Take a trip around the world with a man growing ancient landrace strains in his botanical garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Jeff Nordahl hadn’t touched cannabis for at least a decade when his doctor suggested that it might be beneficial to his health. So he revisited the plant that had fueled the adventures of his teens and 20s—but it was not the energized, inspired experience he remembered. The new modern weed didn’t make him want to jump on his bike, clatter around in the kitchen making up a new recipe or dance for hours to the Grateful Dead; it made him want to take a nap.
“I thought maybe I was just nostalgic or getting old, but it turns out that cannabis was actually really different back then,” says Nordahl, now 47.
His curiosity was piqued, and he began learning all he could about older strains of cannabis, the ones the world smoked back before “couch lock” was even in the cannabis-consuming zeitgeist. His passion blossomed into something of an obsession, as be began collecting landrace cannabis seeds in a tackle box now brimming with more than 100 varieties from around the world.
Nordahl is currently in his third year of testing them on the sun-drenched slopes of his botanical garden in Boulder Creek—which will one day be opened to the public for events and retreats. He also plans to continue donating exotic strains to those in the community who need it most.
Nordahl founded Jade Nectar medical cannabis collective in 2016 (full disclosure, I’ve been using its CBD oil tinctures for headaches and cramps since around that time). But by advocating sun-grown landrace genetics and incorporating them into his product line, he’s swimming against the current trends of an industry where a lot of what is being grown has never seen the sun.
And while he has learned a lot—and is clearly having a really good time doing so—Nordahl has barely scratched the surface: so far he’s popped only about 5% of his seed bank (which, like a baseball card collection, continues to grow). “Every single one of these seeds is a mystery,” he says. “We don’t know what they will turn into. And that just makes it really fun.”
WHAT’S IN A SEED?
Landrace strains are the oldest, purest cultivars, and the foundational building blocks for all modern strains. Just a little further down the same garden path as the heirloom concept, which may be more familiar to California’s culinary community, landrace seeds have similarly been passed down through history, but they are also specific to a region, whether that’s a village, a province or a country.
“The landrace tend to be more uplifting, energizing, amplifying, thought-provoking, creative, silly,” Nordahl says, showing me some speckled Acapulco Gold seeds, one of the first strains he bred for his own seed bank, and the one that remains his favorite for going out dancing. In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, most of the weed in the U.S. was landrace sativa from Colombia and Mexico.
Michael Pollan writes about domestic crops in The Botany of Desire, “…the offspring of the ancient marriage of plants and people are far stranger and more marvelous than we realize. There is a natural history of the human imagination, of beauty, religion, and possibly philosophy too.”
This may all seem a little out there (and I assure you, that is the point), but landrace seeds, according to Nordahl, carry much more than just the influences of the climate and seasons in which they’re grown. “With cannabis, especially because it’s psychoactive, it has another layer of mysticism,” says Nordahl. “It’s just like food and cuisine— people have access to a lot of the same ingredients, but they express their culture through their cuisine. Cannabis is a medium for expression, too.”
Consuming these old strains means experiencing another culture’s idea of euphoria, intoxication and what they found cannabis interesting and useful for. That all of this—a culture’s mysticism—can be transported across geography and through time, in a tiny grayish seed, thrills Nordahl to no end.
“So it’s really an intimate experience,” he says. “With some of these really old ones, you’re experiencing something from someone hundreds of years ago that you’ll never meet.”
I can’t say that I knew quite what he meant until one night, in a bathtub in Laguna Beach, I sampled Pakistani Chitral Kush, a landrace indica that hails from a village in the Hindu Kush range of the Himalayas. The effect of this plant was relaxed and contemplative, stimulating to the imagination, with symmetrical patterns behind the eyelids that I’m quite certain did not come from my own genetic makeup alone. The plant felt intelligent—and this is coming from someone who once had to use GPS to get home from a friend’s house after hitting a vape pen.
