The art of selection and breeding fine quality cannabis

How to create amazing new strains with a discerning palate, careful selection and some hard work.

Perhaps the most important aspect to consider in the breeding of fine quality cannabis is that of selection. Selective breeding is where all of today's varieties evolved from.
In the past, this chore was made easier by the fact that most of the commercially available herb was seeded and imported from outdoor plantations, usually near-equatorial in origin. These "land-race" Sativa varieties were the building blocks of the burgeoning domestic productions of the times.

The Indica (Afghan, Kush, Skunk, etc.) genetics were specially imported by West Coast interests and available to the general public around 1978. It was shortly after this time that the variance of domestic cannabis increased exponentially, as people began experimenting with crossing these two different types of pot.

Beginning breeding

The typical way to begin a breeding program is to carefully select P1 parents of pure Sativa and pure Indica, crossing them to produce an f1 hybrid that is uniform in its phenotypic growth patterns. The next step is the crossing of the f1 type with itself, which produces a very wide variation witnessed in the f2 growth patterns and expressions.

It is in this f2 second-generational cross and beyond that the art of selection really comes into play. There are a number of factors to consider at this point, such as what the male and female will each contribute; and most of all, what will the overall quality of the finished product be like?

Defining a goal and constructing a plan to accomplish it is called "top-down" programming, and this "top-down" approach applies well to cannabis breeding. It helps considerably to have a specific goal in mind when attempting to selectively breed a variety of ganja. This simple fact I cannot emphasize enough.

One must at least have an idea of what one is aiming for before beginning. For me this has little to do with plant structure and much to do with the quality of the finished product, no matter what form it is in. Having an experienced and educated palate (both mentally aesthetic and physically discernable) is key in the art of breeding fine quality cannabis.

The "goal" at the center of most of my breeding targets would be to replicate, as near as possible, the experiences produced by the great land-race varieties of old: Highland Oaxacan or Thai, Santa Marta or Acapulco Gold, Guerrero Green, Panama Red or Hawaiian Sativa? or the hash from regions such as Lebanon, Afghanistan or Nepal.

The indoor grow environment is too generic to fully replicate the great old legends. Therefore, it was necessary to settle for the next best thing: happy Sativa/Indica crosses that would perform well indoors. (It is interesting to note here that most of the fine land-race Sativa were hermaphroditic, though sometimes only minimally.)

Outdoor Australian Sativa; inset: seeded bud Outdoor Australian Sativa; inset: seeded bud Selection process

Obviously, you seek the parents that will produce the desired progeny. Paradoxically, this process requires selecting the best after they've been harvested. The solution is to keep samples from each plant of a test crop. This can be done via rooted clones from earlier cuttings, or re-greened mothers and fathers kept in a vegetative state and a high-nitrogen diet. Once you have chosen among the harvested plants, you can use the rooted cuttings for future consideration and possible breeding.

Pollen may also be gathered and immediately stored via vacuum sealing and deep-freezing. It is crucial to vacuum seal and freeze pollen immediately after it is collected and to use stored pollen immediately after it thaws. Dry seeds also store well over indefinite periods of time in an undisturbed deep-freeze, with some desiccant.

This process of post-harvest selection works fine for selecting desired female plants. But what about males? What is the best and most simple way to select males for breeding? Due to the fact that it is the female plants that we are ultimately familiar with, selecting males is a bit more involved.

The process is basically the same as it is with female plants, except with males the numbers are first limited down via a process of elimination, and selections made by comparing the remainder. Selecting males also takes a little more time initially as the quality of the male is not fully determined until after the seeds it produces are grown out and tested. As one becomes more familiar with a particular strain, the specific characteristics of the desirable males become apparent.

Ideally, the more seeds one starts with the better. This is, after all, a numbers game. I will assume that any basic breeding project starts with at least 20 different plants, from 20 viable seeds of high quality, professionally stabilized varieties. This would give a minimum of 10 male and 10 female plants hopefully sexed by two weeks into a flowering light cycle (short day/long night).

Once sexed, the process of elimination may begin. All of the females are kept and regularly examined to prevent unwanted hermaphroditism. Unwanted males and all hermaphrodites must be eliminated before they begin to shed pollen ? usually by the third week in the flowering cycle. The female plants need to be checked for hermaphroditism until harvest.

(A quick word on "backward" hermaphrodites ? declared males that eventually sport female flowers ? as opposed to the usual female-to-male hermaphrodites. These are semi-rare occurrences, usually sterile but sometimes viable, that I have found at times to be valuable in their genetic contributions. Some of the most resinous and desirable males I have encountered exhibited this trait. This trait almost seems to guarantee against unwanted hermaphroditism in subsequent generations as it also increases the female to male ratio in its progeny.)


