The Science Behind Kratom Strains (Pt. 2)

Introduction

Today we’re going to break down everything you need to know to choose the perfect kratom strain. If you haven’t read part 1, The Myth of the Kratom Strain, we recommend starting there.

For everyone else, here’s a quick recap of what we covered in the last post:

  • There’s only one species of the “kratom” tree, formally known as mitragyna speciosa. In short, all “strains” come from the same plant
  • Kratom leaves can have different vein colors when they’re on the tree, but the color associated with most kratom products is the result of different harvesting and curing processes
  • Kratom has over 40 alkaloids, but individual products will vary by alkaloids and quantity
  • There aren’t universal standards for classifying different kratom strains, so vendors have to develop their own system for separating strains

In short, a lot of what you’ve been told about strains is wrong. In this post, we’re going to start rebuilding our understanding of kratom strains by starting from square one.

What You’ll Learn Today

There’s an ongoing debate among botanists about the proper way to classify plants. The controversy is hundreds of years old and is centered around the naming of wild vs cultivated plants.

For us, the debate is a framework for thinking about kratom strains. To make the connection clear, we’ll start today with a brief overview of how kratom, or Mitragyna speciosa, is technically classified.

From there we’ll look at a few studies that establish the theoretical basis for classifying different kratom “strains.” And after breaking down the science, we’ll explain how kratom vendors are using their own classification systems to create and market specific strains.

We hope you have a fresh cup of kratom tea, we get a little in the trees in this one.

How Botanists Classify Plants

There are a number of different classification systems for plants. The most widely used system classifies wild plants based on their physical characteristics. You’ll recognize the terms in this system if you think back to your early years in school.

It proceeds through the following groupings: Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, variety, cultivar. To understand kratom strains today, we need to focus on the last few categories.

Starting with family, kratom is part of the Rubiaceous family, just like coffee. There are thousands of plants in this group though, so we need to go further if we want to unpack kratom strains.

Kratom is part of the Mitragyna genus, along with 7 other species of plant. Although a few of these species are used similarly to kratom, most experts agree they aren’t as effective.

When we get to the last three categories—species, variety, and cultivar—it starts getting interesting. As you’ll notice, “strains” isn’t on the list. To explain this we need to return to the debate between wild plants and cultivated plants.

Kratom Varieties vs Kratom Cultivars

In plant taxonomy, when there are observable differences between plants in the same species, botanists subdivide them into groups, called varieties.

When people begin cultivating a specific variety, a cultivar is created—indicating the plant is the result of selective breeding. Once you learn how this distinction works, the confusion about strain names starts to make a lot more sense.

Why this matters: in its natural setting, all kratom is the same species, Mitragyna speciosa. This means that all kratom trees have a similar genetic makeup and can produce similar alkaloids.

The real question is whether we can subdivide Mitragyna speciosa into different varieties based on specific characteristics.

Can we say, for example, that kratom trees from Thailand are fundamentally different than kratom trees in Borneo?

What Research Tells Us About Kratom Alkaloids

When researchers analyze kratom from different regions, as well as from different trees in the same region, they find huge variations in the number of active alkaloids in individual leaves.

In 2018, researchers analyzed the alkaloid profile from five different kratom varieties to see whether alkaloid profiles varied greatly from “strain” to “strain.”

They used the following kratom products: Red Thai, Red Malay, Red Bali, White Borneo, and Green Malay. And their findings paint a clear picture.

Not only did the quantity of alkaloids vary between strains, but some varieties had over twice as many unique alkaloids. The Red Bali, for example, had 24 alkaloids while the other four varieties had 11.

This is pretty good evidence that the different effects people report from different strains are legitimate, even if we don’t fully understand how it happens.

Point of order: contrary to what you might expect, the Red Bali didn’t turn out to be the most potent strain in the batch!

To connect this to kratom tea we need to break down the connection between alkaloid content and potency.

Kratom Potency: The Role of Alkaloids

In the same study from 2018, the researchers compared the distribution of specific alkaloids in each strain. Again, they found huge differences across the board.

