Autoflowering cannabis strains have made a big splash on the cannabis scene over the last few years. From the excitement surrounding the release of the original Lowryder, it seems that in a very short time autoflowering cannabis strains have become a hot topic. With their continuing rise in popularity many growers are now seeking to create their own autoflowering strains and, maybe more importantly, supply their own seeds.
This article will take a look at the history of autoflowering strains and weigh up the pros and cons of growing them, before discussing ways of creating your own seed supply and having a go at developing your own autoflowering strains.
The History of Autoflowering Cannabis Strains
Cannabis Ruderalis in the Wild
Autoflowering cannabis strains come from the cannabis ruderalis species. This adaptation of the cannabis genus is considered by some to be a species of its own and by others to be a sub species of either Cannabis sativa, possibly descended from escapees from cannabis plantations that have evolved in the wild, or a sub species of cannabis indica that has migrated down from the Himalayan mountains, the cradle of all cannabis culture.
Cannabis ruderalis as we know it has its roots in the northern areas of eastern and central Europe and central Asia where environmental conditions are very different to the warm areas that we normally associate with cannabis plants. The wide open spaces here are typified by short and cool summers that experience long hours of daylight. At the northern edges of the ruderalis range summer days can have 24 hours of light. This short but light filled summer presents a particular challenge to plants, which need to be sure to spread their seed before the onset of the often harsh winters.
As an adaptation to these environmental factors cannabis ruderalis has evolved to flower early. If it began to flower when the hours of daylight had shortened sufficiently then it would not be able to finish flowering and set seed before the winter. So, unlike other cannabis species which begin to flower depending on photoperiod, or the amount of daylight that they receive, cannabis ruderalis begins to flower after a certain period of time, normally almost immediately after becoming established and putting out its first full sets of leaves.
This is an adaptation that has worked very well for cannabis ruderalis. The origin of its name gives us a clue to this success, ruderalis literally means ‘roadside’. Like ditchweed, cannabis ruderalis can be found growing wild across this area. It has also spread across Alaska, Canada and into America as well as westward across Europe.
Although, in its wild state, cannabis ruderalis lacks the strong psychoactive effects of its more famous cousins, history tells us that it was widely used in the traditions of the area. Russian and Mongolian folk lore contain many references to the medicinal properties of the plant and it is believed to have been part of ancient shamanistic rituals carried out on the high, central Asian plateau.
Experimentation with Cross Breeding
Let’s fast forward to the 1970s when the modern interest in cannabis ruderalis began in earnest. At this time cannabis cross breeding was in its infancy. Most cannabis came in its original landrace form and there were only a few of the fancy and complex hybrid strains that we know and love today. Yet cannabis lovers are an ingenious bunch and soon began to take a great interest in the obvious potential to create different and better cannabis strains.
The first recorded experimentation with crossing ruderalis species with sativa and indica came from growers in Canada who experimented with the ruderalis species that grew there in the wild. At around the same time the famous cannabis breeding wizard, Neville Schoenmaker, also began similar experiments in The Netherlands.
Although these experiments met with some success, the results were unstable and could not be repeated with consistency. After a while the experimentation came to a halt.
Enter the Joint Doctor
The autoflowering strain story took a giant leap forward thanks to the, now famous, Joint Doctor. The Joint Doctor was introduced to the idea of autoflowering strains by a friend called Antonio. Antonio gave the Joint Doctor some seeds that he called ‘Mexican Rudy’. These seeds formed a short plant which flowered remarkably quickly. The history and genetic provenance of ‘Mexican Rudy’ is unclear, although the Joint Doctor later said that he believed it to be an experimental cross of a Russian ruderalis species with some Mexican cannabis. This strain possibly originated from the University of Mississippi during the 1970s but this is impossible to confirm. Indeed, the Joint Doctor tried to research the origins of the strain to no avail.
Whatever its origins, ‘Mexican Rudy’ had been successfully grown out in Canada for several years. It wasn’t long before the Joint Doctor got a hold of the seeds. As soon as he did he began experimenting. The first cross was with another strain chosen for her short stature and high potency, Northern Lights #2. The resulting F1 seeds produced plants that were short, compact and fast finishing. However, they were unstable and still dependant on photoperiod. So began the laborious task of crossing the F1s with a variety of different strains, selecting the best and most suitable attributes he could find.
