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As long as there has been cannabis there have been strains. A strain is a specific variety of cannabis plant, based on characteristics inherited from its unique parent plants.
Some cannabis is grown from clones, where growers clip and replant little starter cannabis growths from a single more mature plant. This allows for bulk production of a single consistent strain of cannabis.
Otherwise mother nature grows cannabis with seeds and pollen. You mix one strain's seed with another's pollen and you can get something no one has ever smoked. Serious growers pay attention to their seeds and strains developed over years, maybe collaborating with other growers to share genetics.
Each strain of cannabis contains a unique mix of cannabinoids including the major players tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabinoids together with plant flavors called Terpenes form the "entourage effect" that gives pot its unique characteristics that we experience as we see it, touch it, smell it, taste it, and consume it. Top terpenes in cannabis include Myrcene, Limonene, Pinene, Linalool, Beta-Caryophyllene, Terpinolene, Farnesene, Ocimene. For example, the piney notes you might get smelling a cannabis strain's "pinene" include some of the same molecules that come off a pine tree's needles.
Each strain has their own mix of these flavor molecules which seem to help influence the effects of the weed. It's not just now much THC and CBD a strain has, there's another push that seems to come from the flavor of the cannabis.
Cannabis is often categorized as either indica, sativa or a hybrid of the two.
Some strains succeed and become famous because of their qualities - effects, strength, smell, taste, good looks. Some strains succeed because they have good marketing behind them. For example, Khalifa Kush is a strain popularized by hip-hop performer Wiz Khalifa. Some strains succeed because they've been around for a long while.
Some of the most classic all-time strains include:
Sometimes growers name their strains after existing entities or products outside of cannabis. Growers and vendors of cannabis shift strain names to comply with cease and desist requests or lawsuits from non-cannabis entities. Here are some examples of strains that have run into trouble:
Not every one who sells Rainbow Runtz is selling the same strain. Vendors will grow their own weed and do their best to either create their own new strain, or it might be easier to name their product something like an existing popular strain - Double Rainbow Runtz! Some strain names might be plant-to-human transmissions of knowledge - some strain names are just someone getting stoned and thinking of something fun to name their weed.
Look for clues for the flavor - fruity, sweet, foresty, gassy, and so forth - that could give you a hint as to which of the terpenes might be involved.
Strains are poetry of pot. How can you describe a plant? How can you describe a plant that you ingest to change how you feel? We choose evocative terms, and when we share strain knowledge or nomenclature we connect with legend and lore of weed. To this day when we hear Acapulco Gold we hear Cheech & Chong singing "no stems, no seeds, that you don't need, Acapulco Gold is badass weed." Each grower who gives a name to a strain is hoping you might enjoy your weed in the best of health.