In the so-called “NorCal of Europe,” experienced seed breeders are developing and growing out autoflowering feminized cannabis genetics that have changed the cultivation landscape for pot farmers around the world.

Strains of Spain
Along the north coast of Spain sits a restive yet beautiful region known as the Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco (the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country), a place with a language and culture older than—and quite separate from—its neighbors in Spain and France.

With a rich history of resistance to authority from outside the region, the Basque people celebrate their uniqueness by continuing the traditions of their fiercely independent ancestors. Delicious food, fine wines and the tangy cider made from local apples are all celebrated lustily by the locals, who (I soon learned) also know a thing or two about cannabis cultivation and seed breeding.

Here in this rugged mountain terrain, my guide introduces me to the head breeder of Dinafem Seeds, a 2011 inductee into our HIGH TIMES Seed Bank Hall of Fame and a perennial Top 10 Strain of the Year winner in the pages of the magazine. After years at the forefront of seed production, Dinafem has developed into a veritable bud-breeding dynasty: Strains such as Critical +, Moby Dick and Haze Automatic are legendary among growers far and wide, and Dinafem’s innovative breeding practices use sound science to create the buds of the future. The company’s work now focuses on the production of stable feminized and autoflowering strains from seed for cultivators looking for easy-to-grow varieties.

Feminized and Autoflowering Seeds
Regular cannabis seeds will produce about 50/50 ratio of male to female plants. The males are useless except for breeding, and growing one out accidentally in a garden full of females will result in a seeded crop; the female plants put all their energy into forming seeds instead of swelling their buds. These undesirable results can be avoided either by culling the garden of males before they’re able to release their pollen, or by growing out feminized seeds.

“Feminized” refers to seeds that are selectively bred to guarantee growing out 100% female plants, and “autoflowering” means that the plants will begin to flower at a certain age regardless of the photo- period. Pot breeders can now manipulate their plants to produce these kind of seeds for the marketplace. The benefits and drawbacks of this type of genetic engineering will be debated forever, but the fact remains that regardless of how cannabis purists may feel about feminized and/or autoflowering strains, they’re here to stay -- in fact, get used to a future where they’re the norm. And for obvious reasons: Growers using these genes simply plant their seeds, walk away and then return in 80 days to harvest. No muss, no fuss, no molds, no busts -- harvest early using these seeds and you defeat thieves, pests, police and botrytis all at once.

It’s true that the cannabis gene pool needs diversity, and growing from real male and female seeds is the best way to discover new and interesting marijuana varieties. But these seeds are best for breeding purposes and for raising mother plants -- not for growers who want to plant beans that they know will grow into female plants and finish quickly. Growers in high altitudes or northern latitudes need strains that can handle the rugged weather and short growing season, and feminized autoflowering plants surely fill that bill.

The effect of autoflowerings is more mellow, sedative and appropiate for relaxation, because they have a higher CBD and lower THC level than normal strains. Therefore, the autos are very well suited for consumers with very low tolerance levels, for people who are going to use the medicine for the first time or your grandma because she’s scared of cannabis -- and this one is going to make her feel mellow, but not superhigh -- and are good for conditions related to the nervous system, like seizures.

Indeed, the new autos are becoming increasingly potent, tasty and productive, so they are more and more a good choice also for commercial growers. In places like Spain, Russia, Italy and Ukraine, there are fields of 60,000 autoflowering plants for commercial purposes.

Cannabis Ruderalis
In addition to the well-known strain types Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, there is also Cannabis ruderalis, a lesser-known species found in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. These low-THC strains are acclimated to harsh conditions and managed to develop, over time, the ability to begin their flowering cycle even under almost 24 hours of full sun per day. It’s believed these ruderalis plants are the result of domestic hemp crops that scattered their seeds in the wild and spread throughout the tundra.

Early experiments with breeding ruderalis resulted n less potent pot, but now, using sounder techniques and stronger parent stock, their THC levels have been enhanced, as have the all-essential flavors and aromas. This new generation of autoflowering seed stock has been a godsend to growers in northern latitudes and high altitudes, as well as a boon to lazy growers without much time or inclination to tend to their crops.

Ruderalis genes also provide the genetic benefit of greater resistance to pests and molds. Anyone who has fought through a spider mite infestation or an outbreak of powdery mildew can understand the significance and economic interest in these “watered-down” beans. Some are willing to sacrifice potency for guaranteed larger yields, while others simply don’t want to suffer through another disappointing year outdoors.

