Almost everywhere in Europe, cannabis seeds, unlike the plant and its dried parts, have never been banned. They do not contain THC and some brands of hemp seeds are also registered as a legitimate source of nutrition by EU-wide marketing authorization. Although Germany banned cannabis seeds in 1998, as a result of a free EU internal market and hundreds of online-shops in the neighboring countries, the ban has not been able to stop the rapid development of guerrilla growing culture in Germany.
In the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Slovakia, Belgium, Denmark and most other countries of the European Union, cannabis seeds are the top sellers in grow shops and numerous online portals. Originally, the scene developed in the Netherlands, where Nevil Schoenmakers and Ben Dronkers founded the world’s first two cannabis seed banks in the mid-80s. During the turn of the century, thanks to liberal Dutch cannabis laws, many others began operating and selling their seeds worldwide from the Netherlands. At the beginning of the new millennium, the Netherlands started to persecute growing operations massively. As a result, many breeders fled to Switzerland or Spain to establish seed production operations. When Switzerland gave up its cannabis-friendly politics back in 2003, only Spain remained. The Spanish market has developed explosively ever since. Besides a large number of established seed banks as well as an unmanageable number of mini- and micro-seed banks are meanwhile breeding in Spain. A Cannabis Social Club, unlike a seed bank, cannot make any profits and is subject to strict rules and controls. Seeds, on the other hand, are a THC-free, 100% legal commodity, and are very profitable. So parallel to the rising cannabis social club density, seed shops and seed banks sprout like mushrooms from the ground in Spain.
Regular, Feminized, Auto-Flowering or Auto-Fem?
While breeders in the Netherlands had been focusing on regular seeds until the turn of the millennium, nowadays, they almost exclusively breed feminized, auto-flowering or fem-auto seeds. Because a regular seeds’ sex cannot be defined during the first 10-14 days of flowering, the average 50/50 rate of male plants was a thorn in the side of many professional and hobby gardeners.
During the first years of cannabis cultivation, the only method to produce female plants was the selection of a motherplant that produces clones with identical properties. For the grower who simply wants to breed a few plants, the necessary setting-up of a separate vegetative chamber was and is far too elaborate. Therefore, since the end of the 1990s, breeders have been cultivating seeds showing only female characteristics after germinating.
There are different techniques to breed plants with hermaphroditic properties whose male genes are recessive and thus do not develop. Feminized cannabis plants forming exclusively female characteristics are therefore hermaphroditic, but have suppressed male genes in the genome. Because chemicals such as silver nitrate, gibberellic acid and sodium thiosulfate are used, the producers are reluctant to disclose their feminization secrets. However, the seeds of this first generation, treated with chemicals, do not enter the market. After the development of a feminized strain, it is stabilized by natural selection over generations. Feminized seeds finally sold in the shop are free from the additives that were necessary a few generations before for the feminization. As a result, almost all cannabis strains are feminized on the European market, and only a few seed banks continue to offer regular seeds.
In Spain, where the climate is perfect and the laws are liberal, the cultivation of cannabis with feminized seeds spread like wildfire since the opening of the first clubs 13 years ago. In countries north of the Alps many varieties are not mature in the open due to the early autumn frosts, and even in Spain, a feminized seed is only flowering in September. This is the reason why the cannabis breeders developed a crossings with the help of Cannabis ruderalis where the flowering period is irrespective of the daylight length.
Cannabis ruderalis, the Russian hemp, was first identified and scientifically described in Siberia as a separate species in 1942. The species differs by another growth pattern, a different flowering system, and differences in the habitat of Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica.
Cannabis ruderalis is only about 80 cm high, and has fewer leaves than other species — only three to five fingers in the typical hemp leaf formation as well as less branch material. The Russian hemp is robust against the cold and has a lower active ingredient content than Sativa or Indica plants. Nevertheless, the Greek historian Herodotus reported on the ritual use of cannabis ruderalis in antiquity. According to Herdot, the people of the Scythians got high from the vapors of C.ruderalis bundles. The flowering of cannabis ruderalis is not determined by the photoperiod, but rather occurs approximately eight weeks after germination. The responsible gene occurs in all cannabis varieties, but is only active in cannabis ruderalis. In its native Siberia, it blooms in early July, when the days are often still longer than 18 hours. Thus, the plant ensures that sufficient seeds can be cultivated during the short summer.
