Phenohunts typically occur in one location, but Humboldt Seed Company takes the show on the road.
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Halle Pennington wears a loose white shirt resembling a lab coat and counts out 5,000 cannabis seeds with a machine typically used for sorting diamonds. The seeds per weight, she says, are equivalent to the price of gold. We’re in the headquarters of Humboldt Seed Company on the second stop of a multi-week tour that includes visiting cannabis farms across Northern California. The tour aims to show visitors the rigorous and methodical process that the seed company undergoes to develop what they hope is the world’s next big cannabis strain.
Our mission begins close to the California/Oregon border in the heart of the wild woods and rivers of Bigfoot Country, but we’re hunting for another mythical creature, “unicorn” cannabis plants—so named because of their magical rarity.
While many cannabis competitions assess dried and cured flowers, this tour is a different sort of contest, one that pits weed plants still weeks away from harvest against each other to judge which ones come out on top. By the end of the trek—a two-week sprint to eight farms—the team will have put eyes on 10,000 plants, all in the dream of finding no more than 20 winners.
Nat’s Farm / Courtesy of Home Grow TV
The 2023 Great California Pheno Hunt
Cannabis is unusual for a flowering plant. It’s dioecious, meaning it has two distinct sexes. Male and female plants are created from seed. Clones are cuttings of female plants, meaning their genetic makeup will be identical. When grown from seed, cannabis plants show variety.
Seeds from the same parents will express different physical features. In the plant breeding world, these physical variations are called phenotypes. Phenotypes are what you can see and smell; they’re the traits the environment pulls from the plant’s genetic code.
When cannabis breeders hunt through different phenotypes to find the best expression of a strain, they call it a phenohunt. What Humboldt Seed Company has developed takes that concept of a phenohunt on the road. Invited guests who join in get the opportunity to hunt through the HSC strains growing in several different environments.
The tour is all a part of the business plan. HSC has saved clone cuttings of all the plants from each farm and will be able to develop the winning lines further. The idea is that we might someday see seeds created from the genetic lines of the plants hunted on this year’s adventure.
On the morning of the first day of the HSC 2023 phenohunt, I arrive at Nat Pennington’s Humboldt County farm just in time to witness him carving a large zucchini to turn it into a bong. Nat’s daughter and HSC’s chief science officer, Halle, is getting together the fixings for a farm-fresh breakfast.
Nat’s Farm / Courtesy of Home Grow TV
Other people are arriving for the tour as well, including Dakota McLearn and Quinten, aka Mr. Q—two buddies based in Medellín, Colombia, who are joining in all eight days of the phenohunt to put together videos for their Youtube channel Home Grow TV. Mclearn met the HSC crew shortly after first smoking the brand’s signature strain, Blueberry Muffin, at a cannabis event in Colombia.
“I’m big time on terps over here, like the cannabinoids and the effects, and so that’s where they had me; it was so unique,” McLaren says. “Blueberry Muffin and Hella Jelly were so different and so in their own world that I was like, ‘Holy shit, what else is there?”
The phenohunt officially begins after we each take rips of Cali Octane out of the zucchini bong.
Triploids, The Next Great Step in Cannabis Evolution
Before I can chat with Nat, the CEO and co-founder of HSC, about the tour we go into the garden to pick a yellow watermelon that we eat as a part of the morning’s breakfast. Plucking the melon from the garden, I learn the first science lesson of the day.
“It’s a diploid,” Nat jokes with his business partner Benjamin Lind as we head back into his kitchen to carve up the fruit.
It’s a genetics joke between cannabis breeders. The joke has to do with understanding genotypes, the traits present within the DNA of different cannabis strains that provide the blueprint for a spectrum of possibilities.
Cells containing two sets of chromosomes, the packages of DNA with instructions for life, are diploids. The two sets of chromosomes in diploid cells are the genetics of each parent. Most cells in humans are diploid cells, but there is a broader range of variation in the plant world.
Typically, cannabis plants are diploids, but HSC is developing extremely rare cannabis plants that are triploids; these plants have three sets of chromosomes. Seedless watermelons and grapes are triploids; they’re sterile and don’t contain seeds.
Triploids can occur naturally, but also when breeders cross diploid plants with tetraploid plants. Those are, you guessed it, cells with four chromosomes. To create many of its triploids HSC uses genetic material from a crocus, a flowering plant that is the source of the spice saffron.
Cannabis can naturally be diploid, triploid, or tetraploid. In fact, during a presentation on the final day of the phenohunt, Richard Philbrook— a plant molecular biologist who works at Dark Heart Nursery—reveals that Capitulator’s MAC 1 is a natural triploid, explaining why it only exists as a clone.
Burr’s Place / Photo by Erik Christiansen, @erik.nugshots
When it comes to crops like bananas, triploid plants are grown to result in more vigorous growth and increase yields.
Triploids are the mules of the plant world. They can’t reproduce. HSC is looking at them to see what their benefits might be. Guaranteed seedless pot? On the tour, we’re witnessing the birth of triploid breeding work in cannabis in real-time.
“This is the future, right?” Ravi Spaarenberg of Sensi Seeds says as we observe triploids growing at the phenohunt’s final stop, Burr’s Place in Calaveras County. “We’ve walked through the history and what we’re doing this year and what’s the future of cannabis. Just looking at the bud structure of the [triploid] flower, the smell, the terps, everything is more and better, and that’s where we’re going, right?”
