Trichomes are some of the most important biological components found on cannabis plants. They serve numerous evolutionary functions in the protection of live plants and are also responsible for the effects we enjoy when using dry cannabis or cannabis extracts. What are trichomes, what do they do, and how do we make the most of them? Let’s take a closer look!
What are Trichomes?
In botanical terms, a trichome is a hair-like or scale-like outgrowth from the epidermal cell surface of certain microorganisms, algae, and plant cells. The word “trichome” comes from trikhōma, a Greek word that stems from trikhoun, which means “to cover with hair.” Many trichomes, including cannabis trichomes, are “glandular,” meaning they secrete oils and other natural substances.
When you look at cannabis buds with the naked eye, trichomes are the clear, white, or amber flecks on the outside of the flowers and sugar leaves that appear dusty or glittery. They are often referred to as “kief” and can be used in many different cannabis preparations. When handled, trichomes are sticky and resinous, and their residue tends to remain on skin and other surfaces for quite a while.
Most importantly, trichomes are the structures that produce and store the cannabinoids(such as THC, CBD, and CBN), terpenes, and flavonoids that lend their potency, aroma, and flavor to cannabis. Generally speaking, the more trichomes that are preserved on cannabis plants, the greater the effects when properly harvested, processed, and stored.
Types of Trichomes
When inspected under a microscope, jeweler’s loupe, or magnifying glass, we can see that cannabis trichomes come in three main varieties with diverse characteristics:
The largest and arguably the most important type of trichome, the capitate-stalked variety are typically the most bountiful trichomes found on cannabis plants. They can range between 50 and 100 micrometers in width and can be seen by the naked eye. This group of trichomes makes up most of the dusty “kief” we typically think of. These mushroom-shaped protrusions contain a stalk which attaches to the plant cell and a “gland head” which is responsible for cannabinoid and terpene production(or synthesis). Compared to female plants, male cannabis plants have smaller and fewer capitate-stalked trichomes.
Capitate Sessile Trichomes
This type of trichome is neither the largest nor the smallest type, but exists in the middle range in terms of size and abundance. Like the capitate-stalked trichomes, capitate sessile trichomes contain both a head and a stalk and produce cannabinoids. They are typically 25-100 micrometers in width, and their stalk consists of a single cell while each gland head consists of 8-16 cells.
These are the smallest trichomes. They can be found on the surface of the entire plant and are barely visible to the naked eye. Composed of only a few cells, bulbous trichomes are roughly 10-30 micrometers in size and contain only a secretory head.
What Do Trichomes Do?
You may be wondering why cannabis plants produce trichomes at all. Were they simply gifted by the gods for human enjoyment, as many sacred texts propose, or is there a deeper evolutionary benefit to the plant itself? As it turns out, trichomes benefit the cannabis plant in many ways.
Trichomes are the first line of defense against a number of external environmental threats to the cannabis plants. During the flowering stage, female cannabis plants become attractive to a variety of insects and animals. As mentioned, trichomes produce cannabinoids and terpenes whose bitter taste and pungent aroma serve as a deterrent for many would-be pests.
These tiny hair-like protrusions create a physical barrier to help protect the cannabis plants from high winds and even some kinds of fungi. They also offer a degree of protection against the sun by blocking or reflecting potentially damaging UV rays.
Cannabis is known as a particularly hardy flowering annual that can be grown outdoors in a variety of adverse conditions, and trichomes contribute a great deal to its success in the wild.
How Growers Increase Trichome Production
Trichomes are the major producers of cannabinoids, so it stands to reason that growers will do everything in their power to promote trichome production. Cannabinoid production begins when the plants move into their flowering phase of growth. The most important way to promote trichome production is to separate the male cannabis plants from the females in the pre-flowering phase, before they release their pollen. Once fertilized, female plants divert their energy from trichome production to seed production, which typically leads to a lower potency.
A strain’s cannabinoid concentration has to do with both its genetics and its environmental conditions. Broad spectrum UV light is said to help maximize trichome production compared to more limited lighting conditions.
Growers can also improve potency by limiting potential trichome degradation during harvest and storage by handling the plants carefully to prevent the delicate trichome stalks from breaking away, curing properly, and storing at optimal space, temperature, lighting, and humidity conditions.
Harvesting Cannabis Based On Trichomes
Trichomes are also important indicators of when it is time to harvest your cannabis plants, although there is some dispute on the exact time to harvest for peak potency. Similar to feeling a fruit’s texture to determine ripeness, carefully observing color changes in the trichomes can help growers determine when they should reap what they have sewn.
Immature trichomes appear clear or crystal-like and will turn cloudy or milky white over time. In some strains, trichomes will turn a deep amber or reddish brown as time goes on, but this is not the case for all. According to cannabis growing experts, the best time to harvest is when 50-70% of the trichomes have turned white. The longer you wait to harvest, the more THC may convert to CBN, which can contribute to the well-known “couchlock” effect of some strains. CBN has many of its own benefits, and if this is the desired cannabinoid, you may consider waiting until more of the trichomes darken to an amber color.
Trichomes are crucial for the health of the cannabis plant as well as the powerful effects we experience when we consume it. Whether you’re observing a freshly trimmed bud or the kief in the bottom of your grinder, we hope you now have a greater appreciation for how these tiny, glittery flecks pack such a powerful punch.