A word needs to be said about the not-too-common probabilities of what I generally refer to as a recessive combination phenomenon. Sometimes, though not often, two parents that appear to express a common desirable trait ? let's say a sweet/fruity bouquet ? are crossed and the progeny do not express the desirable trait.

This usually means that one or both parents possessed some sort of recessive alleles in their genotype for this characteristic. But it could also mean that the progeny had a different environment that the parents.

If environment can be ruled out then it is likely that some sort of a genetic recessive combination is the cause. If none of the progeny express the desired characteristic one may want to cross the progeny with itself and see what the outcome is.

If a common "Punnet ratio" such as 25% of a progeny express the desirable trait, then the trait is more than likely recessive and the trait may be stabilized via crossing any two of the 25% (or whatever common ratio) that show the desired trait with each other. This process is time consuming and is generally followed only if no other alternatives exist.

Male plants showing their sex.Male plants showing their sex.Selecting males

I prefer to remove all of the males from the grow-room to a separate, isolated space shortly after they declare their sex and well before they begin to shed pollen. A small space lit with simple fluorescent light will suffice for the males for the next few weeks. During this time the female buds will fatten with more flowers while your collection of males is selected down.

I generally employ a simple process of elimination while selecting males. First, any auto-flowering or very early-declared males are eliminated. (Auto-flowering means that male flowers form regardless of light cycle timing.) This is mainly to insure against hermaphroditism or unwanted flowering traits, but also as a means to insure quality. The very early declared males have a tendency to be less desirable in terms of their contributions to the quality of the finished product. (If you are trying to specifically create an early-flowering strain, then your priorities may be different.)

Next, any male plant that grows too tall or too fast is usually eliminated. The reason for this is that most plants which dedicate so much energy to fiber production generally are best for making fiber. The exception to this rule is when an over-productive plant also exhibits a number of the desirable characteristics mentioned later.

The next criteria for elimination is borrowed from Michael Starks' book, Marijuana Potency, and involves stem structure. Large, hollow main stems are sought while pith-filled stems are eliminated. Backed by years of observation, I agree that hollow stems do seem to facilitate THC production.

Another consideration is the type of floral clusters that develop. Even on males, clusters which are tight, compact and yet very productive are desired over an airy, loose structure. These observations are most notable in the indoor environment. Outdoors, the differences in stem and floral structures are more difficult to discern.

The next and perhaps most important characteristic to examine is that of odor, flavor and trichome development. Again, the females will prove themselves by their finished product, but the males are a bit trickier.

I usually begin with a Sativa female and an Indica male. It has been my observation that the females primarily contribute the type of flavor and aroma and the males contribute the amount of flavor and odor. The "Sativa/Indica" aspects of this formula are mainly apparent in the P1 or very early filial crosses (to about f3). Beyond the f3 generation the apparent "Sativa/Indica" ratio in a given individual is less important than the odor/flavor and trichome development aspects it exhibits. Therefore, one of the main aspects to consider when selecting a male is the depth of its aroma and flavor. (If you are seeking to develop a low-odor indoor strain you might wish to begin with a low-odor Sativa male and an Indica female.)

With the remaining males I usually employ an odor/flavor test. Using males at least two or three weeks into the flowering cycle (and preferably beyond if a separate, isolated space is being used), a sort of "scratch-and-sniff" technique is first employed. With clean, odor-free fingers, gently rub one plant at a time, on the stem where it is well developed and pliable, above the woody part and below the developing top (approximately at the spot where a clone would be cut). The newer leaves at their halfway point of development may also be rubbed and sniffed.

These are the places that the earliest chemical signatures of a developing plant present themselves, and it is our intent to gently disturb these chemicals and inspire an odor/flavor reaction on the fingers and on the plant. By examining these various aromas in this way one may be able to determine certain desirable (and also undesirable) characteristics. After clearing one's palate and refreshing one's fingers, another plant may be tested.

The finalists are best compared for at least a week and at different times of day, to determine who performs best over a period of time.

A few of the "good" aromas which I have found to be associated with both male and female high quality cannabis are: sweet, floral, fruity, berry, wine/brandy, other savory spirits, skunky and spearmint. Some of the "bad" aromas associated with both male and female cannabis are: grassy, chlorophyll (green), celery, parsley, carrots, cinnamon, pepper-mint or wintergreen, gear-oil and gasoline. Some of the aromas that are considered "good" from females but not necessarily from males are: woody, cedar, pine, citrus, tropical fruit, chocolate, vanilla, coffee, garlic and astringent.

Worldwide weed

It is sad that due to the Unfortunate State of Assholes in the world today we herbalists are treated criminally. Sad because given saner times we would be able to produce vast amounts of fine quality herb by virtue of no more than the great outdoors, large numbered populations and trial and error.

