Pheno-Hunting and Cultivation: How Growers Pick Their Winning Plants

Have you ever looked forward to revisiting a strain you know and love, only to find it looks or tastes a little different this time? There’s a remarkable number of things that make each cannabis strain unique, thanks to both environmental and genetic factors. Just as humans and animals take on random combinations of characteristics from their parents, no two cannabis plants are the same.

Two things influence their structural formation: genotypes and phenotypes. A genotype is the plant’s genetic code; this defines the possibilities a plant could have once grown. The traits of an actual plant, the possibilities that become reality, are known as its phenotype. It's what makes the plant’s particular taste, smell, shape, color, or potency out of hundreds of different options for each.

The environment is what pulls the plant’s physical traits from its genetic code, meaning even plants from the same strain can end up vastly different if grown in a different environment or by different people. So, how do growers maintain some sort of consistency?

Pheno-Hunting and Cultivation

The secret to ensuring that the best genes are passed from generation to generation, as any successful grower knows, is pheno-hunting.

Following germination, pheno-hunting is the process of sifting through seeds to find those with the dominant traits the grower wants to cultivate. For example, in a handful of Gorilla Glue seeds, each seed will display a unique expression of its mother plants, Sour Diesel and Chocolate Diesel, expressing more traits from one than the other. Here begins a treasure hunt for the phenotypes with winning characteristics.

How Does Pheno-Hunting Work?

Since it’s impossible to distinguish one seed from the next, they need to be and grown before the process of elimination can begin.

The cultivator will start by labeling the seed, perhaps with a number or letter, so each plant can be easily identified as it starts to mature. Following the plant’s progress, the grower might record observations in a journal, taking note of how efficiently it grows.

Eventually, the grower will be able to separate the male plants from the females. If looking for a specific gender, this narrows things down significantly. (At this point, the grower will take clones off of the chosen gender to preserve its genetics.) Growers are looking out for traits such as:

  • Growth structure: The plant’s height, weight, build, density, and root strength
  • Hardiness: The plant’s reaction to temperatures, dependence on water, resistance to mold and pests, and overall strength
  • Terpene profile: The aroma coming from each flower
  • Appearance: The buds’ color and structure
  • Trichomes: Either lanky with small heads or short-stalked with fat heads
  • Peak maturity: How early the plant is ready for harvest

When the time comes to harvest, dry, and cure the cannabis, the grower can narrow the sample down further by analyzing each finished product. Once they’ve picked one or two favorites, the grower can go back to the corresponding clones, toss the rest, and start the next batch with the seeds that made the cut.

Why Not Keep Them All?

As heartbreaking as it may be, plants with the wrong traits or of the wrong gender must go. The pheno-hunt is critical not just for the grower’s craft, but for medical cannabis patients, too. While recreational users expect a consistent product, it's all the more critical for patients who rely on much more: a medicine with a very specific set of capabilities for treating their unique condition. The perfect strain takes time to find, so you’ll want to keep it around if you can.

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