How It’s Done
When feminizing seeds, the “males” are actually genetic females treated with silver thiosulfate (STS) to stress them into inducing male flowers. Pollen extracted from these “males” will produce female seeds when sprinkled onto the right flowering female plant. At harvest time, the breeder shakes out and sifts the buds for these seeds and plants them in order to choose the best resulting plants for future breeding.

For autoflowering strains, the breed- ers of Dinafem prefer originals such as the Joint Doctor’s Lowryder 2 and Diesel Ryder. They make their selections of breeding material from large populations, planting three per pot (more than 650 for each seedling), then culling those down first to 150 and then to just the few strongest ones with the sought-after desirable traits. Autoflowering is a recessive trait, so it won’t be present in the first cross at all.

Here, Dinafem’s head breeder explains the process of crossing and selection involved in creating a stable autoflower- ing seed stock:

Example, Haze Auto x White Widow (regular) is an f0 x f0 (regular) resulting in an f1 generation of seeds that isn’t autoflowering. In the f2 generation, only 20 to 30% of the offspring will be autoflowering. With proper breeding practices, the f3 will be at about 60% auto and the f4 should be almost all that way. Then the f4 chosen champions must be feminized and backcrossed. It’s a pains- taking process, but only in this way can the quality of the final product be maintained.

Greenhouse Tour
As we tour the farms along the winding roads through this mountainous area, I can’t help but be reminded of the Emerald Triangle of Northern California. Just as in Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties, the cannabis cultivators here grow big plants, outdoors or in greenhouses, and almost exclusively organic.

Clones are virtually unheard of here, and almost all of the pot growers in Spain -- and, indeed, throughout Europe -- rely heavily on feminized and autoflowering seeds. But autoflowering plants are all very heavy feeders, so they have to give them plenty of nitrogen-dominant nutes early on and then switch to a phosphorous- and potassium-laden feeding regimen when they see the flowers beginning to form.

Fall in the Basque Country, as in NorCal, brings with it moisture that can wreak havoc on forming colas. Powdery mildew and molds such as pythium and botrytis attack buds quickly -- and once they do, it’s only a matter of time (and not much of it) before whole plants are rotting on the vine. One of the benefits of early-finishing plants like autoflowering strains is to avoid this perilous period altogether, but even they can be affected if care isn’t taken to protect them.

Any rain or morning dew must be shaken off to avoid pockets of moisture that encourage harmful bacterial growth. Keeping a heater in the greenhouse and opening vents at both ends will also drop humidity levels significantly during this important time.

Cannabis Social Clubs
I had the honor of meeting longtime marijuana activist Martin Barriuso, who formed the first “association” in the Basque Country. Some even refer to him as the “Mahatma Ganja” of the region: His mission is to spread the private-club model internationally using a non-profit opt-in scenario in which willing participants pool their resources and gardens to create a cannabis community free of questionable black-market influences.

As I toured his wonderful facility, Martin filled me in on the real situation for growers and smokers from Bilbao to San Sebastian: “Here, we are caught between police and thieves,” he said. “We’re somewhat tolerated, but not protected. The War on Drugs is very unpopular here. Everyone knows it’s a failure. We believe in self-production for quality control. We even invited the police and press to visit our garden and our club!”

Martin inspired me to help spread the message of these wonderful clubs. I met several patrons who told me that the clubs changed their lives for the better and provided a safe place for them to indulge in cannabis with like-minded individuals. They get together to share their bounty of buds, along with homegrown fruits and vegetables and plenty of jamon Serrano or Iberico (cured ham legs), as well as fresh-baked bread. The associations also help keep mari- juana out of the hands of minors using a members-only model.

Tissue Culture
Dinafem Seeds are also at the forefront of developing tissue-culture techniques to preserve and improve overall cannabis genetics. This “in vitro” form of asexual, meristematic cloning using agar as a medium for somatic embryogenesis will allow for the mass production of one phenotype with less than one percent variation. Or, in simpler terms, if they find a particular marijuana variety that’s resistant to the local fungi (in this case, fusarium), a tiny leaf sample can eventually produce large quantities of specimens with those desirable traits. By using a starting material that’s free of pathogens, the resulting “offspring” will show molecular markers for that same resistance to damaging fungi.

Another benefit of tissue culture is that it allows strains to be kept indefinitely, thus ensuring that no particular cannabis variety will ever become lost to us. Sadly, this has happened with more than one precious genetic treasure that we’ll never have the pleasure of smoking again. Cataloging and stockpiling this valuable material is vital to the preservation of pot strains and the diversity of the plant for the future.