Someday perhaps, but in the meantime I have few alternate suggestions. Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, Spain and other parts of Europe are opening up more and more toward herbal tolerance. It is relatively easy in these places to score some high quality product.

It is advisable for the newbie to a scene to buy many small samples of herbals at first until one finds what one likes. Just like in any other travel situation, special surprises await those willing to venture out from the centralized tourist areas (except in Christiania where "one stop shopping" is greatly enjoyed).

I am willing to bet that some of the many herbal "sweet spots" around the globe may once again be producing their specialties. I am eager to verify any rumor of such possibilities. These sweet spots would include many equatorial and near equatorial regions such as Colombia, Highland Mexico, parts of Thailand, Burma and Bhutan to name a few. Places such as Nepal and Jamaica have been ideal for herbal expeditions as well. These are some of the places one could venture in search of educating one's herbal palate and expanding one's experience. n

Constant testing

After selections are made, it is also necessary to remember to test for these qualities across a number of clone generations. Do the desirable characteristics present in a new plant (from seed) persist through the following clone generations of that plant? Does the plant from clones of the original carry the same odor/flavor quality? The same potency? Overall desirability? The answers most definitely need to be "yes" if that individual is to be considered for future breeding.

With much practice and years of experience it becomes apparent to those with a sensitive palate which individuals possess the most desirable characteristics from a given sample.
I suggest that your taste and smell be augmented with the use of an illuminated magnifier, either 30X, 60X or 100X power
will do.

Look at the same aforementioned spot on the stem or developing leaves any time after the second week in the bud cycle and look for the greatest abundance of developing trichomes or secretory hairs (hairs that secrete fluid obvious at 30X and above magnification). More fully developed trichomes with very clear heads are generally the most desirable.

These observations need to be done over a period of time (that is, not just a one-time look) and at different times of the day to determine which individuals perform best. Many various phenomena become apparent to those who are able to pay close attention over a period of time. To that effect I suggest you compile and composite detailed notes on one's observations, and to compare those notes over time. Detailed, comprehensive notes are the hallmark of any successful breeding program.

It is possible to test males by smoking or otherwise consuming them. This practice may be somewhat beneficial to beginners as it does involve a sort of obvious discretion. I suggest using only fresh tips, properly cured and rolled into a joint. Also, make sure that this test smoke is the first smoke one consumes in a day in order to best discern its qualities, or lack thereof.

Male plants showing their sex.Some other aspects to consider

There are a number of aesthetic considerations to consider regarding fine quality cannabis breeding, such as color, overall structure, growth patterns and various bouquets. My primary goal involves finding the finished product with the most desirable and pleasant effects. So I focus on those aspects and stabilize them first. Once stabilized, a backcross or a cross to another variety may be utilized to further improve the line and/or increase vigor, if necessary.

On the experimental level the finished product is expected to be either pleasant or powerful, depending on the individual. I prefer an herb that is pleasantly powerful or powerfully pleasant! So that is the sought-after goal. The range of experiences elicited by cannabis can vary from bliss to panic to stupefying. I much prefer the bliss aspects.

The best descriptive dichotomy in this case would be comfort vs. discomfort. I also suppose some personality types may enjoy a more exciting experience ? perhaps only once in awhile ? a feeling somewhat akin to the entertainment of a roller coaster ride or a horror movie.

Cannabis is unusual in its varying effects on our vascular-circulatory system. Some cannabis strains seem to act as a vasodilator and others as a vasoconstrictor. A vasoconstrictor is a substance that constricts blood vessels. It tends to elicit tension, excitement, anxiety, and even panic. A vasodilator is a substance that dilates blood vessels and tends to relax a person more easily into a blissful state. Therefore, I tend to prefer cannabis that seems to act as a vasodilator, simply not to the point of couch lock sedation.

I have nothing against powerfully stony herb. It is just that as long as my breeding space is limited, I will choose to work with the more pleasant varieties ? those that elicit a generally happy experience. Someday I look forward to working at stabilizing many different varieties of herb. After all, to each their own.

Tinnitus and dyskinesia are common symptoms of a vasoconstrictor reaction. Tinnitus is ringing in the ears, and dyskinesia, in this instance, is usually felt as a tingling in the extremities, especially the little fingers, toes and ears. Another bad sign would be any form of tension headache or unwanted body load. If these symptoms occur regularly after indulging in a particular herb, the herb may be contributing to the sensation.

Does it pass the acid test?

To borrow and paraphrase a disclaimer from Dr Hunter S Thompson; "I cannot condone drug usage, but I must admit it has worked well for me." In particular, the psychedelics (entheogens, entactogens, and hallucinogens included) are paramount as a testing tool when breeding fine quality cannabis.

