High Mike, since we are standing in this rather impressive greenhouse, surrounded by one thousand selected and seeded mother plants, would you like to tell us how everything began and developed up to this point?
As you know, I have been involved in cannabis breeding, in one way or the other, since more than two decades. Like most other people, I started small, and grew for my own private needs. After a while it developed to a small business, so that I did not have to work elsewhere. This was a completely new experience for me that also brought up new ideas. All of these ideas circled around travel. Of course, I wanted my travels to bring me to places that where connected to marijuana. So the first place I visited was San Francisco. However, I was pretty disappointed by the paranoia concerning drugs – this was during the early eighties. From there I went to Mexico and Jamaica. From all these places I collected cannabis seeds which I then planted in my garden and used for breeding. This was more out of fun and without real planning. One day I had my first successful hybrid, manifested in one huge plant, that produced one kilo of the finest grass you could dream of. At that point, it occurred to me, that certain cannabis crosses can lead to astonishing results. So I began with controlled breeding techniques.
Was this the big breakthrough for you? Did it lead to the founding of professional cannabis breeding, or did you continue it as a hobby?
Well, I did not have the success that I expected with the controlled breeding. This one super plant was a lucky strike that wasn’t going to repeat itself so quickly. End of the eighties I then met a girlfriend from my youth. She had been staying in India for a couple of years. From what she told me India seemed like a paradise for everything having to do with marijuana and hashish. She lived somewhere in the Kullu Valley - quite close to the places famous for it's charas (hand rubbed cannabis resin). Luckily, she had some of this potent stuff on her. We smoked it in my Turkish water pipe and it hit me out of my boots. I just lied there and couldn’t move, didn’t know where I was, and had these visions of light. We listened to Indian music and drank some tee. Before leaving later that evening, she promised to send me some seeds once she got back to India from the grass that produced this charas. She kept her promise and about 10 weeks later there was a package from India. In a nice woolen shawl I found two matchboxes full of seeds.
What is it like to grow cannabis from a foreign land?
The first thing that struck me was the high germination rate because nearly every seed grew. Next, I was surprised at how strong and fast the plants grew. After about a month they had reached a height of one meter and grew daily another five centimeters. Once I removed the males about eighty females were left. The summer was really good and the plants grew tremendously. They reached a height of 2,5 meters and had a huge main bud that radiated in the sun from the resin. Just fantastic! But one morning, shortly before harvest time, my joy turned into despair, because during the night someone had climbed over the wall and stolen all of my plants. I actually had my plantation in a part of the garden that was surrounded by walls, hedges, and trees, so that you could not see it from the outside. Up to that day everything had been going fine, since I was already into the fifth year growing cannabis on the property. After the theft I had reached a dead end - not only were all my plants gone, but I also couldn’t remain at this wonderful place. That hurt me even more than the loss of my grass garden. Back then I didn’t want to continue with cannabis cultivation.
That is really a sad story. After things had gone so well it must have been very disappointing! What made you eventually continue with cannabis cultivation?
To get back on a positive level I decided to travel again. Naturally, the goal this time was India or, precisely, Kullu-Manali. If I could not enjoy harvesting my own plants, then at least I could compensate my loss by traveling to the ganja fields of North India. One week later I was siting in a plane destined for New Delhi. From there it was a tiring bus ride until I reached the most spectacular area that I had ever seen. My first objective was to find out where my girlfriend lived. That was not so easy, because she lived a foot march of two days further away, in a secret hideaway in the mountains. Eventually a shepherd brought me to her. In the early evening, on the second day, we reached the place. Below us terraced fields full of marijuana appeared. These were exactly the plants from which Jasmin had sent me seeds. I was overwhelmed by the sight of so many big, healthy cannabis plants in full flowering. In the orange light of the sunset they exuded a wonderful spicy, hashy aroma. The whole scene could have been from some kind of hempy fairy tale. The shepherd pointed to an old stone house, lying about a hundred meters further down, near a small stream. We said our goodbyes, and while he went off with his sheep to set up his night camp, I climbed down narrow paths along the terraces to reach the house. The door creaked open and there stood Jasmin. We were both very happy at seeing each other again. I knew that now I could start to relax and think about what the future might hold.
