The History of Northern Lights

The History of Northern Lights

Northern Lights is easily one of the most popular cannabis varieties in the world. Initially bred in and around Seattle by a small group of growers in the 70’s, it quickly turned into an international phenomenon. Northern Lights acquired its iconic name after the legendary “Seattle Greg” sent seeds from his personal collection to a new Amsterdam seed company named “The Seed Bank of Holland.” founded by Nevil Schoenmakers.

For a long time the true story about the origin of Northern Lights was never discussed within the growing community because we all knew that we were being hunted down mercilessly in the expanding "war on drugs". When I first got to Amsterdam and began asking around about NL, I could only find out that the guy who sent the seeds to Nevil was named Seattle Greg, but not much else.

Shortly after Nevil passed away I wrote the article; "Legacy of a Legend" for GROW magazine remembering Nevil's life and his revolutionary seed bank. Shortly afterwards I noticed a comment under that article from a guy named "Greg" who was giving personal credit to Nevil for spreading the Northern Lights genetics. I immediately messaged Greg and asked if this was the same Greg who first sent the Northern Lights seeds to Nevil in 1984 - and it was!

Grow Magazine Nevil

Greg and I became friends after talking on the phone and coming together over our shared love of cannabis cultivation. “Seattle Greg” as he is often called, is a retired Marine who had volunteered to join the military at 17, served from 1965 to 1969 then returned home to Seattle and began cultivating the cannabis he had started smoking during multiple tours in Vietnam from 1966-67. Upon returning home, Greg studied botany and natural sciences at the University of Washington and today in his 70s, Greg is still actively applying new science and technology to growing cannabis and sharing what he discovers with others. 

In a recent (2021) 2+ hour conversation I got to ask Greg for more detail about the history and genetics of this legendary variety.

After returning from Vietnam and starting to grow, Greg discovered a book titled: How To Grow Marijuana Indoors Under Lights by Murphy Stevens (1975). 

Murphy Stevens

That book is absolutely one of the most advanced cultivation books to come out of the 1970s and includes information about enhancing growth using CO2, dehumidification, proper ventilation, carefully monitoring the resin production before harvest and also the technique of making cuttings and keeping mother plants. The book even included a catalog in the back of the book that sold hydroponic cultivation equipment from a Seattle shop called “Indoor Sun Sales”. 

A passionate student of cannabis, Greg immediately made his way to the local hydroponic shop and befriended the owner and author Steve Murphy. As the years passed and their trust of one another grew, sometime around 1979, Steve gave Greg four seeds of an Afghan variety that he referred to as “Purest Indica” and that became the initial seeds that would go on to become the parents of the Northern Lights variety. Greg said those “Purest Indica/Afghan” seeds were the beginning of Northern Lights.

Northern Lights #2 was created by combining the Purest Indica with other Afghan genetics that Greg had collected from Oregon and California. Greg mentioned that it was his first attempt at making another variety using the Purest Indica and was always one of his favorites. He said that they would smoke the NL#2 and sell the NL#5 because he liked the sedative effects of the pure Afghan.

NL#2

Photo: NL#2

You can buy Northern Lights #2 seeds here

One of the most refreshing elements of my conversation with Greg was the overall feeling of honesty and sincerity when I spoke to him and how he was not certain about certain genetics because they had no way of knowing the true origin, only what they were told and that he was never really sure the accuracy of what he was told.

Which brings me to Northern Lights #5. Greg told me that a person named Herbie who worked at Steve’s hydroponic shop bred the Purest Indica with a supposedly Hawaiian variety that Greg thinks was really from Northern Mexico, but he reminded me that we can never be too sure about where it really came from. 

NL#5

Photo: NL#5

When I asked him about the numbering system of Northern Lights #1 through #11, he told me that he made that up just before he sent the seeds to Nevil, along with the name “Northern Lites”, telling me that to him it meant that the plants were grown and bred up North under "lites" and that the spelling got changed by Nevil to the "lights" version after it arrived in the Netherlands.

The numbering system was #1 through #11, with #1 being the most Afghan and “Indica” as they called it back then, and as the varieties became more tropical/equatorial, or “sativa” as the numbers went up. Always honest, Greg said he does not remember all of the particular crosses because he did not make all of them. The Northern Lights seeds that Greg sent to Nevil and became famous was a collection of various crosses that Greg collected from his group of friends on the West Coast over the years that they had been breeding and sharing with one another.

Initially the relationship between Greg and Nevil started off smoothly with Greg gifting the first set of NL seeds to Nevil and then selling him the second set of seeds.  Unfortunately, some time in 1986, Greg found out that Nevil had gone behind his back to buy so-called NL seeds from a different guy. That action got Nevil cut off from the true source of Northern Lights seeds, but Nevil just started to knock off the varieties he had and breed them with various other plants.

Greg also reported to me that he had not ever sent Northern Lights #1, the “Purest Indica” that he originally got from Steve Murphy to Nevil, and that instead Nevil “did what he wanted to” with the numbers and changed the history to suit his own narrative. Greg told me at some point he did send a NL#5 cutting to Nevil, but the #2 through #11 initially went to Nevil as seed varieties. 

Unfortunately through various busts and “Operation Green Merchant” the original varieties of Northern lights seeds were all but lost, but as fate would have it, one of Greg’s relatives passed away and in an old freezer, his family found a collection of some of his old seeds from the early 80s including; Purest Indica, Northern Lights #2 and #5. 

Greg sent me some of those old seeds so that I could do some germination testing and give him feedback on the viability of the genetics after all those years in storage and I was extremely surprised to get decent germination rates and some very vigorous plants. As a collector of old books about cannabis cultivation, I have copies of the Murphy Stevens grow books and I was astounded at the similarity of his photographs of “Purest Indica” to the plants I grew from the “Purest Indica” seed from his relative’s freezer given to me by Greg - they look practically identical. 

Stevens Indica

Purest indica

Photo: "Purest Indica"

NL#2 w/seeds

Photo: Northern Lights #2

The Northern Lights #2 has an extremely earthy and gassy aroma that reminds me of Chem Dog and Og Kush but a bit more musky, I have no doubt that it is part of the parental genetics of those classic clone-only cultivars.

NL#5 Leaf

Photo: NL#5 Leaf

Northern Lights #5 is an amazing combination of genetics that is extremely pleasurable to smoke, with a high that is not as heavy as the #2 and a more tropical scent. As a collector of old genetics it feels like a dream come true to have not only met one of my heroes in the folklore of cannabis cultivation, but to also be able to grow and experience these genetics myself directly from the man who gave them to the world through Nevil.

Greg is now in his 70s and has long ago retired to an island paradise to live out his golden years. If you get the chance to grow some of these authentic Northern Lights genetics, I highly recommend that you do, they are literally what legends are made of. 

We’re proud to carry on this line of true Northern Lights varieties, and I hope you’ll join with others who appreciate the opportunity to grow this legendary Cannabis from Authentic Genetics, where we are dedicated to conserving the work of those who helped build our culture. 

Originally published in Grow Magazine 2021