Pheno Hunting Cannabis: How Growers Pick their Strains

Pheno Hunting Cannabis: How Growers Pick their Strains

Published on 9/9/22

Growing consistent, premium quality cannabis is challenging and requires a process called pheno hunting. The most successful growers practice this method to find desired traits and maximize the potential of a strain.

Here's how pheno hunting increases the value of a cannabis grower's harvest and the different traits that are most desirable.

How Do Growers Decide Which Strains to Pick?

Selective breeding is a methodology used across the cultivation industry dating back to ancient civilizations. Any experienced grower, regardless of their crop, will tell you the importance of identifying plants with traits that offer value and discarding ones that don't.

Producing high-quality cannabis requires the cultivator to be mindful of a strain. It's an identifying factor in the plant's genetic make-up (genotype). 

Growers choose strains based on the potential for producing marketable traits. While choosing a strain based on potential outcomes is an essential part of cannabis cultivation, it's only one aspect of pheno hunting. 

Pheno Hunting Cannabis

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Cultivators practice pheno hunting by selecting seeds from cannabis strains with desirable traits, then observing the development of the characteristics as the plant matures through the vegetation stage. 

Plants that carry the signature traits of the strain are kept and cloned for mass production. The plants that don't feature the characteristics are discarded.

In the early days of cannabis legalization, breeders focused on identifying and optimizing strains that produced high concentrations of THC. While this is still valuable, the industry has evolved to include other aspects like terpenes and CBD concentration.

The quality and genotype of a pheno hunter's seed are critical, but it's not the only factor that leads to optimal outcomes. The growing environmental plays a role too. Genotype and physical characteristics (phenotype) are the most prevalent aspects of pheno hunting.

What Does Pheno Mean?

Pheno is a prefix commonly used in biology, meaning observable characteristics. Pheno hunting cannabis means seeking plants with specific physical features that offer the grower and consumer value.

What is a Phenotype?

A phenotype is the observational expression of an organism's genetic potential and environment.

Think about athletes in the NBA. Height, wingspan, hand size, and vertical leap are all traits of an NBA player. A team scout looks for the best of these qualities to maximize and improve the chances of finding a valuable player to join the team.

While physical traits are important, environmental factors play a big role in finding the next superstar. Scouts consider a player's coaches, family background, teammates, and history of winning before deciding if the athlete is the best choice. An ideal environment will increase the chances of characteristics developing over time.

Cultivators search for desirable cannabis phenotypes in the same way NBA scouts look at players. Strains with a history of resin production may lead to potent flower. However, the plants need to be grown in an ideal environment for the trait to come out in the final product.

What to Look for When Pheno Hunting Cannabis

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Unfortunately, it's impossible to pheno hunt just by looking at a seed. Yet, sourcing seeds from a reputable retailer with a history of solid genetics may be a safe choice for producing quality cannabis phenotypes. Either way, you should pheno hunt if you want to strengthen the genetic profile year after year.

The fastest way to pheno hunt is by labeling each seed after planting. You can use numbers, letters, or names. Just be sure you can identify each seedling. When you take clones from your seedlings, keep the labels consistent. Each clone should match its seedling.

As the plants mature, keep track of the emerging physical characteristics. Write down progress and maintain data in a spreadsheet. 

Pheno hunting is an ongoing process. Some groups will be easy to discontinue as they may look weak structurally, lack color, or not produce adequate flowers. Conversely, cannabis phenotypes worthy of cloning may become apparent right away, but you can't be positive until harvest.

During the growth process, look for phenotypes exhibiting the following characteristics:

  • Strong plant development
  • Root systems (hydroponics)
  • Emerging colors
  • Adaptability to environmental factors
  • Trichome production
  • Terpene content

The goal of pheno hunting is to identify and isolate the phenotype representing the strain's signature traits. Most strains produce 3-4 main phenotypes for every 10 seeds. After your plants are cured, you can select phenotypes with the aroma, bud structure, and taste you're looking for.

After identifying the pheno you've been hunting for, you can continue to clone the plants, eventually stabilizing the genetics.

Identifying the Best Phenotypes

Each strain has specific phenotypes that embody it. For example, the popular strain GSC is known for its high yield, green and purple hues, short flowering period, and minty flavor. Some of these traits will become prevalent early in the growing process, and others might only be seen after harvest.

6 Traits That Growers Look for When Identifying the Best Phenotypes

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1. Yield

A higher yield equals more cannabis flower. Naturally, growers select phenotypes that produce large buds heavy in mass. Signs of a great yield can be observed early on by looking at bud structure, stem diameter, and fan leaf size. 

2. Color

The color is a signature trait of popular cannabis strains. While factors such as temperature can influence color, the appearance of the plant, especially if it's being sold as flower, are important.

3. Hardiness

Resilient phenotypes are valuable because they'll have a higher success rate. A plant that adapts to environmental factors such as pests, varying temperatures, pathogens, and mold will lead to a bountiful harvest. Hardy strains require less attention and are more adaptive to unforeseen circumstances.

4. Aroma and Taste

Phenotypes with a high concentration of terpenes produce desirable smells and flavors associated with the strain. The aroma (smell) of cannabis is one of the top-selling points to a consumer. Identifying phenotypes with appealing aromas and tastes can lead to more profitable harvests.

5. Resin Production

Cannabinoid and terpene content has become more desirable in today's cannabis industry. THC is no longer the sole driving force when buying and selling. Tracking total cannabinoid and terpene concentration through testing is the most effective way to pheno hunt.

6. Flowering Time Cycle

The time it takes a plant to flower and become ready to harvest is valuable for cultivators. Less time to harvest leads to more output. Keeping track of when a phenotype begins to flower and the amount of time until harvest is a priority for pheno hunters.

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