A woman walks toward me on Seabright Avenue in Santa Cruz. She is fastidiously buttoned up and well-heeled. She carries a tiny dog, clearly from out of town. She stops me, “Do you live here?”
I say, “Yes, I do, ma’am. How may I help you?”
“Well, I love Santa Cruz. But I do not understand why I smell skunks everywhere I go in this town. I do not see them, but I smell skunks everywhere here.”
I nod, “They’re shy; they like to stay in the backyard.”
The pungent Skunk strain of cannabis is the legendary genetic building block of thousands of strains produced today. Most folks – even locals – don’t know that Skunk cannabis was first developed and grown in Santa Cruz County 50 years ago.
I tend to miss the most obvious connections. In the late 70s, long before I heard of Santa Cruz being the epicenter of the Skunk cannabis growing world, I briefly served as a singer and guitar player for a country rock band called The Skunk Band. We opened for Larry Hosford.
When I asked the Skunk Band’s leader where they got the band name, he handed me a joint. I still didn’t get it. I was all in on being a hippie but was stupidly naïve. While I was too innocent and dense to appreciate the name of the band, I did appreciate how I played my guitar on their pungent weed – it gave me an uncanny ability to focus on detail. I could look at the fretboard of my guitar and see all the notes like they were laid out on the keyboard of a piano. Transposing a complex guitar part to a different key was effortless. Man, did their weed smell. My stint with The Skunk Band faded from memory, and I forgot about them and their weed for forty years. Then I met Wayne.
In 2018 I moved to the south Santa Cruz County town of Watsonville when I found a farm out in the vineyards that let me set my Airstream trailer up for a Santa Cruz County crash pad. I became friends with Wayne. Wayne would not stop rattling on about his frozen weed seeds. At first, it sounded like stoner-babble, but little by little, his ramblings about his seeds and some character he called Sam the Skunkman began to form a larger tale. I started researching the story of the legendary Sam the Skunkman. Wayne’s story turned out to be true.
It went like this: In 1978, Wayne bought 100 seeds of Flying Skunk from Sacred Seeds. He paid $1 a seed to a guy named David Watson, who developed the cannabis seed strain in Watsonville, California, and later started calling himself Sam the Skunkman.
But life happened, and Wayne could not grow the seeds. He read on the back of the seed package that they would keep much longer if they were frozen, and that’s what Wayne did. He froze all one hundred seeds. Like Bilbo Baggins’ obsession with The Ring, Wayne never could stop talking about his frozen seeds.
My All-Encompassing Disclaimer
In researching this story of the first Skunk strain and Sacred Seeds, I spoke with three Santa Cruz seed producers from the seventies about Skunk – and I got three different stories. All I know for certain is that these guys can smoke me under the table.
I have no idea if the controversial Sam the Skunkman is a genetics genius, a marketing genius, a benevolent scientist, or a fast-talking opportunist. Maybe he is all of those. His story has become a legend, and while we may each believe different portions of it, I take the legend itself as a tale of folklore for our times. Whether you accept Sam the Skunkman’s story as Johnny Appleweed or not, he did create the first cannabis seed company in the country, called Sacred Seeds. The seeds he sold in 1978 were called Flying Skunk, a strain that became the building block for thousands of strains we grow today. He did evade the clutches of the law to recover his hidden seeds. And we know that the first F1 hybrid strain that preceded Skunk No. 1 was lost.
Roots of Skunk
The legend goes that before he took his seeds to Amsterdam in 1982 and became Sam the Skunkman, our hero called himself David Watson. Hmm, a pothead dodging the law to grow a plant that is a felony moves to Watsonville and calls himself Watson. (Why not? It’s elementary, my dear Watson.) His former associate Phil Noland tells me Watson used a tiny greenhouse, 10 feet by 20 feet, near Mt. Madonna, in the 70s. He combined Columbian seeds (sativa) with Acapulco Gold and Afghan (indica) seeds to bring down the enormous height of his pure sativa plant and mitigate the odor to make it more grower friendly. He also wanted to reduce the long maturation period of the pure Colombian strain. Look at the front of the Flying Skunk seed package from 1978 and notice the thin blue font that says, “Extra Early.”
After the police busted his Watsonville seed operation in 1982, Watson sneaked back onto the crime scene and recovered his safely hidden 250,000 seeds. They changed cannabis history. He took his seeds to Amsterdam to share with Nevil Schoenmakers of The Seed Bank of Holland, who used Watson’s Skunk No. 1 to make Skunk-based sativa brands that proliferate worldwide today. David’s Skunk No. 1 strain became wildly popular in Holland, and David Watson became Sam the Skunkman.
The Lost Strain
The first F1 strain that preceded Sam’s Skunk No. 1 is lost. The ancient landrace genetics are gone. Extinct. Unless some crazy hippie had a stroke of cryogenic genius, the first strain is no more, gone like smoke in the wind. It would be preposterous to think that some nutso stoner froze the original hybrid cross. But Santa Cruz is where preposterous happens. Wayne is our nutso.
Wayne knows a lot about his seeds, “The intense odor of this first strain made us call it Skunk. The difference between these seeds and the ones that grow Skunk No. 1 is these are the F1 strain, the first crossing of Columbian, Afghan, and Acapulco Gold strains. They are not true breeding; these seeds will give you an array of phenotypes.”
