What Makes Cannabis Trichomes So Special?

marijuana trichomes 101

Anyone interested in cannabis inevitably ends up understanding trichomes and how they can impact the flower harvested from the plant. This is because trichomes are such important actors in everything about how a cannabis bud looks, smells, tastes, and smokes.

Ultimately, trichomes (not “trichomes”, “tricombs”, or “tricomes”) play many roles, but they are commonly associated with the notorious aromas and sticky feeling of cannabis flowers.

magnified trichomes

What are Trichomes?

The word “trichome” is of Greek origin, long used in botany, which translates to “hair”. This is logical given how trichomes tend to look like hairs to the naked eye.

Trichomes actually exist on a plethora of plants outside the cannabis kingdom including on algae, lichens, protists, and other non-THC containing plants. Trichomes can include hairs, glandular hairs, scales, and papillae.

The carnivorous plant Drosera Capensis actually uses it’s long trichomes to ensnare and trap insects which it then slowly digests. Luckily for us, cannabis plants are not carnivorous!

In terms of biological function trichomes are very specialized structures that play vital roles in multiple plant processes, from catching insects to reproduction, the various roles trichomes play in our natural world are dizzying (literally and figuratively depending on the plant!).

What do they look like?

In regards to cannabis plants (remember, trichomes are common on a wide variety of plants) these little bulbous wands start out as tiny little clear hairs which during maturation develop the hallmark bulbous point.

Trichomes overall are barrel-shaped, meaning that they are longer than they are wide, and often look hair-like, particularly in early development stages.

growth stages of trichomes

At the end of these hairs, you’ll often find what appears to be a droplet, which is also part of the trichome, but the overall shape can vary widely based on the type of plant and whether the trichome is glandular or non-glandular. 

The color of the structure will vary based on several factors, and trichomes can secrete various substances such as:

  • Water
  • Resins
  • Nectar
  • Mucilage
  • Terpenes (our favorite!)

While trichomes are often associated with cannabis, you can also find them on tomatoes and other plants that supply common essential oils and resins widely used for medicinal, cosmetic, and agricultural applications.

Cotton fibers are an excellent example of trichomes that work to help plant reproduction and improve resistance to drought-stress.

Seeing Trichomes Up Close

When you look at trichomes with the naked eye, you may see them as tiny sparkly hairs often referred to as “kief” when present on the cannabis plant.

amber colored trichomes

To really get a good look at your tri’s you’ll need some magnification as these little fellas are quite small.

You can use non-adjustable magnification, like a lens that is built into an examination jar of some type, which include products like Smokus Fokus and MasonBrite.

smokus focus magnification jar

Conversely, if you’re a DIYer or home grower and want to get your harvest timing dialed in perfect investing in a more extreme microscope to analyze individual ‘chomes may be advisable.

What is Kief?

So yes, the dusty looking snow in the bottom of your grinder or stash jar is actually little trichome pieces that fell off of a cannabis flower due to the friction associated with being moved around and/or ground.

You can see these hairs far more efficiently with a handheld microscope, which will also allow you to appreciate better their other characteristics, such as their unique shape, color, and how sticky or wet they appear.

If you don’t have a microscope we recommend checking out these stash jars with built in magnification as there is nothing more exciting than inspecting flower up close before consuming it!

These crystalline structures reside on the flowers of more mature cannabis plants, and their characteristic mushroom-like shape combined with the sheer number of them present makes them easy to spot.

The trichomes won’t be identical to one another, but they’ll have a similar shape, and their color can indicate how close a plant is to harvest.

How Trichomes Influence Cannabis Harvest Times

The trichome development timeline goes like this:

  1. Clear: small transparent trichomes develop, low potency
  2. Cloudy: cannabinoid levels reach peak/climax, still fresh, more desirable in sativa strain harvests
  3. Amber: trichomes slightly paste peak, golden time, more desired in indica strains
  4. Mixed: Well hybridized strains often have trichomes maturing at different rates resulting in a mix of clear to cloudy to amber trichomes.

Fully developed yet clear trichomes indicate that cannabis flowers are nearing their THC peak, but not all growers will choose this time to harvest. 

CBD levels at this particular stage are still somewhat low in most strains and at a stable point in development. Terpenes will be higher at this stage, which is what gives the plants their characteristic smell.

What Makes Cannabis Trichomes So Special?

Harvesting the flower at this stage ensures a less sedative effect thanks to the lower levels of CBD and CBN present, and often presents a clearer and more psychoactive effect in the user.

Keeping a close eye on the trichomes helps them fine-tune their product’s impact on potential users and allows for maximum potency for growers and maximum flavor for consumers.

vaporizer flavor

Trichomes can also present themselves as milky or amber in color. Depending on the type of cannabis you’re growing, you can choose to harvest before the trichomes fully ripen for a more sedated high, or allow the plant to mature further until the trichomes turn milky white, which produces an energetic high. 

