Cannabis—like asparagus, dates, mulberry, ginkgo, persimmons, and spinach—is a dioecious species, meaning that the male and female reproductive structures involved in propagation are typically found on different individual plants, rather than on a single plant (as in a monoecious species). Cannabis is also an annual, so it dies off each winter, but not before dropping seeds that will sprout the following spring, allowing the cycle of life to continue for another year.
In nature, those seeds form in the late autumn—when the male plants pollinate the females. Each time such pollination takes place the result is a genetically unique seed—one that contains DNA from both of its parents—but without the direct involvement of human beings, the amount of genetic diversity seen from generation to generation is practically pretty limited.
In theory, each time two unique varieties are crossed in this way, the result is a wholly new strain. But in practice, only the most successful of these hybrids will be stabilized and grow popular enough to earn a permanent place in the hearts of cannabis enthusiasts. Adding to the complexity (and potential confusion) of this process is the fact that until relatively recently, all of this breeding still took place in the underground, so the documentation of who created what and how is often unknown or in dispute.
But that’s just all the more reason to properly identify and honor the amazing cannabis breeders of yore who performed the alchemical feat of bringing into the world all-new, genetically distinct cannabis varietals that truly changed the game.
Dave Watson (a.k.a. “Sam the Skunkman”)
One of the most fascinating and controversial figures in cannabis history, Dave Watson (far better known as “Sam the Skunkman”) is lauded by some and vilified by others, but nobody can dispute the outsized role he’s played in the once very small world of cannabis breeders.
Watson’s journey began in Santa Cruz, California in the 1970s, where he was linked to two of the earliest cannabis breeding outfits to ever gain notoriety—the Haze Brothers and Sacred Seed Collective—both of which were instrumental in developing the early hybrid strains that helped transform American “homegrown” cannabis from a ditchweed laughingstock to the envy of the world.
In 1985, Watson was reportedly arrested on cannabis charges in California. A month later, he landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, allegedly with a box of 250,000 seeds that included Skunk #1, Original Haze, and Afghani #1—all of which had been bred or stabilized by his cannabis compatriots. Watson met immediately with emissaries from Amsterdam’s burgeoning cannabis scene, which at the time relied largely on imported hashish to supply its coffeeshops.
Along with Robert Colonel Clarke (Author of Hashish! and Marijuana Botany), he would go on to form Hortapharm, a company dedicated to collecting cannabis seeds from around the world, both to create a stable genetic library and to breed new hybrids with desirable traits. By the late 1990’s, they were doing business with Dr. Geoffrey Guy, founder and chairman of GW Pharmaceuticals, which is now licensed by the British government to cultivate cannabis for use in making “whole-plant extracts” with specific ratios of THC and CBD for use as prescription medicines.
GW has since created “the first cannabis plant-derived medicine ever approved by the FDA,” but at the time, the company was in its earliest stages and still looking for cannabis seed stock to use in developing its pharmaceutical preparations.
In the late 1960’s, Netherlands native Ben Dronkers sailed on merchant ships to exotic ports of call, where he initially sought out fabric to start his own clothing company, but eventually began collecting local cannabis seeds instead. In time, his collection was truly unparalleled and boasted genetics from throughout Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. He then used those landrace strains to breed his own hybrids.
In 1985, Dronkers formed Sensi Seed Bank and began offering for sale the strains he’d collected and hybrids he’d created, including after crossing his own discoveries with recently arrived American varietals.
Among his most endearing and enduring contributions: Jack Herer, one of the all time most popular cannabis strains, named for one of the all-time most influential cannabis activists.
According to a lengthy 2013 Grantland profile titled “The Willie Wonka of Pot,” DJ Short—the legendary, nearly mythical cannabis breeder behind Blueberry and many other classic strains—is part of a long line of plant medicine workers. His great-grandmother “used to grow pot, opium, tobacco, sage, and lavender in a backyard garden. The curtains in his grandmother’s house were made of hemp. His family used to joke, ‘If the house catches on fire, stay in for a little while and breathe.’”
Eventually he began collecting cannabis seeds from the bags of cannabis he bought as a teenager, carefully logging them and making detailed notes, as much later related in his own 2003 book Cultivating Exceptional Cannabis: An Expert Breeder Shares His Secrets:
Colombian Gold (“The smell was that of sandalwood incense, almost frankincense, and the flavor was that of a peppery incense cedar … truly psychedelic, powerful and long lasting”), Chocolate Thai (“deep, rich, chocolate, nutty, woody/spicy”); Jamaican (“Too damned strong and speedy! … It is a heart-lifting herb and I have a sensitive heart. So I am careful with the samples of the commercial J-ganga that I try”).
Then one day, in 1973, after moving to Oregon, he bought a box of cereal that came with a seed sprouter as the prize inside. That inspired him to try growing the sativa seeds he’d collected as a youth, but he found they took too long to mature and yielded too little. Next he tried smoking some indica, but found it didn’t stoke his inspiration or spark his imagination the same way as sativa.
So he set up a 16-square-foot closet grow and began to breed his own strains, mixing sativa and indica varietals and scrupulously smoking the results until he produced not just Blueberry, a marquee strain with the hue and aroma of fresh berries, but also Flo, Blue Velvet, Azure Haze, Whitaker Blues, Vanilluna, and many other varieties that have collectively changed the game—as has DJ Short’s tireless research into cultivation and breeding practices, a lifelong pursuit he continues today.