The way we buy weed has completely transformed. Alongside a wave of legal reforms in cannabis occurring worldwide over the past decade, there has also been a marked change in how smokers select the types of flowers to enjoy. The hype machine fueling trends in cannabis cultivars is on a constant churn making the lifespan of any given kind of flower shorter and shorter, and many of today’s consumers make purchases that align with particular growers and brands instead of specific cultivars. The results of Cannabis Cups once dictated the flavors we’d be smoking for years to come, but in the current marketplace it can be challenging to shop with particular cannabis crosses in mind due to a lack of consistent availability. That leads to the deceptively simple question: What’s the average lifespan of a cannabis strain?
When asked about the trends in cannabis genetics, cannabis expert and author Elise McDonough’s thoughts went back to a huge upset that took place at the Cannabis Cup in 2004, when Reeferman, a Canadian, came into the Dutch scene and took first place in the sativa category for Love Potion #1.
“[Reeferman] came into their scene, and he swept all [the Dutch] strains off the map because he was bringing something new and fresh,” she said. “In my opinion, what the Dutch were doing in the ’90s and early 2000s it’s the same thing that Californians are doing now. The Dutch had certain strains, and everybody was crossing everything to everything else, and then eventually they just had this kind of model where everything became very similar.”
McDonough explained that Reeferman created strains like Love Potion by “traveling the world, finding these landrace strains, growing them out in huge fields, making selections, and then breeding.”
Reeferman was then able to create very novel flowers when compared to what was coming out of the Netherlands at the time, she said.
“I think the same thing is ripe to happen in California. Everybody’s tired of these Cookies crosses,” McDonough said. “Everybody’s grown out the same stuff and crossing it willy nilly to everything else, and it’s just become this kind of weird muddle.”
Now the marketing director at Binske, McDonough also sees the lifespan of strains from a different perspective.
“The other thing about this hype breeding and this shortening of the cycle of new strains is, as a brand person, we feel [pressure] from the retailers,” she said. “The retailers are always wanting us to have something fresh and different and new on our menu.”
She explained that retailers’ goals differ from traditional cannabis breeders, who spend years stabilizing and maintaining genetics. McDonough likens the conversation around cannabis breeding to dog breeding, saying it took generations of breeding Labradors to poodles to create labradoodles.
“And they’re still pretty crazy,” she said.
In cannabis, as with dogs, it takes generations to achieve clearly defined, consistent, and predictable traits.
“[For breeders] that’s your IP, that’s, you know, your special sauce,” McDonough said. “And that work takes generations. It takes years to stabilize a strain. So what we’re seeing now are these hype strains that are a flash in the pan, and they’re not stabilized.”
Unstable genetics could explain part of the reason why newer cannabis cultivars often lack staying power, but many other factors come into play. Mike Doten, chief sales officer at Fig Farms, believes that unique strains walk a popularity parabola that rises and falls in about five years.
“We’ve had [strains] like the Dark Karma that we’ve tried to retire,” Doten said. “The distributor just says, ‘The demand is too high if you retire this, and you’re just losing shelf space.’ Like a ‘You need to keep it growing’ type of thing.”
Doten said more common strains have a shorter lifespan as consumer demand drops.
“For us to bring in a super common strain, like a Gelato #41, we have maybe like a six- to eight-month window where we can put out our standard amount before we have to start dropping it down, and down, and down, and eventually backing it out.”
Marketing also contributes to a strain’s longevity.
“Sometimes we roll out four or five new strains in a month, and we don’t have a marketing package on each one,” Doten said. “Those are things that would help extend the life of a strain also, just having a proper marketing kit with it.”
Another element that keeps strains in the spotlight is their flavor profile fitting within overarching popular categories such as gas and fruit.
“Think the hype strains have a lifespan of five years,” said Luigi Diaz, a comedian who has worked in the cannabis industry for nine years. “That’s when it becomes hype. Then everyone grows it to perfection. Then comes the crosses, and by that time, the new hype has grown, and the growers have moved on while searching for that new fire. Though gas is forever.”
For Josh Vert, co-founder of Royal Key, known for producing award-winning extracts, a main factor to finding a cultivar to put out on the market often concerns its ability to become a cannabis concentrate. Another component in play is the way a particular strain grows.
Vert entered a few flower entries into this year’s Emerald Cup including Riddles, a phenotype of Red Pop that was hunted from seed and then crossed with itself. Riddles, he said, didn’t turn out to yield well enough to be made into rosin.
“There was a couple of phenos… there was one called Yoplait that I don’t think we officially killed yet, but it’s just so mold-prone that it didn’t make the cut,” he said. “And you don’t find those details out sometimes for a couple of runs of it.”
Vert said it wasn’t until Riddles was cured—revealing an aroma similar to the ever-popular tropical fruit and bergamot orange essence of Zkittlez—that he realized he might have something special.
“It turns out it’s just really special to me, but that’s OK,” Vert said. “We just look to the people and notice what’s really hitting and what gets people excited. What we might have missed as well, you know? We don’t see everything, smell everything.”
Vert pointed out that the traditional market drives a lot of trends. He said the terpene profile of Zkittlez is outstanding, but part of the reason that strain “can’t/won’t die” is that the cultivar has a brand behind it. The strain’s popularity has also led many other brands to use it in their breeding projects.
“Anytime you breed with that, it’s got a Z on it, so it’s getting marketed over and over again,” he said.
Vert explained that the question about a strain’s longevity is complex “because you could get into how much a brand has to do in marketing with the stability of a strain.”
“And then you’ve got market perception, overall acceptability, and desirability for the thing. Zkittlez has those two things in spades,” he said.
Alyssa Roberts, chief of staff with Kayla Extracts, agreed that asking about the lifespan of the average strain is a complex question and echoed McDonough in stating that a constant quest for new flavors means cannabis breeders don’t always work on genetic stability.
“The lifespan we see on genetics is around four to five years when we see a strain really thrive and get that hype before it starts getting crossed,” Roberts said. “Strain variability and differentiation are all based on the market and what the market wants to see.”