The Green Malay, for example, had “the highest w/w percentages for mitragynine and total alkaloids in its extract (59.7 and 94.9% respectively)” (Boffa et al., 1111). This means that the Green Malay was more potent than the Red Bali, even though it had less alkaloids overall.

To put this all together, these findings show that kratom products will vary in effect and potency based on the active alkaloids present in that batch. To us, this is the most important finding for anyone interested in kratom strains!

Why does this study matter? It establishes a foundation of understanding that can be used to rebuild our conception of kratom strains! And even better, it’s all based on science!

The question, then, is how is this relevant for modern kratom consumers? Considering most vendors don’t test the specific alkaloid distribution in each product, it’s a great question.

In the rest of this post, we move from theory to the real world to answer the fundamental question: have kratom farmers have successfully developed kratom cultivars? 

Modern Kratom Cultivation

To frame the discussion, we’re going to draw a three-way connection between how kratom is grown today, how it could be grown in the future, and what consumers should do in the meantime.

In the past few hundred years, humans have domesticated a large variety of plants. If you saw any of these plants in their wild form, you’d be surprised at how different they are from what you find on grocery shelves:

  • Corn, Pineapples, Carrots, Peaches, Raspberries, Strawberries, Plums, Avocados, and Pumpkins

As you probably know, the modern versions of these plants have a much higher commercial value. The fruit is sweeter, the veggies are bigger, and everyone leaves happy.

Considering the number of kratom strains in the market today, it’s worth looking at the industry through this domestication lens.

Has kratom already proceeded down a similar domestication path? If not, is there a movement to start? How long will it take before consumers are able to access genetically identical raw kratom material?

How to Classify Kratom Strains

The short answer to the domestication question is no. In the regions where most of the kratom in the world is grown, most farmers are not breeding specific cultivar of kratom.

To account for the lack of technical definitions when it comes to kratom strains, most reputable vendors have in-house systems for classifying their kratom by effect, regardless of vein color or region.

They still pay attention to alkaloid content and where the kratom was grown, but they don’t privilege this information over the feedback from real consumers. As there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to kratom, we think a blended approach for classifying kratom strains is best.

If you’ve ever bought cannabis from a dispensary, you’ve seen this in action. You can see the THC or CBD quantity on the label, and then use the budtenders experience to guide the final purchasing decision.

If you’ve ever wondered why brands are so focused on consumer feedback, it’s so they can play the role of budtender – regardless of the industry or product!  

How Kratom Will Be Classified in the Future

To summarize, kratom strains today are not based on genetic identifiers that we know will produce X effect if you consume Y amount. You can test this by trying the same strain from multiple vendors. The effects will be similar, but not one and the same. 

As bleak as this seems, we already know the solution. Over the past decade, especially the last 5 years, we’ve seen a boom in kratom research. What have we learned? It’s going to be a long time before we have a universal system for classifying kratom. 

We believe it will follow a similar path as cannabis. There will be a commercial market where vendors make kratom strain names based on effect. At the same time, the medical community will develop a system for classifying strains based on their alkaloid content. 

As the US kratom farming community grows, we may even see the first legal cases related to kratom strains. In other agricultural commodity markets, like apples, plant breeders’ rights are used by farmers to protect a variety they’ve developed. As a consumer brand, we actually kind of like the idea—who wouldn’t want a Red Delicious Bali tea? 

Conclusion

We hope this post helps you clarify your thinking around kratom strains. It’s a complex, ever-evolving subject, so complete understanding is always going to be allusive. That said, we’re optimistic about where things are going. 

We also see a huge opportunity for kratom farmers. Whether in Indonesia or Florida, people want consistent products they can trust. As kratom vendors continue refining their in-house classification systems, cultivators should be doing the same in the fields. 

One day, we’ll have genetically identical kratom strains. Some consumers will want the consistency, others will prefer wild-grown. Until that day comes, just remember, if you keep an open mind and experiment often, you’ll have no problem finding a kratom strain you love.