When the Stanley brothers set out to create a low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) cannabis formulation that later became the basis of Charlotte’s Web, they turned to nature to find genetics that would fit the bill. Several years and thousands of crosses later, the company has developed high-cannabidiol (CBD) varieties that it uses in its products, two of which are patented: CW2A, which has a plant patent, and CW1AS1, which holds a utility patent.
Here, Bear Reel, the company’s senior director of cultivation research and development, discusses how those patented varieties came to be, what she looks for in crosses and where the company tests its genetics to uncover the best of the best.
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Hemp Grower: Can you start off by telling me a little about how you developed those patented varieties?
Bear Reel: How we develop really any variety is first, we look at our starting material, and we characterize that by assessing it phenotypically—so what it looks like—as well as chemotypically. That’s the compounds that the plant makes. Then, we start making crosses and see what parents work really well. We’re able to look at the progeny—what seeds come out of that cross—and we’re able to elucidate a lot about the parents that way. We’re able to select the best of the best individuals of that population, pull them forward and really start progressing things. So, that’s kind of the basis of all of our varieties that we work with. It’s assessing what we have, seeing what works really well together as far as parents, and then growing out the progeny, selecting a progeny, and doing that in a cyclical way until we get something that we feel is going to be very strong, very vigorous, and very consistent and reliable for us.
HG: Are the feral hemp varieties that the Stanley brothers worked with early on the basis of the varieties that the company now has patents for?
BR: A lot of these are improvements on that original population that we worked with. We have acquired a unique germplasm across the years as we’ve gone forward, so other new varieties have come into our populations that we work with here at Charlotte’s Web, but all of that has to be characterized. It all has to be crossed. And most of it is unadapted. So, we’re really just looking to integrate traits into our already established pools and pull all of those forward as we create some new things or [improve on] the varieties we already have.
HG: And can you explain what you mean by ‘unadapted?’
BR: I think there are some different definitions to what exactly we’re talking about when we say ‘adapted material.’ An example I like to give is, let’s take some tomatoes that you would commonly grow in your home garden. We would just call that an ‘elite variety.’ If you were going to go [somewhere] like the hills of Peru, for example, and try to hunt down some solanaceous crops—some wild relatives of those tomatoes—you might find something that is very odd. It has small leaves, it’s a vine on the ground and has very tiny berries, but it’s actually a close relative of a tomato. So we as breeders would call that unadapted material, or feral material. Whenever we bring that into our populations, we have to cross that together so that it is able to adapt to our cultivation strategies and efforts that we use as well as the growing region that we have. So, there’s some breeding work that has to be done so that we can get it to be a really great variety that we have today, kind of similar to your kitchen tomato.
HG: How many varieties is Charlotte’s Web currently working with?
BR: Within our germplasm—so that basic collection of varieties that we work with—we have thousands of crossings. We have really high levels that we’re looking at as far as performance and consistency with our plants, including cannabinoid profiles. And so, you know, of all of the things that we work with and all of the things that we use, it’s really just the most elite, the best of the best, that ever make it to the finish line.
HG: And can you talk a little about what you’re looking for when you’re making these crosses?
BR: We are looking for a variety of things. So every plant breeding program has to have their own traits or targets that they’re focused on. A lot of what we look at, besides the phytochemical attributes of these plants for our final products, is agronomic characteristics. Things like vigor, disease resistance, pest resistance and those things become pretty critical for us, since we use organic practices and don’t use heavy synthetic chemicals and pesticides. The plants themselves are actually their first line of defense against any of those environmental effects that are going to be thrown their way. And so we really want to make sure that the plants we’re growing are as hardy and as vigorous as they possibly can be so that they can live in and grow in nature instead of fighting it all the time.
We also look at different things agronomically, like structure, yield components, phytochemical components, things of that nature that really help steer direction of where we want the plants to go. And then ultimately, we also work with the product development team to hear what they’re working on on their end, and we’re able to collaborate in that manner so that whatever new thing they’re working on, we can say, ‘Hey, we have an answer to that.’ We can come forward with the genetics that [are] going to fit that niche.
HG: Where do you conduct your trials, and do you experiment with varieties in regions outside of where you work with farmers?
BR: One of the great things about our program is that we have a lot of space and a lot of wonderful people that we work with. So, we do have greenhouses where we do research, and we also have an indoor growth chamber—indoor areas where we can control pollen very closely and very carefully with HEPA filters, etc. We also have outdoor field trials, and we’ve conducted field trials across North America in multiple growing regions in multiple years, so we have a lot of data that we collect. We have a lot of facilities [where] we can start doing various specific crosses if we need to, and everything in between. We’re really fortunate to have a lot of collaboration with on-farm partners. We can actually go plant materials or trials on a farmer’s field and talk to him about what he sees, and we can invite other people around and say, ‘Tell me what you’re seeing in this field. What characteristics are important to you? What things do you like?’ And so we have a really great relationship there, and we can actually collaborate a lot with the people who are growing our crops, and that’s something that I love to do.
We cultivate in Colorado, Kentucky and Oregon, and so that’s where we focus the majority of our research. But we’re always working with other research partners and collaborators in different states to see if we can get another data set. The more data we get, the more we’re able to reduce the amount of environmental variance or error rate that makes our data pretty messy, and we’re able to understand the underlying genetic mechanisms a lot better. Collaborating with new people is always really good, too. So, while we do focus in the big three regions that we grow in, we do research trials across North America to help supplement our data set.