Spaarenberg explains that in terms of the future of breeding cannabis, the new markers are triploids, F1 hybrids (cultivars produced by crossing two stable seed lines called inbred lines), and minor cannabinoids.
On the phenohunt’s final day, you can see the excitement in the faces of the HSC crew as they observe the Royal Highness crosses in triploid form.
“These are the biggest buds I’ve seen in the field,” Lind says. “It’s further along, it’s super frosty.”
Lind explains that Cotton Candy grapes are much larger than wild grapes and contain more sugar than regular table grape varieties. Could that mean triploid cannabis plants could create more trichomes? He says triploids are “the next great step in cannabis evolution.”
Renowned cannabis cultivation author Jorge Cervantes agrees with Lind’s assessment, stating that triploids are already huge in modern agriculture.
“[Triploids] are going to make a huge difference in the modern [cannabis] marketplace,” Cervantes says, noting the main differences are in things like yield and disease resistance.
Cannabis is a wind-pollinated plant, and triploids cannot be pollinated, Cervantes explains. That means that cannabis farmers growing triploids would not have to worry that a neighboring hemp field could pollinate their crop.
“With triploids, they’re like mules; they can’t accept pollen,” cannabis horticulture expert Ed Rosenthal tells me. “So you could have a field that’s filled with males.”
Within Rosenthal’s latest book, the Cannabis Grower’s Handbook, it’s explained that polyploidy—or anything possessing more than two sets of chromosome pairs— is understood to increase the compounds responsible for flavor and aroma.
“Cannabis, thankfully, is not an exception to this trend, and the breeders say aroma compounds such as terpenes, esters, and aldehydes in their triploid varieties are heightened significantly,” the handbook reads.
Full Moon Farms / Photo by Erik Christiansen, @erik.nugshots
Genotype, Phenotype & Chemotype, Oh My!
Before we jump into a whirlwind tour of the homestead HSC cannabis garden, I pin Nat down to ask what a phenotype is.
“To sum it up, it’s the outward expression of an individual within a species like cannabis,” he says. “It’s what you can see, touch, smell, feel.”
As a cannabis breeder, the other indicator Nat looks at is a chemotype, a plant’s chemical makeup. Cannabis chemotypes are determined through tests conducted in labs and the field, showing things like the all-important presence of THC.
Almost everything his seed company creates is high in THC, so Nat and his team are looking for other winning aspects. Qualifiers of the phenohunt include a plant’s overall structure, ability to resist disease, smell, the color of its flowers and leaves in shades of greens and purples, and the trichome density on the buds.
The tour is all for research and development.
“You’d be surprised, in the field, you think, ‘Oh, how am I going to pick a winner?’ but there will be two or four or 10 that you’ll fall in love with,” Halle explains. “It’s got terps, it’s got structure, it’s got the trichomes. Like you know, it’s beautiful, it has color. Those are the ones that are an easy pick.”
A Restorative Revolution
A key aspect to the success of the HSC’s mega phenohunt is all of the people it involves. The wandering tour picks up new participants at each farm location, and the results are a group effort in selection. On the way, participants see some of HSC’s more recent strain creations, Granny Candy and Chicken and Waffles, at remote locations such as Full Moon Farms at the eastern edge of Humboldt County. Each night ends with a party and a full spread of food and cannabis flowers. The whole experience is a true community collaboration.
At the close of the first evening of the two-week-long tour, Sammy Gensaw grills a salmon on redwood sticks around the fire. Gensaw grew up near Nat’s farm on the Yurok Indian Reservation and spent his childhood fishing on the Klamath River, one of the earth’s most diverse temperate forest regions. He met Nat through their work as organizers for the Un-dam the Klamath coalition.
Courtesy of Home Grow TV
The Klamath River once supported abundant fish populations, including Chinook and coho salmon. Indigenous communities and activists have worked for decades to restore the native habitat by removing the dams built between 1903 and 1963. That’s finally happening this year and represents one of the most extensive dam removal and river restoration projects in the history of the world.
“We have a responsibility to take care of this place,” Gensaw says. “One, you have to take care of yourself, so if you take care of yourself physically, spiritually, mentally, it’s something you do your whole life… if you’re on that right path, you’ll be able to take care of the people you love and build relationships with people you love.”
Once you’re doing that—loving the ones that love you back—Gensaw tells me the idea is to “take care of the place we all need to do it.”
“When you come to a place like this, you start to lay down roots in the community,” he says. “It’s like mycelium. Everybody becomes a piece of it. This energy here has outlived us all, and we just become a part of it. We fold into it. Protecting that kind of experience on this river for future generations, that’s what it’s all about… We realize people all over the world are fighting for the same thing we are. We call it a restorative revolution.”
Full Moon Farms / Photo by Erik Christiansen, @erik.nugshots
Like the genomic studies HSC is now undergoing with cannabis plants, Nat conducted a genomic study of salmon, writing a grant in 2005, to show the difference between spring and fall salmon. The result of the research added the salmon to the endangered species list.
“Now we’re applying the same thing to cannabis,” Nat says right before he plays guitar with legendary reggae performer Don Carlos to close the end of this year’s phenohunt.
By the end of my time on the multi-week journey, I felt the pulse of the California cannabis community in the weeks leading up to the 2023 outdoor harvest. I went to the spot with the world’s most Bigfoot sightings, swam in the Klamath River, ate salmon and fry bread by the fire, and danced under the stars. Even though I can’t be sure if I saw a unicorn plant, the HSC’s 2023 phenohunt was nothing short of pure magic.