A New Look at Clones
Clones have been around the cannabis growing scene for years. While seedlings are still common outdoors, it would be hard to find an indoor commercial grower who runs predominantly seed crops.
We're all familiar with the word clone, but what exactly does it mean? In the general horticulture world, clones are called 'cuts' or cultivars, but the meaning is the same. A clone is a plant that has been taken from a cutting of the other plant, as opposed to grown from a seed. The technique is often called vegetative propagation. Grafting is a method of vegetative propagation where a cut of a select tree is made to grow together with a root stock grown from seed. Grafting is often used on hardwood trees, like apples.
A close relative of cannabis is Humulus or hops which are used for brewing beer. It is dioecious like cannabis, which means male and female flowers are on different plants. It is herbaceous (not hard wood like a tree) like cannabis, but is perennial, which means that it regrows each season from a dormant rootstock.
Seedlings of dioecious plants like Humulus and cannabis are more variable than self-pollinating plants. They usually require 5-7 generations of inbreeding to achieve a similar level of variation that can be had from one generation of a selfing species, like the tomato.
Don't put all your eggs in one basket
I've been breeding cannabis nonstop since I was around 20. I'm now 59, so I've seen a few plants. I've also been able to watch the changes in commercial cannabis. It is quite true that the biggest change came with the introduction of indica genetics in flower form (as opposed to hash, as we had always had it before). This started happening in the early 70's. By the mid-late 70's I and a few other NYC growers had crossed indica plants into our strains.
The sativa strains that we had were probably in the low teens of THC production, while the indica 'hash plants' were way up in the high 20's, so early generations produced plants with widely varying THC concentrations. Selecting the better plants was easy, testers almost always agreed.
I, for one, had not learned to use progeny testing methods. That meant I was always using a single, select female and male each generation. I explained earlier that phenotype is not genotype. That means, "what you see is not necessarily what you get". In the F1 generation of an indica 'hash plant' X 'Jamaican lambs breath' strain I was working, I got a plant that was an instant legend in NYC. We called it 'Rabid Skunk' because it was almost impossible to hold even the tiniest amount of smoke without coughing. It was also prohibitively potent. One toke was more than enough for the majority of smokers.
I saved RS as a clone and began breeding it, using both backcrossing and inbreeding (brother sister) methods. The problem was, RS was an F1 hybrid of two completely unrelated strains. She virtually refused to produce plants like herself, even after 'stepping away' from her a few generations (inbreeding). I did get other amazing plants of extremely high potency, one particular one some friends might remember was called 'Three Mile Island' because of her mutated spinach looking seeds. TMI and other plants were great but didn't have all the traits of RS, so I considered the breeding a failure at the time. My friends must have thought I was crazy because I did have the most potent cannabis in NYC at that time, as I'm sure they would say.
Though I did make mistakes in breeding that strain, the biggest mistake was being greedy with my genetics. Those two clones, RS and TMI, were way too good to be kept in only one garden. When a clone is spread out to multiple gardens, it is in much safer shape. In a single garden, something can happen to wipe out the whole crop. Back in the mid 70's, I had occasional crop failures. Probably at a similar rate to other growers who have the 10-15 years experience I had back then. My skills are much better now. I've lost an individual plant here and there, but haven't lost a crop in say, 25 years. That doesn't mean I'm confident though!
The only thing that makes me relax is decentralization. If my clones are not all in one basket, I can breathe easy.
Origin stories are changing over time
I'm not the only one who's lost great clones. I personally haven't tasted the original 'sour diesel' cut grown by Soma since I left NY in the late 80's. Many California smokers and growers have come to me and said, "I have sour diesel". But, when I tried it, it was not. Growers have traditionally been very sloppy with labeling and pedigrees. So, I basically never put much faith in the name given. I know exactly what Sour Diesel tastes, smells and smokes like. And, I have spent all my years of breeding sharpening my memory for traits. If I ever come across a plant that is even similar, I will instantly know it.
Trainwreck originally was a 'clone only' plant from, I believe, somewhere here in Southern California. It had a longer name, which was "Trainwreck in Afghanistan". The name referred to the way the finger shaped buds aligned themselves at angles along the stem, which had long internodes. Even cut free of the stem, the shape of the Trainwreck bud is easy to spot. Casual consumers could easily identify TW on sight.
Since then, friends and growers have brought me samples of various things called TW, that were not. Over time you even hear changes in the origin stories of various famous strains, I'm sure the story on TW has changed yet again, by now.