grow, and they complain to us like it’s our fault. I don’t care if people get angry at me for saying this: the seed business has a lot of dishonest people in it.”

Dronkers notes another problem: if you order from a seed bank, the seeds usually have to be delivered to you. Dronkers won’t ship to North America. It is illegal to receive cannabis seeds in the mail in most countries; theoretically, you could get in big trouble if caught. Most seed banks which have been around a long time (more than three years) have learned to use clerical, packaging and shipping techniques so clever that even the most sophisticated piglet interdictions are unable to stop the seeds from getting through.

Dronkers, Marc Emery and other well-established seedmeisters warn that reputation and longevity are two key factors to consider when choosing a seed bank.

“I’ve been talking to my lawyer about what we can do to clean up some of these internet seed sites,” Dronkers said. “But this is a black market business. Who is going to help us police it? People call their seeds Northern Lights or Haze, but the seeds are not what they say. They take money and then they disappear. You should come and visit us in Holland if you want to see the best seeds, but if you can’t do that, you should only order from banks that have a great reputation and have been consistent over time.”

Seed banks that treat you right will ship seeds promptly, sell you fresh seeds with high germination rates, explain growth and psychoactive characteristics, and stand behind their product. If you order a pure sativa and then find that your plants have phat leaves and thick Indica smell, get in touch with the seed bank and tell them your problem. Seed banks are black market capitalist enterprises, but reputable banks will work to ensure that you get vigorous seeds which grow into the plants you paid for.

Breeding super seeds

Is growing from seeds worth the hassle? Most growers say that it is. They also note that, sooner or later, almost every serious grower decides to do some breeding.

Producing your own seeds is one of the coolest things you can do. For a detailed description of breeding rationale and techniques, consult Robert Clarke’s phenomenal book Marijuana Botany. There you’ll find all the information you need to know about technical breeding concepts and terminology, such as F1, F2, hybrids, alleles, chromosomes, crossing, outbreeding, inbreeding, and genetic drift. You might be able to adequately breed seeds without reading Clarke’s book, but if you want to save time, produce reliable strains, and create specialty varieties with exactly the type of stone and growing characteristics you’re looking for, read and memorize it.

The main thing to remember is that breeding is an art and a science. Even the most experienced breeders find it difficult to stabilize their strains. Many strains become unstable as they are bred, revealing unexpected traits that can be traced back many generations.

Professional seed breeders spend a lifetime recording every detail of plant development and post-harvest characteristics. They record growth rates, disease resistance, flowering duration, psychoactive effects. They test breeds under different conditions, trying to match genetics with environmental conditions to ensure optimum yield and health. They pick and choose favorable characteristics from different strains and then cross-breed these strains seeking to develop super-plants which have the cerebral high of a Sativa combined with the short-season hardiness, yield, height and narcotic stoniness of an Indica. Then, they seek to develop stability in their strains so purchasers can expect, within a reasonable degree of variation, predictable results crop after crop.

Breeding is a creative combination of hard work, record-keeping, horticulture and genetics, but it’s worth it. Marijuana botanists have given us dozens of varieties of distinctive cannabis. You can do it too.

Female (top) and mail early floral clusters from the branch crotchFemale (top) and mail early floral clusters from the branch crotchSeeding your weed

After you have put your seed-grown plants into the short-day flowering light cycle, watch closely for floral development. Male plants are often taller, stretchier and faster-growing than their female counterparts; they usually show sex first too. You need to look at gender-labeled pictures of early floral clusters to really see how male flowers differ from female flowers, but once you’ve learned, you won’t forget.

Choose a couple of the healthiest-looking males. Kill the other males. Remove the living males and put them in their own little grow space far from your females. Pollen is insidious; it travels far and fast.

When the female flowers are in early development, with good white hair growth but before they’ve begun to tighten and cluster, you’re ready for impregnation.

As the male pollen sacks open, collect some of their golden powder in a film canister or other small, clean, dry container. Do this in a windless setting. Change clothes after you’ve been with your flowering males; pollen hangs on clothing. Don’t get pollen in your hair or under your fingernails. Pollen travels.

Now, select the females that you want to fertilize. Choose the strongest plants, the ones which flowered earliest and have the best look, smell and potency. Select flowering branches in the lower portion of the plant as pollen sites. Not too low, because you want the branches to get lots of light, but low enough that pollen won’t drop off the flowers you’ve fertilized and pollinate the whole plant!

