By: Todd McCormick published in GROW Magazine ©2021 and updated for AGSeedCo.com ©2022
Of all the varieties that I have grown, "Skunk" has to be the most requested and also the least understood. Many people think it is a variety, when in reality, it is more of a description of one of the many distinctive scents of cannabis found in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Hindu Kush mountains. While there are no skunks in Asia, the combination of thiols and myrcene profiles of certain Afghani varieties makes them immediately reminiscent of a skunk spray to anyone who has ever encountered the animal that is only found in North America.
BEFORE AFGHAN CANNABIS COMES TO NORTH AMERICA
From the 1950s through the 1960s, cannabis was being increasingly imported into the United States from Asian tropical countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, and this really increased as soldiers started coming back from Vietnam.
All of these varieties were very tropical and originated from near the equator and had very long flowering periods, and most of them would not finish flowering in the United States which is semi-tropical at best.
AFGHAN CANNABIS ARRIVES IN NORTH AMERICA
Afghan varieties of cannabis in particular have been common in the U.S. since the hippies started bringing back seeds from the Hippie Trail that spanned from London to India. As the Hippies sought enlightenment and heightened consciousness through Cannabis, they went through and collected seeds from throughout the high countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, The Hindu Kush Mountains, Nepal and India.
Even when combining diverse genetics from places like Colombia, Mexico (Acapulco & Michoacán), Jamaica, Morocco and other parts of Africa, growers still found difficulty in making tropical plants finish in the Northern latitudes of most of the United States until they started breeding them with Afghan.
In the 1960s & 70s, hippies and serious growers from the US and Europe started seeking out and bringing back seeds from the short broadleaf cannabis variety that has been traditionally used for hashish making, which is the preferred smoke in this part of the world. The shorter flowering time allowed the plant to acclimate to the shorter seasons and colder nights in North America and Europe by creating denser buds that protected the seeds, unlike tropical varieties which have loose and spindly flowers that are able to rapidly displace high humidity as found in the tropics.
These varieties from Afghanistan and Pakistan had a distinctive and unique scent, some people would say that it smelled like a skunk’s spray, others would describe it as urine or even shit. While Afghan varieties were not that pleasant they had a high leaf to bract ratio and they did add a very important element to the breeding that was happening with the tropical plants - it shortened their flowering time to a manageable 8 to 10 weeks and opened up cannabis cultivation for North America and Europe, both indoors and out.
ORIGINS OF BREEDING WITH AFGHAN CANNABIS
One of the first and most popular hybrids with Afghan genetics is Skunk No.1, which started its life as an Afghan crossed with a Colombian, which indeed smelled just like a North American skunk, and then that plant was crossed with Acapulco Gold. The results were phenomenal and through Skunkman Sam’s selective breeding, he was able to create the first modern cannabis hybrid that was relatively true breeding, that was ⅔ tropical, ⅓ Afghan and incredibly uniform. By crossing the Afghan/Colombian with Acapulco Gold, he found the right combination and that became not just Skunk, but Skunk No.1.
I once asked Skunkman Sam how he made a true breeding variety and why that was one of his breeding goals. In the testament to his lack of ego, he quickly said that he did not make a true breeding plant, nature did. He just took the time to cross the Afghan/Colombian plant with everything in his collection, and then to test the progeny by breeding them together to see if their
progeny would be as consistent and uniform in high numbers. Because back in the 1970s, people wanted to start with thousands of seeds, and Sam has always joked that he only sold seeds by the kilo.
Back in the 1970s, before clones were a thing, growers grew from seeds and they needed the seeds to be very consistent and uniform when they planted them, which most cannabis was not. Inbreeding varieties often causes more of the recessive traits to divide themselves up among the progeny and while it is good for phenotype selection and selective breeding, it is not a good thing for a uniform crop.
Skunk No.1 corrected that problem with a variety that harvested early and had huge flowers with a low leaf to high bract ratio. The Skunk No.1 buds were easily trimmed and also contained the high myrcene terpene levels that still stand out among all the other varieties that have come along in the 45 years since Skunk No.1 came to be.
Skunk No.1 is an excellent example of the many varieties of cannabis that have utilized Afghan genetics to create a better, more manageable variety made up mostly of tropical genetics.
THIOLS ENTER THE EQUATION
In 1989, William Wood, a chemist at Humboldt State University (how ironic) discovered that thiols were the key component to the excretion and smell of the North American skunk animal.
Then in 2001, researchers at the University of North Carolina and the University of Gent in Belgium, published research into what makes beer smell skunky. The research showed that beer shares a similar thiol compound to the same one that is produced by skunks. Thiols are a chemical found in humulone, which is a compound found in hops.
From the article in Discover Magazine June 29th, 2012:
“Shellhammer explains that when ultraviolet light hits the humulone, a part of the molecule breaks off and binds with the sulfur in the beer, creating the thiol. “If you walk outside with a nice yellow beer like a pilsner on a summer day, the change is happening almost immediately,” he says.
He adds that in Europe and elsewhere, this is known as “light-struck” beer, not "skunky" beer, since skunks are not native to Europe.
Complicating matters is the fact that humans can smell thiols in parts per trillion, Shellhammer says. We perceive the other aromatic components of beer at parts per million. A tiny bit of thiol can overwhelm everything else.
Both hops and cannabis naturally produce thiols. They also both produce some of the same terpenes, fragrant chemical compounds, including humulene (which is not chemically related to humulone), caryophyllene and myrcene.