Far out. That really sounds very adventurous and exciting. Does the grass grow wild in the mountains or do the locals cultivate it?
Both. But for the charas production, the locals really put in a lot of effort, and cultivate marijuana in secret locations. I was able to get an impression of this because Jasmin led me through her own marijuana plantation. She showed me the sophisticated watering system, and disclosed the secret behind why the plants looked so healthy shortly before harvest. She used predators against the pests. As botanist and biologist she had specialized in this field, and it was also the reason why she had gone to India. After her studies had been completed, she applied for a job in the agricultural development sector abroad. In Himachal Pradesh the apple harvest was being decimated by 80% from an insect attack on the trees. Jasmin was invited to set up a program to find a suitable predator and instruct or train the farmers how to use it. She was very successful in this project and the pest attack was almost completely under control. In the meantime she had started planting marijuana on the terraces near her house.
And what happened with all that grass after harvest? It must have been mountains of weed...did she make charas out of it or "export"?
Yes, she did make charas. Each year she donated a donkey load of it, on Shivratri (Shiva's Birthday), to the Shiva Temple in a nearby valley, for distribution to the Sadhus (wandering ascetics) and pilgrims. With the other 40-50 Kilos she delivered bhang wallahs (vendors selling bhang lassi: a drink made from hash balls, spices, and milk products). From the proceeds she bought a house in Goa to spend the wintertime there. In the mountains she was respected and welcome. Nobody touched her plants, the shepherds and goat herders kept their animals away, and during harvest the village people got paid to rub the resin from the plants. I was very impressed. During the day we spent a lot of time in the plantation and, at night we roasted mushrooms and potatoes, smoked joints, and exchanged our experiences in cannabis cultivation. During one of those evenings the idea came up, to bundle our experience, and found a seed bank together. This was the birth of Mandala Seeds.
But that's 12 years ago. Why did you decide to come on the scene and introduce your products just now?
First of all, Jasmin was committed to her development project another three years. I could understand why she wanted to stay at such a lovely place longer and did not mind. On my part, I had decided make an extended trip to Australia. So the idea was finalized but it had to wait a couple of years before we could begin. 1994 we both returned to Europe. Jasmin had relatives who, having moved to Greece, left behind a big house with property that we were able to rent at a modest price. That's where we began our first joint cannabis cultivation.
Did you have a plan, and what was the the objective of this plan?
We wanted to select plants from the best cannabis varieties that were available in Europe at the time, breed them with Indian charas varieties, and with some South American types. That already took a coupe of years work. 1997 we achieved our first really impressive cross. She was from a "Big Mamma" female, and a "Parvati" male: of Indian-Mexican origin. The resulting cross was the birth of a very unusual plant, which we called "La Bomba", because she just blasted all our expectations and minds away! A single plant, indoor, could develop 125 gr. dry weight of buds in only 65 days. We didn’t know how to manage, cutting and drying all that grass, during harvest. Our friends thought that we had immersed the flowers into LSD, because they were so potent! That was, of course, ridiculous – but, still, a great compliment. Having had this success, we looked optimistically into the future, with regards to fulfilling our objectives as breeders. The following year, however, we had to face a bitter setback. All of our mother and father plants died from a mysterious fungus and, the year after that, again. Even Jasmin could not diagnose the type of fungus that ravaged our gardens. The plants decayed from within, before you could see the symptoms on the outside, it was too late. It did not help to take cuttings from infected plants – they did not root. Eventually, we thought it had to be a fungus that was concealed within the old walls of the house. All we could do was move somewhere else. Because the weather was pretty lousy as well, we decided to leave and start our breeding at a new location.
Breeding seems to be quite an roller coaster ride...but, I assume that you enjoyed moving somewhere new.
