Some people just want to enjoy their marijuana and do not necessarily care to understand the various parts of the plant and the roles they play. Others, however, want to learn everything they can as this helps them better enjoy their experience with cannabis. If you are in the latter group and want to learn more about trichomes, we are here to help.
What Are Trichomes?
Trichomes are the small “outgrowths or appendages” that occur on plants, including cannabis. In less scientific terms, trichomes are the tiny protuberances that are mushroom-looking and microscopic. They are also the part of the marijuana plant that produces and contains the flavonoids, terpenes, and cannabinoids that give your favorite strain its unique characteristics.
Appearance and Observations
When you look at a cannabis plant, the trichomes are the shiny, sticky crystals that you typically notice on the buds and leaves.
Trichomes contain a sticky oil or resin that contains the various cannabinoids and terpenes. If trichomes break, they release that oil, creating the sticky feeling associated with some marijuana buds.
Trichomes on Other Plants
It is important to note that trichomes exist on a range of plants in nature, not just marijuana. However, they will not contain the same elements (namely the combination of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids) in plants that are not marijuana.
The Role of Trichomes
The role of trichomes depends on the plant on which they form. As an example, some carnivorous plants have trichomes that help them catch prey. Unsurprisingly, this is not a role that trichomes play in cannabis. Instead, they serve as a defense mechanism.
When grown in the wild, the flowers grown by female cannabis plants can attract animals and insects, which can cause damage. These flowers not only become vulnerable to animals and insects, but they are also vulnerable to UV rays and other non-living environmental factors.
The trichomes help deter insects and animals due to their strong scent and bitter taste, which combine to create an unpalatable flower. Without trichomes, moths, caterpillars, mites, and ants, among other insects, would be more likely to wreak havoc on your plants. For certain fungi and flies, the trichomes form a physical barrier that these insects cannot penetrate.
They also provide protection from those UV rays while protecting the cannabis plants from strong and potentially damaging winds. This protection from wind means that trichomes may be particularly important for cannabis being grown in tougher conditions. They can even provide protection against some types of fungal growth.
The interactions between trichomes and UV rays involve more than just protecting the cannabis plant from the latter. Some experts now believe that trichomes require UV light to produce some of the specific cannabinoids and terpenes.
Higher Concentrations of Cannabinoids, Terpenes, and Flavonoids
As mentioned, most of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids found in the cannabis plant are located in the trichomes. The following is a quick refresher on these three compounds.
There are more than 100 cannabinoids identified in marijuana so far, with the best-known and most prevalent being THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). The former is mainly responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects.
Cannabinoids’ effects are due to interactions with your endocannabinoid system, which is the body’s network responsible for many homeostasis-related functions. Because the cannabinoids in cannabis have similar chemical makeup to the body’s natural endocannabinoids, they can interact with the same receptors, providing the expected effects.
Terpenes are the compound responsible for providing aroma and flavor to cannabis as well as other plants. Terpenes occur in a variety of plants, and many are also linked to various effects, especially when combined with cannabinoids. When you combine terpenes and cannabinoids, you get the entourage effect, which enhances the effects of each.
Flavonoids are a type of phytonutrient that affects the smell, taste, and flavor of the cannabis plant. The flavonoids that only occur in cannabis are referred to as “cannaflavins,” and there is some early promising research on their properties.
Types of Trichomes Found on Cannabis
Most people who are unfamiliar with trichomes assume that there is just one type found on cannabis. In reality, trichomes come in a range of shapes and sizes, with three specific types occurring the most frequently on marijuana plants.
These are the smallest type of trichomes that typically appears on cannabis, usually only measuring 10 to 15 micrometers. To put this in perspective, they are so small that they are usually just made up of a small handful of cells. These trichomes appear all over the cannabis plant across all of its surfaces. Although this is a type of trichome, it does not contain cannabinoids, terpenes, or flavonoids, or at least not much.
Capitate Sessile Trichomes
These trichomes are a bit larger than bulbous ones, and they include a stalk and a head. They tend to be more plentiful in nature than bulbous trichomes as well. They also tend to contain more cannabinoids.
These are the largest and most prevalent trichomes found on cannabis plants. They are usually 50 to 100 micrometers wide, making it possible to see them without a microscope. As the name implies, these trichomes have stalks that are made of hypodermic and epidermal cells. These build to a basal cell that is attached to the large gland head. A waxy layer of cuticles holds this gland head together. That gland head is the main area where terpenoids and cannabinoids are synthesized.
In addition to being the most abundant, capitate-stalked trichomes also occur in abundance by the calyxes of the budding flowers. Their size also leads to them having the greatest essential oil concentration.
The Trichome Life Cycle
You can also gain a deeper understanding of marijuana trichomes by learning about their life cycle and production.
The trichomes start to produce cannabinoids when the plant enters the bloom phase. When the plant starts to produce flowers, you will notice trichomes forming on the outer surface of the plant’s above-ground vegetation. This is also when the trichomes start transporting plastids and vacuoles to the gland head from the stalk. At this stage, the gland head’s cells start metabolizing, a process through which they create the precursors to cannabinoids.
