Every time a grower lets a cannabis seed germinate, they tap into a whole world of research and plant breeding expertise. Breeding cannabis strains has a long history behind it, stemming from ancient traditions of breeding other plants. This is fundamental knowledge for any grower, no matter whether you’re into tomato seeds or weed plants. That is why this blog series teaches you what plant breeding is, and how it impacts you as a grower and plant aficionado.
Plant Breeding: The Foundation Of All Modern Crops
Step inside a random supermarket or gardening centre, or shop for cannabis seeds at any online seeds bank, and you are bombarded with enough choice to make you dizzy. Tomatoes, cucumbers, geraniums, and cannabis strains: there’s so many different kinds that at times, it’s hard to see the forest for the plants.
So how is it that we have such dazzling options for choosing what’s for dinner, what to plant out in the garden, or which cannabis strain to enjoy? One way or another, it all comes down to plant breeding. By plant breeding we mean everything that growers, farmers, or breeders do to improve their crops, making them better suited for whatever purpose people want to use tomatoes, potted plants, or cannabis strains.
But what exactly constitutes an ‘improvement’? Trying to make a plant ‘better’ seems a rather subjective activity – it all depends on what you consider ‘good’ or ‘desirable’. To clarify the matter, and to understand what all those generations of growers and breeders have been up to, you will find a summary of the main goals of plant breeding below.
Why Use Plant Breeding?
Plant breeding always aims to improve certain crops, which in practice means making them more suitable for human use. Perhaps you sense the problem inherent in this aim, because after all, who decides what makes a ‘good’ crop?
We will turn to that question later; first, we will try to clarify why anyone would want to improve a tomato, a cucumber, or a cannabis plant in the first place.
In order to understand plant breeding, you need to know that most modern plants, vegetables, fruits, and cereals (and weed strains!) are nothing like their original ancestors: the so-called landraces. The tomatoes you find in your kitchen today are completely different from the tiny sour berries they once were. That difference is due to plant breeding.
For thousands of years, farmers and breeders have been selecting their crops for favourable traits, season upon season upon season. They then went on to crossbreed these chosen prime specimens with strong specimens of existing plants, to make sure these desirable properties would return in subsequent generations.
Within one or two generations, this kind of selection will usually not make much difference. However, if you continue to select the best specimens and keep on crossing them with what you already have, the differences between your selection and the original plants becomes ever clearer. Eventually, this produces the intended results of plant breeding: every next generation displays the breeder’s intended improvements more clearly than the ones before.
Plant Breeding: Selecting For Better Traits
Plant breeding is based on the same principles whether you are working with tomatoes or cannabis plants. In both cases, the breeder wishes to make certain traits return more prominently in the next generation. These desirable properties usually come down to the following:
- Better yields;
- Improved taste;
- Better external appearance (colour, size, leaf shape, etc.);
- Higher nutritional value (or stronger effects in case of cannabis);
- Stronger plants with higher resilience against disease and weather influences.
As you can see, these plant breeding goals apply equally well to tomato plants as to cannabis strains. All growers want bigger harvests, better-tasting buds, beautiful purple flowers, healthy green leaves, more THC and terpenes for the ultimate high; and less risk of mould, disease, and pests.
When weed became increasingly popular over the second half of the twentieth century, enthusiasts all over the world started dabbling in cannabis plant breeding. Using the old strains and landraces they could get their hands on, they crossbred their classic cannabis varieties , until they finally developed the incredible range of strains we have available today.
To achieve that, they employed plant breeding techniques that had been perfected over centuries spent improving staple food crops such as wheat, vegetables, and fruits. The grower community, then, still owes a great deal to the efforts of breeders who were often forced to work behind the scenes.
Landraces And Ancient Genetics
Landraces are the original forms of crops improved through human cultivation. This means that alongside cannabis landraces, we also have tomato, banana, and potato landraces dating back millennia in some cases.
When it comes to old-school weed, professional ‘strain hunters’ actively venture into the wild to find such old landrace genetics. They do so in order to develop new strains that resemble their distant ancestors more closely than most contemporary strains. Such genetics ‘hunters’, or ‘archaeologists’ if you like, are also active in the search for primal potato or cereal varieties.
But why would anyone wish to use such old genetics rather than the present-day bred varieties we see in supermarkets and dispensaries? Surely, today’s weed, tomatoes, and potatoes are much better, stronger, and tastier than their predecessors used to be?
This is true in a sense; and yet, demand for landraces and their prehistoric genetics is on the rise. This is largely due to breeders’ unrelenting efforts to keep developing new varieties of potatoes and bananas – plant breeding, in other words.
The History Of Plant Breeding
Plant breeding is as old as mankind’s first attempts to grow their own food. Back when we were still hunter-gatherers, travelling the lands in search of our food, we did not have any kind of permanent residence. That meant we had to rely on what we managed to forage along the way for a stable food supply. All of that changed, however, the moment we started to build our first human settlements, which allowed us to live in one place for generations.
Our first ancestors with a fixed address soon discovered the advantages of being able to grow their own fruits, vegetables, and cereals in their newly-invented back yards. You could say that these very first farmers laid the foundation for our modern societies, with cities full of people who are entirely reliant on farmers living elsewhere for the food they need every day.
These present-day farmers in turn depend entirely on the crops improved by centuries of plant breeding, which enable reliable large-scale agricultural food cultivation. Today’s hypermodern Dutch agriculture with its incredible efficiency would not have been possible without the ages of plant breeding that preceded it. The same applies to our cannabis culture.
The First Grower
The very first farmers used the landraces they found in the forests and fields to grow on their plots of land. They soon discovered that some of these plants were somehow ‘better’ than the others. They produced bigger harvests, for instance; or grew taller and tasted better, or were more resilient to disease and bad weather.
At some point, there must have been one incredibly smart prehistoric farmer who figured: “Wait a minute… What if I only kept using these good plants and just got rid of all the others – would that leave me with only great specimens on my land next season?”
This single stroke of agricultural genius was all it took to give birth to the whole concept of plant breeding.
In a sense, all present-day cannabis growers owe their hobby to this First Grower Of All Times. Plant breeding turned out to be useful for more than just corn, carrots, and apple trees. Cannabis plants have proven well-suited to cultivation using plant breeding techniques, too.
Plant Breeding Techniques
As we have mentioned above, pant breeding developed into an entire branch of scientific endeavour, comprising various theories and a range of different techniques. At the heart of these techniques lies DNA, the biochemical code of genetics that contains all traits of any plant or animal species alive today.
You probably felt this one coming: as soon as we touch upon genetics, we have entered the domain of cannabis breeders and growers. We are called Amsterdam Genetics for a reason, after all: every single one of the premium cannabis seeds you can order here came about through clever use of plant breeding techniques.
We would love to tell you more about the technical aspects of plant breeding, but that is the subject of the next episode in this blog series. If you want to learn how you can develop the world’s best new strains using the genetics found in cannabis seeds, continue reading our next blog on DNA and plant breeding now!