Written records of human history only go back about 7,000 years, which doesn’t account for the first 193,000 odd years of humans experimenting with the surrounding world, eating strange plants and mushrooms to various avail, developing spoken languages, and domesticating wolves, among other exploits. Though we lack written pre-histories, we can infer the achievements of our forbearers through their creations––early tools, cave paintings, and fruit.

Most of the fruit you eat today is millions, or billions, of generations away from the first thorny, seed-laden, and bitter sustenance our ancestors stomached. Early humans turned away from wandering tribes chasing mammoths, as well as the seasons, and turned into farmers around 9,000 B.C.E. and immediately became selective breeders, culling and adjusting their crops for desired traits to supply nutrition, flavor, and pest resistance. The raw material early farmers cultivated would be unrecognizable to us today.

At the Emerald Cup, an annual celebration of outdoor cannabis farming, I first came across a citron. The fruit was settled among other aromatic exhibits––a pine leaf, a stick of cinnamon, a sprig of lavender––at an educational booth on terpenes. Briefly, terpenes are what give plants their flavors and scents, and some of the terpenes found in a lemon, or a clove, can also be found in cannabis. The citron comes in many regional varieties, but the one I held, the Buddha Hand Citron, was like an alien claw, a dense yellow rind with squid-like appendages. It is hard to imagine how early humans looked at such a thing and conceived, however vaguely, that it could one day become a lemon, lime or orange. If you cut a citron open, you see far more rind than meat. The edible part of the fruit is incredibly sour. Humans had to select for sweeter and meatier varieties over generations until they arrived at a palatable fruit. Nowadays the varieties are endless: tangerine, Valencia, Navel, grapefruit, pomelo, to name a few.

Close up image of fingered citron plant

Similarly, somewhere in the mountains of what is now Nepal, early humans discovered cannabis, a skunky, seedy plant with a pleasant, medicinal effect when eaten, drank as a tea, or smoked. Modern farmers are still participating in the multi-millennial story of its development and selection.

Flow Kana farmer Micah Flause of Polykulture believes very strongly that not only is breeding and selection an important part of how we arrived at the current moment in cannabis cultivation, but also that such practice will define the future of the plant. “You really need to get large populations and select the best out of 10,000 or the best out of a million to do what conventional (agriculture) was able to do,” said Flause.

Currently the name of the game for sungrown farmers like Flause is not only cannabinoid profile (the much considered THC, THCA, THCV, and CBD levels in a strain) but also the terpene content, smell and flavor of new breeds. This is why Flause plants cannabis with companion crops. Just as humans evolved citron into orange, cannabis sharing a root structure together with companion crops that carry the same terpenes helps evolve the cannabis plant. As Flause said of ‘Orange Cupcakes,’ one of his newest grown strains, “It has a very fresh-squeezed orange juice kind of flavor to it. I tend to like the (strains) with a loud nose and a greater terpene percentage.”

You regularly hear terms usually used in relation to fine wines when speaking to outdoor cannabis farmers. “Loud nose,” “sweet aftertaste,” “notes of lavender.” Flow Kana farmer Cyril Guthridge from Water Dog Herb Farm, has perhaps the most interesting, and specific, descriptions of the flavors of his trademark strains. Like a cheese-monger describing a funky stilton, Guthridge details his “Phoenix” strains (Phoenix Rising and Phoenix Berry White) as having a flavor like “grandma’s bathroom; citral, floral, mixed with the smell of old socks.” Using his full range of sense memory, Guthridge dives deeper into his tuning of the flavor profile. “My great-grandma’s bathroom had a very specific smell, and I’m looking for that smell.” Farmers have roots too, and agriculture has always marked the moment when humans began to bend nature to our own ideals.

Johanna Mortz of Polykulture inspects a row of cannabis. Photo credit – Kurt Kugel

In farming, invention happens over many generations of a strain. Plants too have their history, ancestors and descendants. The Citradiesel grown on Water Dog Herb Farm, a strain that marries the fruity lineage of the protean citron with urban tinges of gasoline, displays its ever-evolving nature in flavor and effect differences between F1, or the first generation of plants, and F7, the seventh iteration and usually thought to be the culminating descendant. At a certain point, if a plant takes on enough new qualities, be it flavor, appearance or effect, it may even warrant a new name, distinct from its ancestor. And thus an OG turns into a Pineapple OG, or a Pineapple Cookies, or a PineTree Silver Haze, and so on.

Just as we modern humans are a good two feet taller than our Byzantine ancestors, so are modern cannabis plants much stronger, more disease and pest-resistant, than when they were subject, like us, to the whims of nature. Sungrown cultivation is a constant call and response between farmer and nature. The farmer will guide the plant in the direction of health, flavor, and potency, but nature delivers endless surprises, fortune and affliction. Pest and disease resistance are also among the qualities for which outdoor farmers select, and the most-tenable plants with the greatest chance of survival also promise the greatest chance of producing new and interesting tastes, smells, and medicinal properties.

“From my perspective,” Flause said, “we aren’t currently able to appreciate the variety that’s out there because there…hasn’t been a lot of intelligent, advanced breeding going on in cannabis. It’s mostly been farmers in their backyards selecting out of very small selection pools. This tends to bottleneck the gene pool and doesn’t allow for exceptional varieties to start to express themselves.”

Like the first stone tablets of 5,000 BCE’s Mesopotamia, sungrown cannabis farming is just now beginning its written history, coming out of the dark to flourish in the light of legality and social-acceptance. It will be written in the genetics of the plants to come, the terpenes and cannabinoids of future strains that will function as wordless histories of the early farmers. We are only now on the frontier of what such future histories will deliver.