One of the most recognizable scents in the world, skunk smell is usually avoided – unless you’re a stoner. Then, you’ve likely smelled the pungent stink of skunk and wondered where the weed was at.
Skunky-smelling strains are some of the most common types of cannabis in the world. But what exactly makes a strain a “skunk strain?” The genetics of skunk strains definitely play a factor, as well as their chemical makeup. Below, we’ve covered the history, effects, and molecular makeup of skunk strains since their explosive arrival in the 1970s.
What Are Skunk Strains?
You’d think that there’s a general consensus on what makes a “skunk” strain. However, that’s not the case.
There are actually two different definitions of “skunk,” in relation to weed, which changes depending on geography. The British use the term “skunk” whenever they’re referring to any kind of high-potency weed, regardless of its scent or genetics. They use it interchangeably with the term “sensimilla,” or non-pollinated female plants. These plants don’t develop seeds and have significantly more trichomes than other genders of cannabis, making them much more potent.
The term rose to prominence later than it did in North America, appearing in the British stoner lexicon sometime during the 1990s. It was a point in British marijuana history where new growing techniques and gear, like high-powered grow lights and potent nutrients, had led to a boom in the availability of premium weed.
In North America, the term skunk refers to any type of particularly pungent, stinky-smelling weed. It’s one of the most common smells associated with weed, and there are dozens of strains that bear the “skunk” moniker. The term rose to prevalence in the 1970s, when breeders traveled the world in search of new genetics to improve their strains. Now, skunk strains are some of the most diverse genetic lines in the cannabis space, boasting dozens of different subtypes.
Origins of Skunk Strains
We can trace the origin of skunk strains back to the cannabis boom of the 1970s. At that time, breeders would travel from places like Europe and North America across central Asia and into Thailand in search of new strains. Weed grows naturally in these areas, giving breeders a chance to incorporate a wealth of flavors and effects into their strains.
One area that was crucial to the development of pot as we know it was the Hindu Kush mountain range. This region, spanning between parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the only place in the world where indica plants grow naturally. With their relaxing, sedating properties and their chilled-out vibes, smokers today love indicas as a more laid-back alternative to sativas.
However, in the 1970s, breeders noticed a few different traits of indicas that they found particularly attractive. First, indicas grow short and bushy, in stark contrast to their sativa cousins. While some sativas can grow to a whopping 15-20 feet tall, indicas usually reach a max height of less than 5 feet. That makes them perfect for growing indoors. Additionally, indicas have a shorter growing season than sativas do. That means growers can churn out weed quickly, and it also mitigates risks.
Indica plants are also used to the same kind of growing conditions that northern California provides. The dry, high-altitude climates with shorter growing seasons than equatorial areas were exactly the same environment that indicas had lived in for thousands of years. The influx of indica strains, including Skunk strains, into northern California in the 1970s made the region one of the biggest areas for outdoor cannabis cultivation in the world. That’s a reputation it still enjoys today.
One of the breeders who experimented with these new strains was David Watson, known by his pseudonym “Sam the Skunkman.” Sam the Skunkman got his start working with a collective called the Sacred Seed, a group that included some of the most famous American breeders ever. Sam was on a quest to breed a strain of weed with less leaves and more buds. To do that, he crossed two landraces, a Colombian Gold sativa female and an indica Afghani male.
What he ended up with was a plant that had stimulating sativa effects, a short life cycle, a low height requirement – and a pungent, skunky smell. This strain was known as Skunk #1, and became the basis for all future skunk strains. After spending most of the 1970s in the US, Sam the Skunkman relocated to Amsterdam thanks to lax Dutch stance on cannabis. That’s how he introduced Skunk strains to Europe.
What Makes Skunk Smell?
The skunky aroma that some strains of cannabis exhibit comes from its chemical makeup. This scent comes from the presence of molecules called thiols in a strain. Thiols are a group of compounds that include Sulphur atoms, which account for its pungent aroma. While thiols are responsible for both the skunky smell of weed and the scent of the actual mammal’s spray, the specific chemical makeup is not the same.
Thiols have several uses outside of weed. For example, they serve an important role in the energy sector. Power companies combine thiols with natural gas, which is usually odorless. This helps alert anyone in the area of a gas leak that they’re in danger, and has saved countless lives.
Thiols are also fairly prevalent in nature, and sometimes they have an attractive aroma. For example, thiols contribute to the smell of hot coffee. Low doses of certain thiols are also responsible for the distinctive flavor of grapefruit.
Skunk Strains Today
There are countless skunk strains today, but they all stem from the original genetics of Skunk #1. That strain, a 75/25 sativa-dominant hybrid, clinched a Cannabis Cup win in 1988, cementing its place in the annals of weed history forever. Its euphoric, stimulating high is tempered with relaxed feelings, and it set the stage for the modern hybrids we have today. If you’d like to check out one of this strain’s many descendants, you can find them in our online dispensary.