Why Skunk Matters
What is this strain called Skunk? It is very high in Sativa, which makes you creative, focused, inspired, and happy. Skunk is not like the heavy indica-based dispensary herb that is so popular with young folks. A twenty-something turned me on to cannabis that looked like brown glass, a dab of concentrate. We used a blowtorch to smoke it out of a quartz bowl, and I renamed it Flat On My Back On The Floor Weed because it laid me out on the floor. I listened to ocean waves, and we were in Sacramento.
Sativa will not make you pass out on the floor. Sativa may make you dance on the floor. It may make you paint the floor. It may make you think you are the floor, but it will not knock you out. I’ve got nothing against the idea of passing out and if you want to do that, delve deep into indica. It’ll make your body feel good. But if you are trying to brainstorm what you could say to your wife about last weekend, Skunk is your junk.
Time Capsule Seed
In February of 2020, Wayne gave me forty of his seeds. We didn’t know if they would sprout. I felt like Frodo putting on The Ring for the first time as I laid the seeds between damp paper towels on a plate. Are these seeds too old to germinate? I found myself looking at them throughout the day, keeping the towels damp. On the third day, one cracked open, and a tiny white sprout appeared. Over the next two weeks, thirty-eight of the forty seeds sprouted at an incredible germination rate. I put the sprouts in potting soil, and in May, I re-planted them into a hoop house.
One would expect that the Sacred Seeds that Wayne bought in 1978 would have an array of phenotypes that express its Afghani or Columbian/Mexican origins, and that is what happened. In Wayne’s hoop house, one plant might be squat, with five wide leaves per stem that look Afghani (indica), and the next plant might be incredibly tall (I had to cut their tops off four times) with seven narrow leaves of a Columbian (sativa.) But the thing is the smell. My Airstream is one hundred feet from the hoop house, and inside my trailer, it smelled like I live with a skunk. If anyone in the neighborhood wondered if I grow pot, they know now.
We were going for seed production, so Wayne shook the male flowers all over the female flowers (and this at the height of the #metoo movement!) I kept trimming the tops. In mid-November, we hung the plants upside down in a shed. And finally, it was time.
A Long, Slow Toke
My first inhale did not do all that much. I inhaled again. I felt pleasant enough, but I wondered if this weed works. Was the legend of the first Skunk strain bullshit? I hit it a third time, deep. Then I looked at my guitar fretboard and could see all the notes like I was looking at a piano keyboard. I thought of the Jimi Hendrix Chord (E7 #9), and a way to play it above the 12th fret appeared in relief on the fretboard. I played with effortless focus. Would Aldous Huxley say that I had opened the “doors of perception?”
After I started writing about Wayne’s seeds, Sam the Skunkman emailed me from the Netherlands and said that the famous Skunk No. 1 he made in the 80s “was a 3-way hybrid of Afghan X Columbian X Acapulco Gold. These were true breeding (meaning the phenotypes grow out to have the same physical characteristics.) The F1 strain that I made before that was not true breeding.”
So, one would expect the Sacred Seeds that Sam sold Wayne in 1978 would have an array of phenotypes that express their Afghani or Columbian/Mexican origins. And that is what we see; out in Wayne’s hoop house, one plant might be squat, with five wide leaves per stem that look Afghani (indica), and the next plant might be incredibly tall, with seven narrow leaves of a Columbian (sativa.)
Wayne loves his seeds so much he has a vision for them, “I found something heritage that people love. So how do I share it?” Wayne’s vision is that everyone who wants to feel great could start by germinating twelve seeds, discard the males and grow their six plants that the state of California allows. Nice vision. He thinks of himself as a holy man. He is a holy man; he had a colostomy. When he came home from the hospital, I screamed like James Brown, “Whaaaow! Poppa’s got a brand new bag!”
Wayne and I sat on his porch smoking the flowers grown from his time capsule Skunk seeds, and I asked him how it made him feel.
“It’s the most creative weed I’ve ever used. You start laughing and talking; it puts you in a good mood. It’s more fun. It’s happy weed. In high doses, it gets psychedelic.”
It was Jeff Nordahl of Jade Nectar who named Wayne’s seeds Grandpappy Skunk. Jeff presented the first public offering. I stood with Jeff in the noon sun on his mountain top in Boulder Creek, California. He turned to me, squinted, and said, “Those seeds you gave me that Wayne froze in 1978 are the grandfathers and grandmothers of the first Skunk.”
As I started telling the story of Wayne’s seeds, I began getting emails from people who wanted to grow them – from geneticists, backyard farmers, from women with names like Señorita Groovy and Mary Jane. I met fifty of them at the Corralitos Farmer’s Market to give each a packet of Grandpappy Skunk seeds.
To their credit, these backyard farmers were so adamant about getting these seeds that they walked up to me while I was playing the banjo. That is dedication. We talked for hours, everyone vowed to share their growing experience, and our Grandpappy Skunk community was born. Within a week, Señorita Groovy and Mary Jane reported a 100% germination rate. I like to smoke it as is, but some growers are selecting phenotypes they prefer to access landrace strains that are centuries old or, more likely, thousands of years old.
This inspired my new Grandpappy Skunk Song, to the tune of Railroad Bill.
I smell Grandpappy Skunk everywhere I turn
Grandpappy Skunk is a growing concern
Grow, grow, grow, grow
The way I encountered this psychoactive strain, again and again, makes me think that there is something beyond coincidence here. In the end, the story of the Skunk strain is a circle that coheres – a circle of legend, genetics, a place that believes in its own magic, and our desire to open Huxley’s “doors of perception.”