That’s because hops and cannabis are in the same plant family, Cannabaceae. If you analyze the oils extracted from each plant chemically, Shellhammer says, they are similar. “When we analyze the compounds in hops,” Shellhammer says, “Sometimes I walk by the lab and it smells like we are analyzing cannabis.””
AWAY FROM AFGHAN
The evolution away from Afghan skunk happened because most people do not go for a walk or a hike and stick their nose in a pile of shit, they prefer flowers and sweeter scents. As cannabis hybrids moved from mostly Afghan to more tropical, cannabis hybrids went from stinky to sweet, spicy citrusy and dessert like.
Breeders worked to improve the hybridized Afghan flowers crossed with tropical plants by selecting sweeter, more fragrant varieties that had hints of orange, lemon, tropical fruit and incense. They also wanted flowers which were easier to manicure with less leaf and more resin covered bracts and through the 80’s and 90’s, the stink of Afghan was bred out of most all modern cannabis hybrids.
Smokers also preferred higher THC tropical flowers with a sweeter scent and bigger buds compared to lower THC and more leafy Afghan. Crop after crop, Afghan dominant varieties that smelled like a skunk were slowly bred away from, as most breeders and growers of cannabis all moved towards the sweeter, higher THC varieties that we have today.
THE DISAPPEARANCE & RECOVERY OF AFGHAN CANNABIS
Unfortunately, after the popularization of Dutch seed companies in the 1980s, a lot of places that had indigenous cannabis such as Jamaica, practically lost all of their uniquely acclimated varieties as they replaced them with modern hybrids in hopes of making more money in quicker time. Nowadays it is damn near impossible to find any true Jamaican cannabis even in Jamaica.
This loss of indigenous cannabis is also true in places like Morocco, where a majority of growers have replaced traditional Moroccan cannabis with fields of modern European cannabis hybrids and those who did not, still had their crops pollinated by their neighbors, so it is really hard to say what is authentic to the region anymore.
Because of the conflicts in Afghanistan, for many years we haven’t had easy access to the genetics that the hippies were bringing back in the early 70s, but I believe they are still there waiting to be discovered once again.
I started growing cannabis in 1984 when I was living in Rhode Island, I scored some seeds from some very skunky buds that I got from my mothers friends and it was supposedly grown in a Vermont greenhouse, but who knows. It did smell like skunk and we referred to it as skunk, but now I think it was probably just a really nice Afghan. However, even though it was the smell of a dead skunk on the side of the road reminded me and my friends of the scent of my garden, we never referred to the “skunk” I grew as “roadkill skunk”, and I did not actually hear that term used until much later when people were trying to describe the cannabis of their youth.
SKUNK #1 TIMELINE
1970’s ~ Pre Skunk #1, much of the stinky acrid smelling cannabis being grown and smoked in North America was referred to by people familiar with the smell as “Skunk”. It was a general term simply used to describe the acrid but rich and oddly pleasant smell of mostly Afghan cannabis. We now know this smell is characteristic of thiol and myrcene-rich varieties.
Conversely in the UK, the same smell characteristic is often referred to as “Cheese”, because those Brits certainly know the smell of nasty freaking cheese.
1975 ~ Afghan/Colombian Gold was bred with Acapulco Gold by Skunkman Sam and became Skunk #1
1976 ~ The first seeds of Skunk #1 were sold in Santa Cruz California. Further selections of the Skunk #1 Variety are created with some leaning toward the sweeter more tropical side of the cross, and some more acrid leaning towards the Afghan side of the cross, the more acrid were referred to as Skunk #2.
1976 to 1985 ~ Skunk #1 seeds are sold in California by "Sacred Seeds”.
1985 ~ Skunk #1 seeds are sold to The Holland Seed Bank, S.S.S.C. and many others, catapulting the Amsterdam cannabis seed business scene into high gear.
1987 Catalog Pages of Skunk #1 from The Holland Seed Bank
1986 ~ Skunkman Sam moves to Amsterdam with Skunk #1, Hindu Kush, Original Haze, California Orange, and many others along with Durban Poison and Afghan #1 from Mel Frank.
Old Ed Holloway of the "Green Team" in Amsterdam admires Skunk #1 in a greenhouse circa 1986.
1986 to 1992 Skunkman Sam continues to refine the variety through selective breeding for higher THC levels and overall plant quality, selecting the sweeter side over time.
1988 ~ Skunkman Sam gives Mel Frank some Skunk #1 seeds, Mel Frank would go on to store these seeds in his refrigerator until 1996 when he replicated them in his backyard in Los Angeles. (Those seeds went back into his refrigerator for 23 years until 2019 when he gave them to Todd McCormick who started growing them out and realized that they were still quite acrid and not so sweet. The most acrid plants were selected and crossed together to make the seeds available at this website.)
Photo: Successful Skunk #1 seedlings from seeds stored by Mel Frank for 23 years.
Photo: Skunk #1 at day 37 of flowering under LED.
1992 to 1997 ~ Robert C. Clarke joins Skunkman Sam in a scientifically rigorous, well-documented breeding program that would search among tens of thousands of plants for cultivars within the Skunk #1 line for specific characteristics that would serve as a foundation for the new field of Cannabis medicines.
1998 ~ The most exceptional plants discovered in the breeding regime would go on to become the foundation of GW Pharmaceuticals and later become the basis of Sativex, the first internationally-recognized cannabis pharmaceutical.
Skunk #1 photo © Robert C. Clarke
“Why Does Cannabis Smell Skunky? New Compounds Detected With 2D Gas Chromatography.”
“Inner Workings: Genomics blazes a trail to improved cannabis cultivation”