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Pheno-hunting in Cannabis Cultivation

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Since early civilization, people have been interested in how to produce crops and plants with certain traits and qualities, otherwise known as selective cultivation or phenotype hunting. This method during plant cultivation is often used to yield better crops for what’s considered a desirable trait of a certain plant. This may include larger vegetables, sweeter fruits, and even higher levels of cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis crops (Jaoude, n.d.).

scientist inspecting cannabis plant
Image from Pixabay

Cannabis cultivators face many obstacles when it comes to producing a high-quality product, but phenotype hunting and selective breeding are possibly one of the biggest factors that play into the types of cannabis products that are available on the market.

What is a Phenotype?

To understand cannabis phenotype hunting, you must first learn about phenotypes and genotypes which are present in all living organisms. In biology, a phenotype is the expression of a plant’s genotype, or the genetic code, which “lays out the blueprint for that organism to live,” (Esposito, 2023). While the genotype is the blueprint for the plant, the phenotype is the structure that translates the code (Esposito, 2023).

Additionally, phenotypes are a “set of observable characteristics of an organism,” (Jaoude, n.d.). They can include any trait from the color of a tree’s bark, the shape of a butterfly’s wing, the texture of an animal's fur, or the behavioral traits in humans and animals (Jaoude, n.d.).

When discussing cannabis cultivation, a phenotype may include its CBD and THC content levels, “terpene quality, resin production, weight, flavor, aroma, or appearance,” or any other observable characteristic (Jaoude, n.d.). If it is a trait that can be observed and engages any of the senses, it is considered a phenotype.

What is Cannabis Phenotype Hunting?

Cannabis phenotype hunting, or pheno-hunting for short, is the process of observing a plant’s characteristics and selecting specific phenotypes for the sole purpose of mass-cultivating plants with desirable traits (Jaoude, n.d.). This process creates cannabis plants and products that are distinctively stronger, more resilient, and produce stronger psychoactive effects when consumed. Essentially, pheno-hunting in cannabis cultivation paves the path toward new cannabis strains and experiences with desirable outcomes.

The Cannabis Pheno-hunting Process

The method behind cannabis pheno-hunting begins in the early stages of plant growth to full plant maturity and requires identifying a cannabis plant’s phenotypes at every stage of its life. Later, a cannabis cultivator will identify which traits they would like to keep, and others to phase out during the selective breeding process. Here is a breakdown of each step of the cannabis pheno-hunting process:

Observe the Seed Phase Development

During this first stage, while cannabis plants are still in their seed form, phenotypes are very few and far between. Still, it’s important for cultivators to identify and label each seed to separate and observe each one individually for phenotypes as they grow and reach maturity (Jaoude, n.d.).

Identifying Gender in Cannabis Plants

Once cannabis seeds begin to sprout, the first and most important part of the process is to identify the gender of the cannabis plants and remove the male plants as early as possible. Male plants carry pollen that will fertilize female plants, thus interrupting the process of observing a female cannabis plant’s maturation for pheno-hunting and cloning (Esposito, 2023).

Every cannabis plant will vary in its growth speed, but generally, they can be expected to “begin pre-flowering around four weeks, and by six weeks, the gender can be identified in the pre-flowers,” (Jaoude, n.d.). Typically, differences in the gender of a cannabis plant will be fully identifiable by weeks eight to ten, when the plants have fully flowered (Jaoude, n.d.).

Female cannabis plants will appear shorter and bushier, with pear-shaped pre-flowers, and hair-like fibers, or pistils, that collect pollen from the male plants during fertilization. Meanwhile, male cannabis plants will have a lanky appearance, with pre-flowers that are “stick-and-ball” shaped, and bulbs of pollen sacs once they’ve flowered (Jaoude, n.d.).

Phenotype Identification

Once the male plants have been removed from the female plants to prevent any accidental fertilizing, cannabis cultivators can begin observing the traits of the plant during its maturation for desirable characteristics. This step of the process is subjective to the grower and thus will vary in its chosen traits (Esposito, 2023).

Usually, cultivators go into the pheno-hunting process with specific traits in mind, which helps to streamline the process of choosing certain traits and discarding others, even if they are not inherently negative. Common characteristics cultivators will search for include aroma, cannabinoid composition, flower appearance, maturation time, mold and disease resistance, plant structure, resilience, resin production, terpene levels, and trichome appearance (Jaoude, n.d.; Esposito, 2023).

Identify Phenotypes During Harvest

Identifying phenotypes of a cannabis plant doesn’t end during the growth phase. Once the plant has reached full maturation, the plant will undergo the process of harvesting, drying, and curing. During each step, cultivators will continue to observe the plant and identify its phenotypes as they unfold (Jaoude, n.d.).

This step of the cannabis pheno-hunting process is essential because cultivators get to discover traits in the plant that were otherwise not detectable before undergoing these common methods of cannabis cultivation. Consumption of the final cannabis product may also provide further insight into the plant’s phenotypes and its overall experience (Jaoude, n.d.).

Identify the Strongest Traits

Cannabis cultivation requires careful attention to detail to create a consistent, high-quality product. This means a cultivator must not choose their favorite traits and characteristics in the cannabis plant they observed. Once a cultivator has identified and determined the optimal traits, cloning or selective breeding is the next step in the journey (Jaoude, n.d.).

As difficult as it may be, cannabis pheno-hunting is a crucial step in the cultivation process, requiring cultivators to be highly selective in the traits they breed, and the traits they dispose of. Visit our blog to learn more about cannabis cultivation and the latest information on cannabis lab testing!

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Esposito, M. (2023, March 14). Phenohunting 101. MCR Labs.

Jaoude, T. A. (n.d.). What is Cannabis Pheno Hunting?. Happy Valley.

Image by <a href="üderi-199315/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=7665216">Pfüderi</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>



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