The breakthrough came with William’s Wonder. William’s Wonder is a very potent indica strain that is known for its small size, fast flowering, massive yields and extreme potency. Exactly the right attributes for a good ruderalis cross. After growing on the first batch of seeds obtained from crossing the NL#2 X Mexican Rudy F1s with a William’s Wonder clone, the Joint Doctor discovered some male plants that began to flower as soon as they had set their first few leaves.
Having successfully recreated this autoflowering trait the Joint Doctor immediately used the males to pollinate the next generation. The result was a success. All of the offspring matured in less than nine weeks and grew no taller than twelve inches. The autoflowering cannabis revolution had arrived!
Originally the Joint Doctor named this strain ‘Willy’s Automatic’. Further research and experimentation was undertaken to ensure stability. When, after several generations, the Joint Doctor was happy with the strain’s stability he renamed it as Lowryder and introduced it to the cannabis world during the first years of the 21st century.
The rest, as they say, is history, although it is worth mentioning one further fact in this story. Despite causing a huge stir with all the implications of a plant that could flower automatically, regardless of lighting, Lowryder wasn’t a great yielder, her THC production was low and the taste was considered poor. The early years of the 21st century were witnessing an exponential rise in the quality of cannabis and this strange autoflowering strain failed to completely tick all of the boxes. People liked the concept, but it needed to be executed better.
The Joint Doctor already knew this and was busy trying to add some sativa to the mix. After some more experimentation he finally crossed Lowryder with the highly respected Santa Maria, a sativa strain from Brazil. He already knew how the breeding worked so, after a few generations of back crossing for stability, Lowryder #2 was born. This strain still had perfect autoflowering traits but delivered much bigger yields, was much more potent and had a far superior taste.
Lowryder #2 really grabbed people’s attention and autoflowering strains rocketed in popularity. With the secrets of breeding unveiled it wasn’t long before many new autoflowering strains hit the market, most of them based on variants of Lowryder #2.
Why Autoflowering Cannabis?
The Up Side
So what’s all the fuss about? What are the advantages of growing autoflowering marijuana strains?
Perhaps the foremost and most useful attribute of autoflowering cannabis strains is their fast finishing time; anywhere from six to thirteen weeks from cracking the seeds. This rapid turnaround means that it is now possible to achieve more crops per year from the same space than previously.
Another great advantage is the fact that autoflowering strains do not require you to change the lighting regime for flowering. This in turn means that it is no longer necessary to have a grow room AND a flowering room for a continuous supply of weed. Before the advent of autoflowering strains, if you only had space for one room, or the budget for one set of lights, you would have to wait for a crop to finish flowering before beginning to veg the next crop. Now, with autoflowerers, you can have plants at all stages of growth under the same lights. This means that it is relatively simple to organize a system that provides a constant supply; planting and cropping under the same lights every two weeks for example.
The small size of autoflowering strains is also a huge advantage. Stealth growers use increasingly sophisticated systems to keep their grows discreet. Cabinet and grow box operations are becoming more and more common and the advent of PC grow boxes goes hand in hand with diminutive autoflowering strains. SOG systems are also ideally suited to autoflowering strains and their small size and rapid turnaround are ideal for this method.
The Down Side
As with everything in life, it’s not all sweetness and light. Every silver lining has a cloud. There are a couple of down sides to growing autoflowering strains.
- Firstly, yields can sometimes be quite light. Anybody who has experience of growing heavy yielding indicas or sativas might be shocked at the tiny yields per plant from their first auto grow. They might produce more quickly, but calculating and comparing the yield from a given space over a given time period can be a tricky balancing act.
- Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of growing autoflowering strains, and one that discourages many experienced growers, is that you cannot clone them. Because autoflowerers are effectively running on a timer from the moment they crack their seed shells, cloning them is not effective. It can be done but the clones will be at the same stage of development as the mother. This means that the plant has no time to recover from the stress of cloning and that clones are already well on their way to fruition. The only real way to grow autos is to let them do their own thing.
The inability to make clones raises obvious economical issues to the serious gardener. Seeds are expensive and having to buy a seed for each plant that you grow can have a major impact on the economic feasibility of growing your own weed. This effect is compounded by the low yield of individual plants. A Sea of Green set up with autos might produce a comparable dry weight per year from your grow room as several generations of clones, but it is going to cost you a heck of a lot more.