As Elise McDonough, author of Bong Appétit and The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook, writes, “Seeking out heirloom strains is like hot-boxing a time machine in the most wonderful way. The only problem is the most sought-after heirloom strains have become as hard to track down as rare vinyl records.”
But there is a small but determined movement afoot that may just succeed in saving landrace genetics from being swallowed up by modern poly-hybrids. It includes preservationists like “Coco Genes,” whose seedhunting expeditions you can follow on Instagram as he trudges through remote Himalayan villages in India to connect with farmers. And people like Nordahl, who hopes to begin distributing landrace seeds to California gardeners as a “Backyard Exotics” extension of Jade Nectar, and who encourages anyone who wants to try it to grow their own.
“The beautiful thing about landrace is that in whatever part of the planet they were bred, they were designed to be put outside and left alone, so you don’t have to tie them up, or support them,” he says, in contrast to most high-yielding modern strains that produce flower clusters so densely packed they need help standing up by themselves.
It brings to mind one of Nordahl’s favorite analogies: the dry, bland Butterball turkey of Thanksgiving fame, versus the heirloom, freerange turkey. To Nordahl, the high-THC, visually impressive modern strains are not so different from the melon that’s been bred to withstand being trucked across the country so you can buy it two weeks after it’s been picked. He simply prefers the melon grown in a village in India and picked that morning. “It’s maybe not the most impressive and uniform looking melon, but it’s actually delicious,” says Nordahl.
And, as opposed to the high-maintenance monocrops designed to grow under artificial lights in a garage or warehouse setting, “You just have to every once in a while feed them and water them, but they don’t require a lot,” he says. Any garden compost system that’s good enough to grow tomatoes and other vegetables will fortify outdoor cannabis, he says.
“Cannabis has been fine as a medicine for thousands of years. It’s not a new plant, so we should just get out of the way and let the plant just be the plant.”
“If it’s bananas to you, it’s bananas,” says Nordahl, of the landrace strain from Brazil that I’ve just smelled—and the variety he names when I ask him which is his favorite to consume before playing music. He spins the lid off another jar containing the exotic treasures of last year’s harvest: Pakistani Chitral Kush, one of many deep purple indicas from the Himalayan region.
“Floral, perfumey and it’s got kind of a grapey thing going on,” says Nordahl, before holding up another indica, from Afghanistan, that smells like burnt tires and rotten meat. “It’s kind of like a truffle experience, where it’s so disgusting smelling that it’s exotic.”
A lot of the landrace indicas, he says, contain 50% or higher CBD, the most medically famous of cannabis’ more than 80 cannabinoids. “So CBD has been a part of recreational intoxicating cannabis for a long time, just no one knew what it was,” he says. “When it’s blended with THC in the same plant, it affects the way that the THC works. It kind of spins it in a whole different direction.”
Landrace strains typically contain a lot less THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive cannabinoid prized so highly by today’s industry) than modern strains. But that might actually explain their unique, more psychedelic effects.
“There’s only so much real estate that’s on the plant, so if you overload it all with THC, then you’re crowding out all of the other cannabinoids and all of the other terpenes,” says Nordahl. Lower THC levels mean there’s room for a spectrum of other lesser-known, and in some cases, rare, cannabinoids, which all work in mysterious, synergistic ways.
“It’s not just about strength,” Nordahl adds. “Because the reality is if you have a 15% THC cannabis and you want to get to 30%, all you have to do is take two puffs.”
We smell an old Thai strain (lemony and citrusy), another favorite from last year whose effects he describes as “racy, cartoony, uplifting” and “bouncy.” Bouncy? As in, “You feel like you have little pogo sticks in your feet. Like you actually have to concentrate not to bounce when you’re walking,” he says.
We smell Lamb’s Bread (from Jamaica, and rumored to be Bob Marley’s favorite strain), Colombia Gold (bright and fresh), and finally, the African sativas—hailing from Madagascar and the remote Reunion Island to its east, and from Ghana and Ethiopia—which all seem to skew away from the fruit basket toward earthy carrot, incense and wood.
