What is Pheno-hunting?

What is Pheno-hunting?

Cannabis Pheno-hunting graphic

We have selective cultivation to thank for many reasons.

It’s why certain fruits are sweet, why some vegetables grow so large, and why today’s yield on crops is much higher compared to previous generations. Since we first started cultivating plants, farmers have selected the best ones for their desirable traits and qualities. 

These methods of selective breeding apply to cannabis cultivation, as well. 

Cannabis plants with specific qualities, such as diverse terpene content, are isolated and bred carefully to harness and amplify these traits, called “phenotypic expressions.”  

To cultivators, this selective breeding process is known as “pheno-hunting” – and it’s led to some of the greatest strain innovations.

What is pheno-hunting? 

Pheno-hunting, short for phenotype hunting, is a process of identifying a plant with preferable qualities and breeding them for mass production. A “phenotype” is an organism’s actual observable properties and genetic characteristics that have come about due to interaction with its environment. In the case of cannabis plants, this could be the flower’s shape, color, flavor, weight, or resin production. 

Phenotypes aren’t limited to plant species, though. They’re observable in all living things. For instance, the colors on a dog’s coat or even our very own personality traits are “phenotypes.”

It’s important to note that “observable” doesn’t mean they’re always visible to the eye. Phenotypic expressions may involve changes to the internal structures, proteins, metabolism, behavior, and susceptibility to disease. To identify these qualities, cultivators may utilize various testing methods. 

Genotype vs. Phenotype

You might be thinking to yourself, “Aren’t genes what’s responsible for that?” 

And while you’d be partially correct –genetics do play a part– they don’t tell the full story.

A genotype refers to the genetic material passed from one generation to the next. This genetic code, however, is not set in stone. Rather, it defines a certain range of possible characteristics. For instance, a cannabis plant can be in the Sativa family (that’s its genetic code), but that does not guarantee it will produce huge buds. Other factors, such as the environment, how it’s grown, and how that genetic code plays out in reality, determine its traits. This is where “phenotypes” come in. 

Phenotypes are the observable traits of something and are influenced by genotypes and other outside factors. Siblings, for example, take on genetic traits from both of their parents, but no two siblings are the same. The same applies to cannabis plants. It’s why two plants of the same strain may vary in color, aroma, flavor, and appearance. 

Environment plays the main role in pulling the plant’s physical traits from its genetic code. This means that plants of the same strain can end up vastly different if grown with varying methods. That’s why some cultivators may prefer hydroponically-grown flower to soil-grown flower, or vice versa.

The secret to ensuring that only the best genotypes are passed down is through pheno-hunting. 

How does pheno-hunting work? 

When a female and male cannabis plant are bred to create a new strain, the female produces many seeds. Each seed will express a unique combination of traits from its parents, meaning it’s up to the cultivator to grow several of them and then select the most desirable ones. 

Once the best phenotype is selected, it will be cloned to get exact copies. Those clones are then mass-produced and sold to other cultivators, which naturally follow a seed-to-sale journey where they can eventually be consumed by users.

Pheno-hunting can take months, even years to perfect. This is because phenotypes have to be grown, harvested, dried, cured, and tested to determine their quality.

After finding the plant with the desired traits, it must be stabilized by “backcrossing” its genetics. Backcrossing is the process of pollinating the new strain with the pollen of either its genetic clone, or one of its parents cultivars. This process reinforces the set of desired traits so every seed and clone presents the same phenotypic expressions. Backcrossing, too, can take months to years to completely stabilize a single cultivar!   

Time is of the essence here and when done correctly, can have legacy-leaving impact. Berner, the founder of Cookies, found his rise to fame in the cannabis industry with his and Jigga’s iconic Girl Scout Cookies strain. Much of GSC’s history is kept secret, but it’s believed to be a cross of OG Kush and Durban Poison. The hybrid resulted in a highly potent, Sativa-dominant strain that smells great and makes those who use it feel euphoric. All thanks to some high-quality pheno-hunting!

Strain vs. Cultivar

When speaking about cannabis the terms “strain” and “cultivar” are used interchangeably but there is a difference in what those two words represent in botany.

“Cultivar” is a plant cultivated (grown) to have specific and distinct characteristics from other cultivars.  For example, Super Lemon Haze is a different cultivar from Skywalker OG.

“Strain” refers to a variation within a cultivar. For example, when pheno-hunting the cultivar Chocolate Banana OG, which is a cross between Chocolate OG x Strawberry Banana Sherbert, two plants can show different characteristics. One might be more Chocolate OG dominant and the other might be Strawberry Banana Sherbert dominant. This difference is what defines a “strain” but both are of the same “cultivar.”

What cultivators look for when cannabis pheno-hunting

Cultivators are searching for desirable qualities, but what exactly does that mean? When pheno-hunting, these are the traits cultivators will look at: 

  • Gender identification: Cultivators must keep male and female plants separate to avoid pollination. On average, the gender of a plant can be identified around 6 weeks of age. Female cannabis plants are shorter and bushier, with oval-shaped pre-flowers. Male cannabis plants, on the other hand, have a “stick-and-ball” shape and pollen-filled bulbs during the flowering stage.
  • Trichomes: Trichomes are the hairy, sticky glands that cover the flower and leaves of the cannabis plant. This is where terpenes and cannabinoids (THC and CBD) are created and secreted. Because they influence the user’s experience so much, they are carefully considered during the selection process. 
  • Appearance: “Jar appeal” matters. Cultivators want to ensure their buds look good and that means searching for the right colors and size. Cannabis buds can range from purple to green to brown, and come in a variety of textures. 
  • Aroma and flavor: Terpenes exist in all plants and are what give them their unique flavor and scent. Terpenes can also give desirable effects, such as treating inflammation, enhancing mood, or helping aid sleep. Depending on what the cultivator is searching for, they may want something more relaxing or with certain aromas. 
  • Maturation time: Production schedules are a large part of cannabis cultivation, which is why breeding strains that line up with a cultivator’s grow schedule matters. 
  • Cannabinoid profile: Some cultivators seek super-potent strains, others may want to have a strain higher in CBD content. 
  • Sensitivity and stability: Cultivators pay attention to the distinct shape of the plant, down to the strength of the roots. They also may want a plant that’s more resistant to mold or pests. 


Once the cultivator has chosen their favorite, it’s time to clone them. This ensures that the plant has the same genetic makeup as the one it was taken from, which is called the mother plant. Cloning, also called propagation, involves cutting a branch from a live cannabis plant and planting it in its own pot. The cut branch, with time, will develop its own root system and eventually flower – making its mother plant the gift that keeps on giving!

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