A favored testing formula of mine involves preparations being made days in advance. One needs to have a perfectly cured sample of the herb one wishes to test ready at hand before the test. Fasting (from substances primarily, but also some foods) and cleansing (exercise, sweating or sauna, re-hydration and meditation, etc.) are employed for a period prior to the test. This is to as fully as possible re-calibrate one's baseline state of consciousness to its most basic, clean state.

A time is selected, a toast made and the trip material is ingested. I generally like to eat a simple meal of soup or juice and bread after I ingest a substance and before I begin to alert (first noticing the effect of a substance).

Do not ingest any herb, or any other consciousness-altering substance until after one has alerted, preferably prior to the peak of the trip. Ingest only a small amount of the herb to be tested at first, one toke at a time, unless this is a follow-up test and one is already familiar with the experience.

Ideally, the psychedelic substance will further the range of noticeable subtleties by one's psyche and allow a broader appreciation of the effect from the herb. An herb that is truly powerful and pleasant will usually profoundly express its experience upon the opened mind. That is, if the herb is truly blissful it will become more readily apparent under such psychedelic examination. Likewise, if the herb is somewhat "panicky" or "anxious" in experience, the psychedelic will exacerbate these qualities as well.

I am assuming, and offering fair warning, that those who attempt such a test are well-experienced psychic travelers. That is, all necessary considerations of set and setting must be satisfied before attempting such a trial. The psychedelic substance almost seems to act as a sort of mental catalyst when combined with herb. This combination is able to cause both desirable and undesirable traits of the herb experience to become more so apparent to the initiated mind.

These are some of the techniques, selections and considerations that I employ when breeding fine quality cannabis. Famed horticulturist Luther Burbank's quote: "select the best and reject all others" is the single most important aspect to consider.

With time, focus and patience the knack for recognizing desirable and undesirable traits becomes more apparent. Having an open and curious mind, along with a developed sense of intuition, is beneficial.

May your ventures be fruitful.

Male plants showing their sex.Recessivecombination

A word needs to be said about the not-too-common probabilities of what I generally refer to as a recessive combination phenomenon. Sometimes, though not often, two parents that appear to express a common desirable trait ? let's say a sweet/fruity bouquet ? are crossed and the progeny do not express the desirable trait.

This usually means that one or both parents possessed some sort of recessive alleles in their genotype for this characteristic. But it could also mean that the progeny had a different environment that the parents.

If environment can be ruled out then it is likely that some sort of a genetic recessive combination is the cause. If none of the progeny express the desired characteristic one may want to cross the progeny with itself and see what the outcome is.

If a common "Punnet ratio" such as 25% of a progeny express the desirable trait, then the trait is more than likely recessive and the trait may be stabilized via crossing any two of the 25% (or whatever common ratio) that show the desired trait with each other. This process is time consuming and is generally followed only if no other alternatives exist.Male plants showing their sex.

Male plants showing their sex.Ganja Godesses

One of the things I learned a long time ago was that something more than genetics or biological environment plays a role in the desirability of herb. During the 70's and 80's, as the number of growers proliferated, it became apparent to those privy to the info that a grower's personal vibe somehow became part of the plant's vibe.

Generally speaking, mellow, laid-back growers tended to produce mellow, laid-back herb, whereas uptight, sinister growers tended to produce uptight, sinister herb. Perhaps it was just the vibe of the grower following the product to market expressing itself along the chain of trade, I am not certain, nor do I believe any form of scientific observation will ever confirm such a debate. It has simply been one of those givens in the trade. In that regard, I have further noticed that much of the finest domestic herb I've encountered was grown by women.

I used to call it the "Great Pumpkin" effect, but perhaps it is better termed the "Ganja Goddess" effect. The most sincere herbal patches being visited upon by the subtle and ethereal spirits of benevolence. And subtle is a very key word when considering the desirable characteristics of fine quality cannabis. Subtleties have a way of being very powerful, indeed. While we are considering such aesthetic topics let's have a look at femininity. It is, after all, the female plant we are primarily concerned with.

Male plants showing their sex.One of the most profound aspects of the cannabis experience for me is its ability to act as a counter-balance to my personal, male-dominance syndrome.

Cannabis allows me a reprieve from the otherwise distracting male-conditioned response of attempting to dominate my environment. My conditioning of aggressive competitiveness is temporarily quelled, and I am allowed to experience reality in a much more non-linear relationship. The routine desire to compete and conquer is replaced with a sense of cooperation and community. In a word, I have learned to become a feminist.

By "feminist" I mean the protected right to be feminine, cooperative, community-centered and globally concerned, able and free to discern subtleties, intuitive and submissive without the fear of dominator conquest and control. The fine quality cannabis experience allows me to better understand, accept, and serve fate.

One of the things I have learned about "us" (the cooperators) and "them" (the dominators) is that they need us much more than we need them. This is one fact that I wish very much for our community to realize. Toward realizing that end, I have found the finest quality cannabis to be an invaluable resource.



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