Genetics and the environment combine to determine the concentration and rate of trichome production of a cannabis plant. UV light, for example, has a strong influence on the synthesis of terpenes and cannabinoids in the trichome head. It is important to note that just because a plant has a higher trichome concentration, this does not mean it will have a higher concentration of terpenes or cannabinoids. In most cases, plants exposed to broader light spectrums during growth result in higher cannabinoid concentrations. Of course, the concentration also depends on the strain.
Using the Trichome Life Cycle to Judge the Cannabis Life Cycle
Conveniently, the life cycle of trichomes typically runs mostly parallel to the cannabis plant itself. As such, marijuana growers commonly monitor the trichomes to get a better idea of the plant’s stage in the growth cycle.
If you prefer visualizations, think of the trichome’s life cycle as a parabola. The apex is when the maturation exceeds, which leads to the beginning of degradation. Most of the time, you can tell that trichomes are mature because they will change color. Instead of being clear and translucent, they will become cloudy white. Eventually, they take on an amber hue.
When the color of the trichome head transitions, this lets you know that the plant is at peak ripeness. At this stage, the trichomes are fully mature, and waiting longer will give the trichomes time to degrade.
One important note is that this does vary somewhat by cannabis strain. Some strains have trichomes that show their maturation slightly differently.
What Causes Trichomes to Degrade
As mentioned, after trichomes reach their peak maturity, they will start to degrade. Time is not the only factor that can degrade trichomes either. As they are very volatile, numerous catalysts can cause degradation or destruction.
Trichomes can also degrade due to oxygen, light, heat, agitation, or physical contact. In addition to the actual trichomes potentially becoming damaged when exposed to those factors, the essential oils they contain may also degrade.
Because of the delicate nature of trichomes, growers have determined effective ways of slowing down their degradation. This involves handling cannabis flowers very carefully, both during the propagation and following the harvest. Growers and harvesters do their best to minimize agitating or coming into physical contact with the flowers, as this helps the trichomes remain preserved for longer.
Extending the Life of Trichomes
You can also extend the life span of the trichomes via proper trimming, drying, and then curing. Remember that you want to preserve the trichomes since doing so will preserve the terpenoids and cannabinoids that they contain.
Yet another option for preserving trichomes is to use extraction. Via this process, you chemically or mechanically remove the trichomes off the plant. There are multiple methods available for each type. Chemical extractions may use light hydrocarbons such as propane or butane to make hash oils or similar products. Mechanical extraction can include dry sifting to produce kief. Depending on the methods used and the storage conditions, you can store extracted trichomes indefinitely without worrying about degradation.
How You Can Use Trichomes
Once you understand why trichomes evolved on cannabis and that they are crucial for their cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, it also becomes clear that they are among the most desired parts of the plant. Because trichomes are so desired for their concentrations of cannabinoids, there are multiple ways of using trichomes to create concentrates, with kief and hash being among the most popular.
Kief is a trichome accumulation that appears as a powder that shimmers. To create kief, you usually use a three-chamber herb grinder to fully separate the kief from its flower. The resulting concentrate is highly potent. You can add it to food and drinks or inhale it via smoking or vaping.
Hash is also a concentrate, but this one is formed by pressing the trichomes to create a solid mass. The most common method of making hash involves dry-sifting using a screen or separating the trichomes from the cannabis plant by hand. You can use hash in edibles, or you can inhale it via vaping, smoking, or dabbing.
Trichomes can also be used to create a range of other extracts. Remember that extracts are a popular way of preserving the trichomes, including their cannabinoids and terpenes. Therefore hash oil and other extracts are also popular ways to use trichomes. You can even use low heat to whip hash oil to create budder.
It is very common for trichomes to also coat the cannabis leaves that are closest to the buds of the plant. If this is the case, you will notice that their appearance is frosty. These leaves are called sugar leaves and are commonly saved to use in edibles or cannabis oil.
Bonus: How to Increase Trichome Production
If you are growing your own cannabis and want to increase your trichome production, some people suggest flushing the plants using ice water. You would do this in the last week or so during the flowering stage. You should flush cannabis plants anyway, as this helps remove any built-up nutrients to improve the taste of the buds.
Although there is no scientific proof for this, many experienced growers believe that using ice water for the flushing will stimulate the growth of trichomes. Some theorize that the lower temperatures prevent degradation of the volatile terpenes, while others connect it to beneficial stress.
Just remember that this suggestion for boosting trichome production is only based on anecdotal evidence so far, so use it with caution.
The Bottom Line
Cannabis trichomes are the part of the marijuana plant that contains its cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. They originally evolved to protect the cannabis plant from potentially harmful insects and animals, UV rays, and other environmental factors. Trichomes degrade and are damaged easily, so it is important to be careful when handling them (or the cannabis plant in general). You can also extend the life of trichomes by creating cannabis extracts.