That things don't go according to plan is something you have to live with in cannabis breeding. With regards to the move, I have to say, that we like traveling to new places. Living at one place for too long bores us. At the new place we put up a greenhouse with 500 sq.m. so that, at any time, we could select 100-200 plants for pollination, out of a total of one thousand plants. Compared to what we had before, with space for only 200 plants to choose from, this was a huge improvement.
What is for you the most important trait in a cannabis plant?
We emphasize three vital characteristics in our breeding program – traits that everyone who buys good seeds desires in a plant. Firstly, potency and yield. Then the flowering time. If potency and yield are good, it is possible to be more lenient on the length of flowering. But it’s best when all three factors are in optimal relationship to each other. In all our cannabis creations we try to achieve a good balance between these traits. It isn’t easy to get the same yield, from a 75% Indica to a 75% Sativa, without making some compromises on the flowering time. But, I think that with the varieties that we are introducing at the moment we managed to achieve satisfactory results.
Can you tell us more about these varieties?
Of course, there are always some secrets that a breeder keeps to himself, but I can give you some general information. Like I already mentioned, it was our intention to refresh a selection of the best "westernized" strains with pure landraces. As everyone knows, a cannabis strain becomes very uniform, or "true breeding", through inbreeding. This has the benefit of preventing surprises during cultivation and you can be always more or less sure of the outcome. This kind of breeding however, also has a big drawback, because the intensive inbreeding causes abnormalities in growth and eventually weakens the immune system of the plants. If you take an inbred strain and cross it with a landrace, then you can not only reverse the negative impact but also create something known as "hybrid vigour". This is an interesting method because the yield of the new cross can double or even triple. But this isn’t the whole story – otherwise cannabis breeding would be the easiest thing in the world. The genetic combination achieved by this kind of cross is, apart from the hybrid vigour, quite unpredictable. For example, the psychoactive effect or the flowering time can be adversely affected – which in turn has to be changed by successive breeding.
Since we already had experience to build upon, it was not that difficult to continue with the breeding program. To achieve this we took a dozen very exotic strains from our seed stock and crossed them with each other. Out of a strict selection from this new gene pool eventually arose the separate parental lines with the distinctive traits that we favour. From these we produced our first F1 hybrids. All our strains should combine good to exceptional yield, an enjoyable potent high, pleasant aroma, vigour and hardiness.
What particular features do your cannabis strains have?
We make an effort to genetically improve or stabilize the resistance of our strains against diseases such as Botrytis (bud mold). With the sativa orientated strains "Satori" and "Kalichakra" the mold resistance is quite satisfactory, but these strains will also flower longer. "Sadhu" is a good-looking, stocky Indica that matures in 65 days and has a compact flowering pattern. "Sadhu" will reach a manageable or short height even if you let her grow naturally outdoors. This trait is better for incognito cultivation or for indoor gardens with low ceilings. Our "White Satin" has an impressive yield for her size and, due to her shorter flowering time in comparison to "Satori", is a good choice if you love a balanced up-high.
Do you have a favourite plant?
Jasmin and I are Sativa fans! We can also practice patience and wait for a beautiful Sativa to finish flowering, before she spreads out her magic carpet for us to fly away on. Sativas let you land softly. That`s why "Satori" is our personal choice.
Why did you decide on the name Mandala Seeds?
The name has it’s origins in an experience we made in India. Like I said, Jasmin donated charas to the local Shiva temple. In a ritual this donation was accepted and blessed. For this purpose, the temple priest made a mandala (a sacred circle used for meditation and ritual) out of cannabis seeds on the temple floor. At the end of the ritual and blessings, the seeds were collected, to be stored away in a special wooden box that rested on the altar until the sowing season in spring time. This wonderful ritual made us think of the name "Mandala Seeds".
Do you still travel in order to explore exotic landraces of cannabis?
Absolutely! Two years ago we went to Africa and next year we will visit South East Asia. With the African seeds we already started experiments and are very curious at the outcome.
Thanks for the interview, and I am already keen on following the continuing story of Mandala Seeds.
Thanks also. Jasmin an I wish all our customers many enriching hours with our cannabis varieties. Om Namah Shiva!