However, allowing the plant to flower for too long can allow the trichomes to over-ripen, negatively impacting the taste, potency, and aroma of the flower. It’s a good idea to understand the strain and phenotype of the cannabis you’re growing to ensure you harvest it at the correct time, but most likely, a few extra days doesn’t make much difference.

Why are Trichomes So Important?

When you’re growing cannabis, Indica and Sativa strains will produce better quality flowers when you harvest at the correct time.

For example, the most common recommendation for Sativa strains is to harvest when approximately 30% of the trichomes have turned amber. 

For this reason, growers have to keep careful watch over maturing plants and often harvest their crops in multiple batches to ensure they capture the best quality flower. Trichomes also give cannabis its distinctive smell, and if you harvest too early, you’ll miss out on this aromatic feature that many buyers find captivating.

Some strains produce terpenes that add a very different smell to the flower, and the strength of this aroma depends mainly on how well developed the trichomes were before harvest. Some cannabis enthusiasts also want their flower to have a more sticky feeling in their hands, which is also directly related to trichome development.

Basic Trichome Guidelines for Harvesting

It’s best if you know about the strain type and phenotype of the cannabis plants that you grow, as color doesn’t always indicate the harvest time.

However, even if you have limited information, you can still use these guidelines to determine the ideal harvest time based on the trichomes present in specific strains.

indica trichomes

Indica Strains

If you are looking to harvest an Indica strain, the best time is when the trichomes become fully developed with clear bulbous heads. Harvesting at this point will produce a more distinctive “high” and a more stimulating, less sedating effect overall. 

sativa trichomes

Sativa Strains

Ideally, you’ll want to see 70% of the trichomes fully developed yet still clear, and the other 30%  light to medium amber. If you plan to make hashish with these plants, this is also the best time to harvest.

Indica and Sativa Hybrids

For Indica hybrids, you may want the trichomes to mature slightly beyond the amber point and harvest the flower when the trichomes have turned milky in color. Sativa hybrids are somewhat different, and their optimal harvest time is when the trichomes are a mix of both milky and amber. 

Common Questions Answered

Do trichomes get you high?

Since trichomes contain a variety of cannabinoids including THC yes, they can cause psychoactive effects.

What should trichomes look like at harvest?

Depending on the strain genetics trichomes of slight cloudy opacity, slight amber opacity, and mixes of both are desirable, depending on sativa/indica/hybrid lineage.

What are the stages of trichomes?

Trichomes start small and clear, grow elongated as they mature, become cloudy, then amber color, and will eventually dry and wither as the plant ends its lifecycle without harvesting.

What part of the bud gets you high?

All organic matter within the flower of the cannabis plant will contain cannabinoids that will get you high. Trichomes have particularly high concentrations of these cannabinoids.

What strains have the most trichomes?

Any strain named after it’s fuzzy, frosted, or snowy appearance is likely to have an abundance of trichomes which cause the frosted appearance of the bud.

What do you use to look at trichomes?

Magnification glasses and stash jars can give you an idea of trichome density. Microscopes are better for finer details of individual trichomes.

Can you smoke trichomes?

Of course. Trichomes are a natural part of the cannabis flower. They are also the primary organic material found in kief.

How long does it take for trichomes to turn amber?

While you can harvest trichomes once they turn cloudy, amber colors associated with sedative indica strains can take up to 2 weeks for to turn amber colored.

Can I harvest clear trichomes?

You can, but the plant has not reached its peak potency so you will be leaving cannabinoids and potentially better effects on the table.

HerbCEO Final Thoughts

HerbCEO Final Thoughts

Understanding trichomes can help you determine when to harvest your plants for the final product’s best characteristics.

As a consumer you should care about trichomes, particularly their color (to help determine the quality of your bud) but also in regards to their structure.

Cannabis that has been improperly harvested, overly handled, exposed to sun/UV light, or has otherwise degraded will have damaged or low densities of trichomes. Premium flower correctly harvested will have a majority of their trichomes intact, which contribute to impressive visual, smell, and taste characteristics.

For growers, understanding trichomes, learning to read them, and maximizing their natural genetic potential is a key element in learning to become a master cannabis grower.

The biggest mistake people make is harvesting too early when the trichomes haven’t yet developed, and you can prevent this by getting better acquainted with trichome shape and color as your plants grow.

Trichomes are specialized structures and excellent indicators for when it’s time to harvest. They are also marvelous works of natural art that to be fully appreciated require some sort of magnification as the human eye alone cannot appreciate all of their subtle details.

Still, different strains will have optimal harvest times that can fall later than when the trichomes reach full development. Using a handheld microscope or other device can help you closely monitor your plants.

So, the next time you’re admiring the beauty that is the cannabis flower, take note of these little fellas and appreciate all they do for you as a lucky consumer!

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