It is for reasons of economy that many growers nowadays are looking at breeding autoflowering strains for seed production.
Producing Autoflowering Cannabis Seeds
Here at HowtoGrowMarijuana.com we get lots of questions about autoflowering cannabis seed production. Lots of growers can see the benefits of autoflowering strains but also see the need to grow them on a fairly large scale to achieve substantial crops. The truth is that there is no great secret behind it. Breeding autos for seed production is the same as with regular cannabis plants.
Of course, the first thing you need to do is to make sure that you buy regular seeds and not feminized seeds. Regular seeds can be either male or female and, given a large enough sample, produce both in roughly equal quantities at a ratio of around 50/50. A variety of environmental factors may affect the actual ratio of your own regular autos.
You will need to keep a careful eye open to spot the preflowers so that you can effectively identify the sex of your plants. The age at which autoflowering strains exhibit their gender may vary from strain to strain and under different conditions. As a rule of thumb you can expect males to show their pollen sacs at around 4 weeks from germination and females to identify themselves at around 5 weeks. The methodology for sexing is the same as with regular plants and is covered in more detail here.
Having identified the sex of your plants there are a couple of ways to go. You can, of course, just leave nature to get on with it. If the plants are all in close proximity to each other it is very likely that just one single male will pollinate all the females in your garden, making them all seed bearing and providing you with hundreds of seeds. Job done!
Cannabis growers however are curious and inquisitive people who are constantly in search of bigger crops of better buds. If you have multiple males and females you should consider positively selecting for your next generation. At such an early stage in their development it is obviously difficult to be sure which of the individuals are the best, but you should be looking for plants with the strongest growth and the best aroma. Ultimately these are likely to convert into the plants that deliver the biggest yields and tastiest flavors.
You should remove these plants from the others as soon as they show their sex. They will need to be kept entirely separate from the other plants in the grow room and, from here on, if moving between the plants you have kept for seed production and the rest of your plants you should observe best practice and a high standard of hygiene. Washing hands and changing clothes between visits is essential if you want to avoid accidently pollinating the rest of your crop. All other males that are not being used for pollination should be destroyed.
Having selected your best plants for seed production you can either just leave them to grow side by side or adopt active pollination methods as described here. Of course, it can seem like a bit of a sacrifice giving up your best female to seed production and this runs counter intuitively to many growers. However, if everything goes according to plan, and providing the mother and father were both of the same strain, you can look forward to cultivating many of her offspring, all of which should share the same positive qualities that caused you to choose her in the first place.
Breeding Your Own Autoflowering Cannabis Strains
Now that you have come this far, the next logical step would be to have a go at breeding your own autoflowering strains. There are currently well over 200 autoflowering marijuana strains on the commercial market and many more amongst co-operatives and collectives the world over. It sometimes seems like there is a new strain available every day.
Crossing two autoflowering strains is relatively simple. If both the male and female auto strains are completely stable the offspring should also carry the autoflowering trait. Selecting the offspring with the best autoflowering properties and back crossing once more should create a stable autoflowering strain.
However, creating a new autoflowering strain from a regular cannabis strain can prove to be a little more difficult. The ruderalis autoflowering genetic heritage is inherently unstable. Whilst obtaining a cross may be reasonably achievable, obtaining a cross that is stable and consistent is another matter.
F1s of a cross between a stable autoflowerer and a regular cannabis strain are likely to be wild and unstable, demonstrating a wide range of characteristics with only a small percentage carrying the autoflowering properties. The trick behind it is to successively back cross for several generations, selecting each time for autoflowering traits as well as vigor, potency and taste. With each successive generation you should realize more and more stability with an increasing percentage of autoflowering offspring. However, it will take many generations of this before you can truly say that you have created an autoflowering strain.
Breeding autoflowering cannabis is a new and unproven science that is still in its infancy. With a surge in demand for autoflowering strains seed banks have begun to release autos onto the market that are not yet stable and we hear more and more from disappointed growers who have bought seeds that have not performed as advertized. In many ways it is the wild west of the cannabis industry. This can make it difficult for consumers, but it is also a highly exciting time. If you like to experiment with your cannabis cultivation there has never been a better time to get involved. Dive in and see what you come up with.
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