Pheno-hunting: Creating the World’s Greatest Strains
The dankest new marijuana strains sometimes originate as happy accidents, mutations or exceptions that pop up during a breeder’s journey through an experience known as pheno-hunting. Abbreviated from the word phenotype, a scientific term that essentially means different versions of the same strain, when pheno-hunting cannabis breeders search through vast numbers of plants in order to find one with a number of exceptional qualities such as resin production, potency, weight, aroma and flavor.
Different phenotypes of marijuana can be compared to sisters who share a number of family characteristics, but are not exactly alike. Depending on the breeder, marijuana seeds will either be stable and express a mostly uniform outcome or, if the strain was not stabilized, cultivators will end up with myriad of phenotypic possibilities. Breeding new strains of marijuana is based on hereditary inheritance that originates from the chromosomes of the parent donors. Like humans, cannabis plants reproduce using male and female aspects and inherit traits from both parents.
Since the beginning of time, man has selected plants based on varying traits, always looking to increase or better his crops from the previous season. This is also the case with cannabis. Marijuana breeders throughout time have selected strains based on characteristics such as flavor, color, or yields. When a breeder starts a project it is usually with a specific goal in mind, but one sought-after quality common to most new strains is vigor. Generally seeds will have more vigor than clones, especially certain hybrids, as they will combine the best traits of both donors or parents, thus inheriting a built-in strength.
It’s always interesting to sit down and talk to different breeders because we all, for the most part, work the in the same way, selecting both males and females and then experimenting with the outcomes of crossing the various building blocks. Modern science has now also entered the fray allowing for marker-assisted breeding projects that use genetic sequencing to discover various traits, or markers, that can be used in advanced forms of breeding.
In order to gain insights into the process of creating exceptional unique types of marijuana, I spoke with a sampling of cannabis breeders working all over the world. They included Mat from The House of the Great Gardener, Big Buddha and Milo from Big Buddha Seeds, PC from Purple Caper Seeds, Jolly Mon from Loompa Farms and Jen Norstar from NorStar Genetics/TGA Genetics.
To understand what my fellow breeders have in mind when they start a project I began by asking about their goals. Mat from The House of the Great Gardener says that when he starts his selection process his goals often vary. He typically looks for strong vegetative growth as a start, vigor is, of course, very important. Great smell is also an essential trait he looks for both during the vegetative and flowering stages. Most good strains will already start to give off scent while they are still vegging and new cultivators should pay close attention to both their eyes and nose in the growroom. While the optimal aromas will vary from project to project, marijuana bursting with fruit fragrances such as strawberry, guava and cherry, are currently showing wide appeal.
Big Buddha, from Big Buddha Seeds, emphasizes having a clear goal when starting a cannabis breeding project. Examples of a breeder’s intent could include creating a quick-flowering Sativa, a high-yielding Indica or focusing on other key attributes such as mold resistance or general plant size.
Jolly Mon from Loompa Farms seconded Big Buddha’s advice by saying prospective breeders should establish a direct objective and have an endpoint in mind when starting a project. Establishing clear intent was also stressed by Jen Norstar, who said it’s important to keep improving your breeding stock while also staying focused. When you start a project, pick out where you would like to end up, either with something in a particular terpene bracket or with a certain structure or yield. As Milo from Big Buddha explains, having a goal is key to establishing a well thought out breeding program, otherwise you can get bogged down in the work and the multitude of crosses.
Mat also emphasizes that when creating medical strains it’s important to conduct out-reach with patients in order to test the efficacy of the medicine. He works in Canada with several compassion clubs that also have access to testing, an aspect of modern day marijuana breeding which he finds super useful. With lab-tested results breeders can compare the different chemotypes (the chemical profile of a bud) of their plants. Each chemotype is like a fingerprint and is unique, providing invaluable data towards breeding strain selections.
Admittedly, I have found the same usefulness in working with a lab here in the states after moving from Europe. Certain labs, such as the Berkeley-based Steep Hill Labs, can sex test and chemotype leaf samples from plants that are only three weeks old, speeding up the breeding process by months and months. Now, instead of a two month long selection process, results are back in a few days and you can know whether or not your plant is male or female and understand its exact chemical makeup.
As Buddha’s seeds are for the most part feminized, or derived from strains that have been bred to produce only female seeds, he explained that knowing how female and males react is also an important aspect to his breeding program. An advanced breeding technique involves using female plants to make male pollen. When using this technique it’s very important to select the right female as certain females are sterile while others are incredibly generous pollen donors. Feminized seeds are generally made by spraying STS, a chemical component used in the photography industry, on a female plant. The stress of this chemical will cause male pollen sacks to form on the female flowers. Pollen created in this way will only contain female chromosomes and therefore, when used to pollinate other females, will produce female-only seeds. Having a stable supply of female plants that exhibit large amounts of female-only pollen is quite desirable to breeders making feminized seeds.
In standard marijuana breeding knowing your males and having a secure group with predictable traits is also crucial as it helps to develop an understanding surrounding recessive and non-recessive genes. In layman terms, this means understanding whether or not you have a dominant male. As a breeder, I’ve seen elusive non-dominant males that impart none of their characteristics as they have incredibly dormant genes. In this circumstance your female offspring will be very similar to their mother, if the mother is dominant, a result that can be useful when working with exclusive clone-only strains. By re-invigorating them in this way, they will have an increased strength — a quality which will often mean larger yields and healthier plants — but they will also retain all of the desirable traits from the female plant.
All those I spoke with have an extreme love for cannabis and encourage new breeders to develop their own passion for marijuana through discovery by crossing different strains and eternally questing for new exciting outcomes. Mat from the House of the Great Gardener suggested growing out as many strains as possible in order to expose the multitude of variations from many phenotypes, then honing in on the specific traits that you desire. PC agreed, stating that breeding cannabis is a numbers game, so one should start with as many seeds as possible.
The more beans you crack the better your odds are of finding something amazing. While the number of seeds you start out with should be high, Jolly Mon from Loompa Farms suggested limiting yourself to only a few strains at a time.
Several of the breeders including Buddha and Jen suggested that the final key to success is testing. Let others grow out your new seeds and lab test the bud that comes from the finished selections. All of the breeders agreed that it’s important to seek out the opinions of fellow breeders and friends. How was that new strain really? What was the best phenotype? It’s essential to surround yourself with a good group of growers and smokers. Buddha said his number one tip is to listen to the people around you, the dispensaries buying your bud, fellow breeders and smokers. Go out there once you’ve made a few new crosses and test what you’ve made, it’s really valuable to get feedback. You will see there will always be one or two super special strains in the mix, those few amazing keepers. As a breeder these strains will become prized trophies gained in your own pheno-hunt, success stories in the never ending pursuit of better bud.