Take a clean, dry, small artist’s paintbrush, the kind used for the tiniest details, and dip it into the pollen. Now, paint it onto the hairs of the female flowers. Just use a little dab of pollen each time; make sure there’s no air moving when you transfer pollen. Tag or bag the fertilized branches with the date of pollination and donor information. Keep the fan off for a day or two until the pollen has set. You may even want to distance the fertilized females from the rest of your grow room, at least for a couple of days.

Within eight weeks, maybe longer depending on variety, you’ll have the “fruit” of the marijuana plant, its ripened seed. Waiting for seeds to ripen means you’re not as free to harvest during the peak of glandular THC development. Many seed crops stay on the vine until glands have turned golden brown. Peak resin gland development may pass, but you have to wait for the seeds to become colorful, fully formed, and mottled.
Note that Sativa seeds, which are usually very tiny, often take longer to ripen than Indica seeds, which are usually quite large and often have more markings than their Sativa counterparts.

It’s also important to note that seeded and unseeded flowers differ in maturation and resination characteristics. Seeded flowers produce resin glands, but they are also producing seeds. When the seeds are fully mature, the plant has fulfilled its biological destiny, so vigour and resin production tend to taper off.

Unseeded flowers, on the other hand, have no seeds to divert their nutrient and enegy expenditures. They continue to produce new resin glands, and maintain the freshness and clarity of existing glands, long after most seeded buds have fully matured and are ready to harvest.

If you have seeded and unseeded flowers on the same plant, the best tactic is to harvest the seeded flowers when the seeds are ready and the resin production has slowed. This frees the plant to direct all its energy into producing fresh resin on its unseeded flowers.

When your seeds are mature, it’s time to cut those seeded branches off and air-dry them in a nice, dark, moderately dry space, with good air circulation. Be careful not to lose the tag which records who the mom and dad were.

Planting seeds isn’t as easy as it sounds. A lot of people place seeds in a warm locale between two pieces of damp paper towel. Then, when seeds sprout, they insert the seed, white root down, into a peat pot, rockwool cube or other growing medium. Many growers eliminate the paper towels and just put seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch below the surface. They’re careful not to overwater because cannabis seeds are susceptible to a type of fungus which causes the seeds to rot and die.

Breeding is a lot of work, yes, but it’s also a way of ensuring that cannabis will be strong and healthy. By combining pollen and female flower, you have done the job of evolution. By artificially inseminating your females, you’ve taken the place of natural forces like wind, and helped increase the genetic diversity of the cannabis plant. In nature, cannabis would be constantly combining its genetic characteristics, but the drug war has interrupted that massive outdoor fertilization, at least for now.

Until seeded drug cannabis once again is massively grown outdoors on a world-wide basis, allowing infinite combinations and adaptations for cannabis genetic evolution, know that the seeds you helped create are unique to you and have furthered the cause of biodiversity. Nobody else will ever have produced exactly the seeds you produced. You’re the parent. Plant them, breed more, keep the cycle going forever.

This plant has fulfilled its biological destinyThis plant has fulfilled its biological destinyMessage from Holland

Ben Dronkers is one of few seed breeders willing to talk candidly and on the record about the seed business, which is so fraught with ego, competitiveness and intrigue that it is often called “the seedy business.”

Living in the herb-friendliest city in the world, Dronkers has had fun making new kinds of tripweed.

“I even get to name some seeds after my twin daughters, Shiva and Shanti,” he quips. “Now that they are 17, it is fun to have their boyfriends tell us that they like to smoke Shiva Shanti. As a father, I have to hope they are smoking the grass and not my daughters! It is also an honour to become friends for nine years with Jack Herer, and to develop and name a special seed after him.”

Dronkers has earned the right to make idealistic, constructive criticisms of the seedy seed business. Twenty years ago, he was in exotic places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, collecting seeds for export to Holland. He amassed a genetic fortune in rare seeds, which he calls “older top strains.”

“We have to start with pure strains. Some of my mother plants are 20 years old,” he says. “It is hard to find material that is not already hybridized. You have to have the time and the room to make many different crosses and with this large-scale selection you can make something that is truly new. Then you have to stabilize your hybrids. Most of the time you seem to move away from the source plants. You wanted to keep certain qualities, but it is not easy. It’s hard to make ten top new varieties a year, so beware of companies advertising things like ?10 new varieties a year,’ or ?30 new varieties coming soon,’ or a new company that says they have 50 new varieties.”