The challenge for modern breeders was to cross the THC-poor Ruderalis with potent Sativa and Indica varieties. The result was expected to have a high active ingredient content, a compact “Ruderalis” growth pattern, and plant that would bloom independently of the photoperiod.
The First Auto-Flowering Strains
Joint Doctor, a European Breeder, had received seeds of a cross between a “Mexican Sativa” and a “Ruderalis” at the beginning of the millennium. He crossed this “RudiMex” with a “Williams Wonder x Northern Lights” and stabilized its properties through natural selection over several generations. The “Lowryder” was born as the first commercial auto-flowering strain. Although the strain did not reach more than 30-40 centimeters, it was a milestone in cannabis breeding. Even in in Alaska or Norway, where the summers are too short for Indicas or Sativas, a “Lowryder” starts to bloom in July and is ready after eight to nine weeks. Its THC content of 10-12 percent is much higher than in Ruderalis landraces or the relatively weak “RudiMex”.
Still unsatisfied, the Joint Doctor crossed the “Lowryder” with a “Santa Maria,” selected the result over four generations, and created the “Lowryder # 2.” With 40-60 centimeters the variety was already a little bigger and the THC content also increased up to 12-14 percent. This was followed by what gave the auto-flowering strains their high popularity among European outdoor friends. The “Diesel Ryder” was bred from “Lowryder # 2” and “New York City Diesel”, which was the first self-flowering plant on the market with a high active ingredient content of 17-19%.
The “Diesel Ryder” was almost as potent as conventional strains, and with a height of up to 70 centimeters, also more profitable than previous auto-flowering strains. The success of “Diesel Ryder” peaked other seedbanks’ interest. Since there are hardly any copyrights on the European seed market, seed bank after seed bank began to produce and create their own auto-flowering strains from the first three automatic varieties. After more than a decade of commercial auto flowering seed production, almost every cannabis variety is available as a feminized as well as an auto-flowering strain. Seeds that have both characteristics make it easier to cultivate cannabis outdoors, especially for amateur gardeners who want to hide a few plants on the balcony, in the garden or in the forest. Additionally, in some regions of Europe, up to four outdoor harvests are possible every year if auto-flowering seeds are used.
Where There is Artificial Light, There is Also Shadow
For the production of cuttings you need a motherplant that is lit for 18 hours. Unfortunately, it is not possible to breed a motherplant from an auto-flowering seed. Each grow with auto-flowering seeds requires a new seed order. Due to the presence of male genes, the use of feminized seeds without self-flowering properties is known to be problematic among growers when it comes to the selection of motherplants. On the other hand, a well kept motherplant selected from regular seeds, whose offspring have the same characteristics and cost much less money than seeds, can produce cuttings for years.
Cuttings also need less time to grow in the vegetative phase than seeds, which saves electricity and time. If the desired strain is only available as an auto-flowering seed, it is no longer possible to select a motherplant. This is something actually known from seed patents in agriculture industry.
Unfortunately, most European breeders nowadays are only concentrated on automatic and feminized varieties. A lot of classic strains are no longer available as a regular seed, but only self-flowering and/or feminized. Companies like Sensi Seeds, Sannies, Hortilab or Mr.Nice — with its Breeder legend Shantibaba — are some of the few exceptions. The father of the legendary “White Widow” criticized the development of feminisation as early as 2010 in an interview I did for the German Hanf Journal at that time:
“In nature, such changes occur only under extreme conditions, but here the characteristic of the hermaphroditism is ‘implanted’ into a plant. A feature that the breeders never wanted to pass on since the beginnings of cannabis breeding. Most, including some so-called seed banks that produce feminized seeds, do not really seem to understand that a 100% male plant produces no viable pollen when it is reversed. Therefore, feminized seeds tend to twitch more frequently. That is why, in my opinion, it is not a good alternative for the future of seed breeding.”