There are several reasons for this unfortunate scenario, all of which are amplified by the current illegal status of cannabis. Many of the old-timers who were lucky enough to possess the germplasm of the older varieties have drifted away from the cannabis community, or have seen too many busts and ripoffs in their time to talk about growing or share genetics with other growers.
The largest factor in the demise of Sativa strains like Hawaiian Elephant is their lack of commercial profitability. Growing to astounding sizes and yielding loose buds of low weight, these Sativas lend themselves to neither grow room nor outdoor garden, despite their many positive qualities. As a matter of economic necessity these strains have been heavily bred with Indicas over the years, losing much of their original characteristics such as taste and high-quality effect.
Over recent years of more lenient attitudes towards the sale of marijuana seeds, many of these treasures have once again become available. The hard work and perseverance of the few brave pioneers who have maintained their old strains through the war against them is to be commended.
Breeders like DJ Short with Blueberry and Flo, or the many unnamed others responsible for strains like Hawaiian Sativa or Mighty Mite, have proven what can be accomplished despite the oppression placed upon our culture. Yet marijuana still remains illegal, and strains like Blueberry could very easily go the way of the super Sativas of the Seventies, unless measures are taken to preserve these genetics. Until the legal status of our favourite plant is changed, this responsibility lies on the shoulders of the underground cultivator.
Preserving our future
The main reason for the current Indica-ized status of today’s popular strains is quite simple: legal implications for both personal and commercial growers dictate that they must produce the maximum amount of bud in the minimum amount of space. Once marijuana finally achieves full legalization many growers will likely reconsider their choice of strains, both to fill niche markets as well as personal taste.
We must plan so that when legalization happens, the few strains that have been bred with quality as a primary concern are still with us. For outdoor growers, strains that have been acclimated for years in their locale are indispensible. Many of these growers have spent decades perfecting a strain for their exact climate, yet all of this work can be lost instantly as a result of a bust or simply not having anyone to pass them down to.
Cannabis genetics can be maintained for many years simply by keeping a clone alive, however this doesn’t do much for preserving the genetic diversity of a strain. Ideally, seedlines should be both preserved through long term storage and being grown out and seeded each year.
Much myth and misinformation is spread in marijuana literature regarding inbreeding depression in cannabis populations. As a result, much of the genetics on the market today is merely a collection of cross after cross of different varieties with little effort towards stabilizing unique traits. Proof that marijuana can be successfully inbred lies in examples of inbred lines like Skunk #1 or Northern Lights, which have shown no signs of inbreeding depression after decades of incestuous crosses.
Understanding how marijuana has evolved helps to explain this. In countries where marijuana originates it has evolved alongside humans, often being maintained in small family gardens amongst other food and medicine crops. Much of today’s gene pool originated in Afghanistan, where cannabis was grown like this in small family plots for generations, until the advent of large fields in the 70’s and 80’s. Plant phenotypes varied slightly from one valley to the next, and the pollen carried by wind from the slightly different gene pool of cannabis in the next valley maintained population vigour and prevented inbreeding depression. We can reproduce this scenario easily ourselves by maintaining several lines of the same strain, crossing them into each other every few years.
For example, when you grow out a pack of ten true breeding seeds pick the nicest female and seed it with two or more different males (marking which branch was pollinated by which male). Seed from each cross must be kept separate, and future generations kept from crossing with other lines. Every third or fourth generation these lines are crossed together and new lines brought out of the resulting seeds. Some of the seeds from each generation should be saved for long-term storage in case of accidental cross-pollination or crop loss down the road.
Whether growing indoors or out, isolation distances are something that you should always be aware of. Marijuana is a wind pollinated plant, meaning that pollen is carried by wind from the male to the female recipient, sometimes over very long distances.
The recent legalization of hemp, although a major step forward, has caused some concern for marijuana growers. These fields consist of thousands of plants which generate an immense amount of pollen, which will seed marijuana just as easily as it will hemp. Other growers in your area and other strains which you yourself may be trying to keep pure are also possible contaminators to breeding projects.
Isolation distances will vary depending on geography, wind currents and vegetation coverage. However a safe rule of thumb is to isolate outdoor crops from each other and hemp fields by at least a half mile. Indoors this is not as much of a concern, as males can be watched carefully and covered with a paper enclosure to prevent pollen from drifting to other plants.
A question of latitude
The most popular theory of the evolution of cannabis is that all cannabis originated in the Himalayas and spread gradually throughout the world. Under varying human and environmental pressures cannabis has evolved into all ends of the spectrum from low THC long fibered hemp strains to couch-locking Indicas.
Latitude has definitely played a key role in this matter, influencing THC levels as well as ratios of THC to CBD. Most drug strains originate between 37? North and 35? South of the equator, with some of the highest quality strains coming from very near the equator (most notable Southeast Asia at 10-20? North).
As you get up into the more Northern latitudes (like Russia), cultivated and feral cannabis leans more towards the hemp end of the spectrum, with low THC and high CBD. This makes the job of maintaining marijuana varieties outdoors at common North American latitudes of 44-50? North a little more complicated. Without selection for high THC parents, pure strain marijuana can drift towards phenotypes of its hempen cousins.
Put simply, as the latitude is not exerting pressure on the gene pool to uphold its high THC traits, human influence must step in by diligently selecting the most potent plants as parents for future generations. Legendary strains like Matanuska Thunderfuck (bred outdoors in Alaska) and Friesland Indica (outdoors for Northern Holland) are living proof that this high THC trait can be maintained at Northern latitudes.
Common vegetable seed saving techniques, like open pollination and collecting seeds from many different plants then mixing them together, must be avoided. This could likely be the reason for the low THC nature of many of the strains coming from large Swiss fields in past years. Up until recently these fields were grown out and seeded freely with little goal in mind other than acclimatization.
Long term storage
As seeds are living things they have a life span and decline in vigour as they age. For medium term storage an air-tight container in the refrigerator works well. Long term storage is the best way to preserve these special strains for tomorrows growers, and for this freezers work great, provided a few rules are carefully followed.
Most important is that the seed be dried below the 8% moisture level, as above this the water in the seed will expand upon freezing and burst the cell walls. This drying is done with the use of silica gel and an airtight container. The gel can be obtained from any vegetable seed company and many gardening stores. The seeds and gel are sealed in the same container and the gel will change color, indicating the moisture that it has absorbed from the seed. Seeds should be wrapped in tissue paper and sealed in an airtight container before being put into the freezer, as frozen seeds are very fragile and the paper will protect the seed from shattering if bumped.
Seeds stored like this will retain vigour and high germination ratios for long periods of time. When thawing seeds for use, allow them to fully adjust to room temperature before opening the container. This will prevent unwanted condensation from forming on the seed surface.
Allow the seeds to regain most of their original moisture level by sitting open for a few days before being germinated.
Once a cross has reached the F5 or F6 generation it can be considered an inbred line and can be relatively easily maintained using the above techniques. Many of the strains listed in catalogues are inbred lines and may or may not be indicated as such. If this is a strain that a seed company has put years of time and work into bringing to this point it is considered unfair to reproduce their work and sell it yourself, but there is nothing wrong with preserving their genetics for yourself or to pass on to future generations should it no longer be commercially available.
Preserving cannabis genetics under the current legal climate is as honourable a pastime as there is. So stand up, be proud, just don’t get counted.