Dronkers says that although people assume that the most expensive seeds are the “best” seeds, that isn’t always the case. Many factors influence seed cost: supply, demand, and overhead included.

“Are the seeds worth it? They are worth what people will pay, some would say! The cost may have nothing to do with potency,” he explained. “It may be the cost of the breeding and production program. It took a lot of time and money to make the Jack Herer as a follow-up to the famous NL5 X Haze. The pure Haze has a flowering time of ten months so it is not easy to work with. We are very excited about the Mr Nice x G13 X Hashplant. It has taken us eight years to develop this. And when we spoke to Rita Marley at the last Cannabis Cup, she inspired us to make a new variety named after Bob Marley. So we have to get some pure Jamaicans and work with them. These kinds of efforts contribute to the costliness of our seeds.”

Political and agricultural considerations also influence availability and price of cannabis seeds. Dronkers is heavily involved in the hemp industry, and he admits that increased outdoor growing of industrial hemp could spread low-THC genetics to sinsemilla crops.

“It’s already happening in Holland, where we have nearly 2,000 hectares of hemp,” he explained. “We also see that the United Nations, France, the US, and Sweden are pressuring Holland to tighten its cannabis policies, and they could outlaw the seed trade at any time. Germany just announced that it is restricting seeds and England will be too. We’re worried that Holland is going to do it.

“So I am saying for everybody to buy and make seeds now, because we may not be able to keep selling them as we have. The restrictions are coming. Keep your seeds and plants alive, and make sure to get the quality seeds as soon as possible. I would not freeze seeds because it could kill them, but you can store cannabis seeds in cool, dark, dry places, and some of them will germinate after several years. It is the best investment for the future.”This plant has fulfilled its biological destiny

Variety is the spice of life

Although hundreds of regional sub-varieties have been developed by skilled home and professional breeders, the foundational genetic stock of marijuana is well-known and respected. We can think of these genetic precursors as the basic colour palette from which breeders mix and match to create limitless variations.

Among the most popular base stocks:

Columbian: also known as “Gold,” was one of the original sativa imports that fueled the marijuana renaissance in North America during the 1960’s.

Thai: sometimes known as Thai Sticks, because this Asian sativa variety produces loose clusters which are often woven onto sticks of bamboo or cannabis stems.

Jamaican: these mostly sativa plants are fast-growing and reputed to produce a stimulating high.

Mexican: the war on drugs has severely afflicted Mexican indigenous production. Some of the best cannabis used to come from Mexico, but these days “Mexican Brown brickweed” has become synonymous with “schwag.” Good Mexican is a Sativa offshoot, and even though its THC is degraded by bricking and shipping, it can be a potent and hardy plant when raised in captivity.

Cambodian and Chinese: these cannabis varieties are often problematic. In China, cannabis is cultivated for hemp fiber. In Cambodia, Vietnam and nearby countries, plants often tend to be hermaphroditic, which means that they develop male and female flowers and if left unchecked can fertilize themselves. Some breeders allege that using seeds from mostly-female hermaphroditic parents will produce seeds that favour the female gender. Unfortunately, such seeds also tend to be hermaphrodites, resulting in compromised floral development and resin production.

African: South Africa is becoming one of the world’s top pot producers. Some experts allege that South African pot contains a deviant THC molecule which produces super-hallucinogenic highs. Durban Poison is a South African strain. The more northern parts of Africa also produce regional varieties; the further north you go, the more likely the strains are to be Indicas.

Afghani: These are some of the first seed types collected by European and American cannabis researchers during the 1960’s hippie era. Afghani and Hindu Kush are indicas which grow fast, have huge leaves, and produce a skunky, mentally-crippling high. These two varieties have become very popular with many commercial growers.

Hawaiian: Island strains, such as Maui Wowie, used to be readily available. Then the DEA started a massive air war against Hawaiian growers, and these varieties became scarce. They are now used mainly in crosses, and often lean toward the Sativa end of the spectrum.

Unless you buy from a seed bank or breeder, it’s hard to know for sure which of the above varieties you have in your private seed stash. The size and shape of leaves, maturation characteristics, and the visual appearance of floral clusters are some of the most reliable ways to determine what lineage your seeds come from.