Nordahl shows me an Ethiopian bud that is so wispy and wimpy looking it is endearing.
“If I broke this out at a dispensary, or in a weed scene, everyone would laugh and say ‘that’s a bunch of hay,’” Nordahl says, and we laugh, because of all of the varieties we’ve looked at today, it is Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.
But the spindly, tobacco-tasting Ethiopian landrace surprises me when I try it later, and it disappears the quickest from the handful of landrace strains I sample throughout the writing of this story—some fueling, some sending me into the hills to smell the sage, instead. It delivers a lucid, uplifting and clear-headed high, “like a shot of psychedelic espresso,” Nordahl later concurs.
This particular strain of Ethiopian tested high for the cannabinoid THCv, which is so rare it’s pretty much only found in some African sativas. This psychoactive cannabinoid, which no doubt played a role in the aforementioned effects, is also showing medical promise for treating seizures, PTSD and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases—and Nordahl thinks it may be the next rock star cannabinoid since CBD. THCv is a mild appetite suppressant, too, and so far those who have consumed it are reporting that it’s not sending them to the peanut butter jar with ravenous munchies four hours after smoking it. Nordahl plans to selectively breed for higher THCv in the coming seasons, to be distributed as a Jade Nectar oil tincture.
To that end, Nordahl hopes to make his entire line of psychoactive sativa drops from landrace strains this year. Olive oil—which Nordahl chose because its use goes back about 10,000 years along with cannabis— is a natural solvent, and just like rosemaryinfused olive oil is made by throwing rosemary into oil and letting it sit for a week or so, cannabis oil is the same idea: the olive oil pulls all of the good cannabinoids and polyphenols and other compounds from the plant matter.
“Our job as cultivators and as ambassadors of the plant is not to try to improve cannabis or make it better or to turn it into nanoparticles,” says Nordahl. “Really, cannabis has been fine as a medicine for thousands of years. It’s not a new plant, so we should just get out of the way and let the plant just be the plant.”
Back in 2012 when he returned to cannabis, Nordahl began to find relief from a long and devastating case of Lyme disease just by juicing and eating the leaves of the plants he started in his own little backyard garden. “I was so sick for so long, I thought my life was pretty much screwed,” he says. “When you get sort of a second chance, you want to share it.”
Friends he shared with were also responding well—especially those with chronic migraines, Parkinson’s and autoimmune diseases, for which there often aren’t many prescription drug options that work, or that don’t have nasty side effects.
The sharing culture has long been a value in the medical marijuana community—but the new regulated market suspended compassion programs in 2016, essentially dismantling any supply chains that weren’t friend-to-friend, until recently. As of March 1 of this year, State Senate Bill 34 now allows eligible patients to receive tax-free or free medicinal cannabis once again. Jade Nectar released a Compassion Blend oil tincture to give away at KindPeoples dispensary, which had long participated in the state’s medical marijuana program before it was upended by the recreational market. KindPeoples recently announced that it will donate space and staff to hold regular distributions for members of WAMM—the nation’s oldest collective that fought to provide medical cannabis, as the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana.
Nordahl says he looks forward to continuing to work with WAMM and KindPeoples to give away landrace flower, too. His grand plan, which may be a few years down the road still, is to open the botanical landrace garden up to the public for events and retreats. “The actual plants would then be harvested and given away as compassion. Everything [visitors] would be looking at would go to the people most in need of the medicine,” says Nordahl. “The best, most unique, rare and exotic forms, too,” he adds—smiling at the sweet irony of it all.
“It’s not that landrace strains are inaccessible,” says Nordahl. “It’s just not fashionable. Just like 20 years ago there were no purple carrots, or romanesco—people don’t really know that it exists yet,” he says. “Unless there is massive demand for it, we probably won’t see it in dispensaries. Where it will thrive is in people’s backyards and hobby gardens.”
Maria Grusauskas is a freelance writer, editor, photographer and artist who is passionate about the natural world. After living in California for almost two decades, she has returned to New England to garden, live as sustainably as possible and await the legalization of cannabis.