jars of cannabis nugs in front of cannabis leaves

How Weed Strains Get Their Names

Durban PoisonGrandaddy PurpleMeat Breath? We go deep into the cannabis industry to find out how weed names are created—and how you know if this bud’s for you.

By Bill Shapiro

I grew up smoking cannabis—or “pot,” as I called it until about 20 minutes ago—crouching in a fetid little nook between a dumpster and a stack of tires at the neighborhood Texaco station, a place that already smelled like shit and where a few puffs of smoke and a little coughing wouldn’t catch anyone’s attention.

If, like me, you came of age before legalization, you will recall one thing about procuring weed back in the day: You didn’t have a lot of choices. In fact, you had one: nickel bag or a dime bag. You couldn’t specify indica or sativa, flower or edible, tincture or rosin or vape. You couldn’t select your THC content. You couldn’t choose between OG Kush or Bombay Crush, between Cheese Dog and Chem Dawg, between Grape Ape and Gorilla Glue. No. You got whatever Danny’s older brother sold you. And you were stoked.

But that was then and this is now, and the cannabis space has entered a fascinating, fast-flowing moment where legalization—which begat commercialization, which begat corporatization, which begat commodification—has created today’s modern dispensary where the choices for consumers can be dizzying. As it turns out, there may be no better gauge of the changes rippling through cannabis culture than the humble menu at your local dispensary. Weed names have always added to the fun and intrigue (as a teen, even the relatively straightforward Thai Stick sounded entrancingly exotic), but today, as the power dynamic shifts from seller to buyer, and as growers and retailers find themselves strategizing to make their products stand out on increasingly crowded shelves, the names are taking on even more importance.

The names. Dear lord, the names. Strawberry Cough. Kosher Kush. Blueberry Mojito. Glueberry Slurm. Pineapple Trainwreck. Donkey Butter. Animal Face. Pink Panties. Purple Haze. Sour JokerSweet Jesus. Moby Dick. Fugu. Fatso.Tongue KissCat Piss.

Cat Piss?

Who comes up with this stuff … and how? Stoners trying to out-clever each other with inside stoner jokes about oblique stoner references? Advertising creatives at boutique firms working long hours in Stance socks? Gen Z focus groups run by blue-chip marketing firms with execs staring through one-way mirrors, scribbling notes?

The question of who names my weed has actually been banging around in my head since sometime late in 1978, when I was on the far side of 13 and my bar mitzvah money was burning a hole in my OP shorts. I’d managed to score a small bag of Maui Waui, and as a friend and I passed an anorexic doobie back and forth behind the Texaco tires, we ended up repeating the words Maui Waui Maui Waui—a name full of rhyme and promiseagain and again until they became nothing more than strange sounds in our mouths. I never wondered about who grew my weed or even how it made its way to Danny’s older brother. I wondered who named it. Truth is, I still wonder about this every time I walk into a dispensary. And every time I walk out, small glass jar cupped in my hand.

I decided to find out. And what I learned from talking to folks up and down the weed chain—rock-star breeders and farmers, boutique retailers and publically traded cannabis corporations, a marketing exec who moved from Coca-Cola to cannabis—is not only who concocts these catchy names and how that concoction happens, but that legalization is quickly changing much about how naming will look in the future. “It’s a really complex time for naming,” one longtime farmer told me. That’s because as more people stream into the legalized market, the customer base is shape-shifting: We’re no longer talking about old hippies or young hip-hoppers but, well, everyone, from connoisseurs who focus on trichomes, terpenes, and terroir to juice-cleansed “I’ll have the tincture, please” wellness types to, well, my mom. There are no stats on hippie consumers, or on my mom, but in just the last four years, the percentage of women-buyers bumped from 38 to 49 percent. And with the average dispensary customer now dropping $52 a month, retailers are feverishly looking to fill their cases with more SKUs, which means more—and more eye-catching—names. As amusingly goofy as cannabis names often are, a lot of thought can go into selecting a name.

Inside a Weed-Naming Session

If you thought, for even two seconds, that the cannabis business, with its counter-culture, middle-finger-to-the-system ethos would have a single method by which all new strains receive their name, you must be high. Ed Rosenthal is a case in point. Rosenthal, who, at 79, has been has been cultivating cannabis as long as anyone on the planet, who is so OG that he had a hand in creating High Times magazine back in ’74, who is so revered he had a strain named after him (Ed Rosenthal Super Bud), is himself not a whimsical namer. His approach has always been distinctly un-kaleidoscopic in its simplicity. “Each seed has a number and each plant has a number,” he explained to me. “And then the initial is a symbol of where I got it. So I had J1 and J2, like that. This wasn’t popular with anybody else, but it worked for me.”

Things are different over at the 21-year-old Humboldt Seed Company, the largest licensed cannabis seed seller in California, which takes a more colorful approach to naming (Freakshow, Farmer’s Daughter, etc.). Ben Lind, its co-owner, has been growing and naming for 25 years (“I was introduced to cultivation when I was 14 by my Aunt Stephanie”) and describes HSC’s naming process as communal, a group effort involving smelling the flower, smoking the flower, and then brainstorming for a name that captures its essence. When I asked him if, like, you know, I might sit in on one of HSC’s naming sessions, Lind paused for a moment. Then his eyes lit up and he said, “That’d be awesome. I’d appreciate your outside-the-cannabis-box creativity! It could be really cool.”

It could be really cool. And if, by some chance, I were able to come up with the name for a strain that would be smoked and loved, that would be asked for, by name, at dispensaries around the country? A name with the resonance, longevity, and mouthfeel of Maui Waui? That could be even better than really cool.


cannabis nug and leaves