Cannabis phenotype hunting through the eyes of a Sunset gardener.

Hunting For Unicorns by Johanna Silver

It’s called breeder’s nose. It’s the dark brown sticky spot that collects on the tip of your beak after shoving it in enough cannabis flowers. It’s a bit hard to take people seriously when they have dot of resinous goo on the tips of their noses, but this cast of characters deserves me looking past it. I’m on a pheno-hunt with the founders of Humboldt Seed Company and Dark Heart Nursery.

First, some background—what the hell’s a pheno-hunt? Cannabis has a large amount of phenotypic variation, meaning that when you sprout a seed, observable trains—like size, smell, and color—can be all over the map. An upside of that diversity is the possibility of stumbling upon a so-called unicorn—a unique seedling that solves a problem, fills a niche or otherwise impresses.

The downside to all that diversity is that once you find your winner, it’s challenging to reproduce the same traits from seed. While the folks at Humboldt Seed will take on that challenge, it requires three or four generations of breeding. Speeding up that timeline is where Dark Heart Nursery takes center stage. As one of the largest clone companies in California, they use state-of-the-art technologies to bring healthy, exact replicas of those unicorns into instant production.

As part of the hunt, we visit several farms, including Nat Pennington’s property in Eastern Humboldt, where he founded Humboldt Seed Company in 2001. Cannabis wasn’t his first foray into genetics. As a fisheries biologist, he helped find the genetic difference in the local salmon population of his region, helping win the effort to restore the Klamath River, the largest dam removal in the world. He sat in many a meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, all while secretly breeding weed back at home.

Clandestine no more, he’s shoving cannabis colas into his face and mine, asking me if I smell the pineapple upside-down cake here (I do!) and the blueberry muffin there (I really do!).

Our noses get a break when we run flower samples through Orange Photonic’s Lightlab Cannabis Analyzer, a bright orange, briefcase-sized lab that reads terpene and cannabinoid levels in seven minutes flat. Co-founder Dylan Wilks is a third generation spectroscopist (a scientist who uses light to measure chemical composition). Historically, his family’s businesses analyzed pharmaceuticals and wastewater. Now he’s analyzing weed and assisting farmers with real-time quality control.

A recent trip to Humboldt taught me the significance of farmers being able to tell their stories openly in a post-prohibition world. This pheno-hunt adds a new dimension to my understanding of this moment in time. No longer illegal, science and technology can also play catchup, greatly advancing our study and application of cannabis. It’s about time—weed is likely the oldest plant under human cultivation.

I find my unicorn—the one that’s irresistible to a nerdy gardener like me. The foliage is dark green and especially dense and lacy. Simply put: it’s beautiful and I want to grow it. It’s a cross between Sweet Annie, a cultivar named for a wild herb that grows along the rivers in Humboldt, and Willy G’s Lebanese, a cultivar from Lebanon, high in medicinal CBD. It’s favored by the real Willy G, a 23-year-old local celebrity with Cerebral Palsy. The buds smell floral, like roses smashed with berries. Seven minutes later, the chromatograph reveals a promising 1:1 THC:CBD ratio with high terpene content. I’m giddy.

As a writer who recently stepped into cannabis territory, I try to hold myself at arm’s length from all this weed. You are a gardener, I repeat to myself, not a stoner. But here I am, shoving my face into cannabis flowers for hours on end. It doesn’t get more intimate than that. Chalk it up to extreme aromatherapy but huffing all of those terpenes gets me high (on life). I don’t think I’ve ever spent this long captivated by plant after plant of the same species, infatuated with all variation. Dahlias, maybe, are a close second.

When I sneak into the bathroom, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, surprised at my own nose capped with a sticky brown dot. I realize that try as I might, this foray into cannabis is going to be more than a dip. I want to grow all of the flowers. I want to smell all of their smells. Who knows—maybe one day I’ll experiment with feeling all of their feels. Take me as I am, world, sticky nose and all.


About The Writer

Johanna Silver spent ten years Sunset Magazine, beginning with a shovel in her hands as manager of the editorial test garden and culminating as head of the Garden Department. She currently serves as a contributing editor at Better Homes & Gardens, and her work has been featured in Martha Stewart Living, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Alta Journal of California. Her dip into weed was totally accidental. An editor asked her to grow cannabis in her yard and document it as a gardener. She accepted the challenge as a bit of a joke, but upon learning that a) the plant was diecious, and b) that the industry was full of stories that have never been told, she was hooked. Her first book, The Bold Dry Garden (Timber Press, 2016), is available everywhere books are sold. Her second, about growing weed beautifully in the garden, published by Abrams, comes out in fall, 2019.

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