Why Are Cannabis Trichomes So Significant?

Published on July 28, 2020, By Marie Graham

Marijuana Knowledge Base Trichomes

cannabis trichomes

Cannabis trichomes are arguably the most important part of the plant’s anatomy. One of the first things a person usually sees when looking at cannabis, whether in the form of a growing plant or dried flowers, are the tiny, often sparkling protuberances known as trichomes. These small and seemingly modest features are perhaps the most significant part of the cannabis plant in terms of both medicinal and recreational efficacy. Without them, cannabis would not produce any of the effects that are highly coveted by consumers. 

Covering the stems, leaves, and flowers of growing cannabis plants (as well as fingers, grinders, and storage containers that come in contact with dried plant material), trichomes perform a variety of important functions from protection to molecular production. These vital appendages are found not only on cannabis but on many other species in the plant kingdom as well like lichen and algae. Stemming from the Greek word trichōma, meaning ‘growth of hair,” trichomes extend in multiple different shapes, sizes, and colors.

hemp trichome types
© 2016 Andre, Hausman and Guerriero. Cannabis Sativa: The Plant of the Thousand and One Molecules.

Cannabis is known to have at least six different types of trichomes which can be classified as either glandular or non-glandular. As displayed in the image above, from the study “Cannabis sativa: The Plant of the Thousand and One Molecules,” the different types of trichomes found on cannabis plants include:

  • Unicellular non-glandular
  • Cystolithic
  • Capitate sessile
  • Capitate-stalked
  • Simple bulbous
  • Complex bulbous

Microscopic Manufacturers

These resinous growths play a significant role in how and why cannabis affects humans by facilitating the manufacturing process of cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids and terpenes are the two main components in marijuana that are synergistically responsible for producing the effects felt by the consumer. Whether a person is seeking medicinal or recreational value from cannabis, there would be no efficacy at all without trichomes because both terpenes and cannabinoids are produced within these microscopic factories.

Each individual plant produces recognizably different effects because each one contains a different quantity, and therefore a unique combination, of cannabinoids and terpenes. These distinctive combinations are why one strain of cannabis may be effective in the treatment of chronic pain, inflammation, or anxiety while another may increase appetite or reduce the frequency and severity of seizures in patients with epilepsy. 

Natural Defense Mechanism

More than just facilitators of human pleasure and relief, trichomes work to defend cannabis against plant-eating bugs. The terpenes created within trichomes produce intense aromas that can act as bug repellent for the plant. Humans can use these scent molecules similarly. Terpenes like limonene and pinene, which are also produced in many plants other than cannabis, are often used in essential oil form to make environmentally-friendly bug repellents.

Acting as a natural sunscreen or barrier is another way in which trichomes actively defend the fragile leaves and flowers of cannabis plants. Whether cultivated outside in direct sunlight or under the lights of an indoor grow, harsh light and heat can burn the leaves and flowers. This can even kill the plant before it is ready to be harvested.

Cultivation Clues

Trichomes are not only significant to cannabis consumers. They can also provide important clues to cultivators by indicating when it is time to harvest. Commercial and at-home growers alike evaluate the color and transparency or cloudiness of the trichomes closely in the final weeks of the cultivation cycle. When the timing is right, the trichomes will signal it.

Depending on the type of plant, whether indica or sativa, and the goals of the grower as far as potency, the shape of the trichome head can also indicate when it is time to flush and harvest. The trichomes on the sugar leaves mature more quickly than those on the buds, so both need to be monitored.  

The Original Solventless Concentrate

Compared to dried flowers, concentrates are more potent forms of cannabis. While many popular concentrates on the retail market like butane hash oil (BHO), shatter, wax, and CO2 oil, are created using solvents like butane or carbon dioxide (CO2), trichomes by themselves are the original solventless-cannabis-concentrate.

As soon as the tiny granules are removed from the plant, the trichomes begin to die, forming what is more commonly known as kief. In this process, they become less sticky and take on a dust-like texture. Kief is also the residue stuck to the sides of the jar, at the bottom of the grinder, and on your fingers after touching plant material.

Some extraction methods, especially those involving butane, leave residual solvents in the final product — even if only in trace amounts. While deemed safe when lab results measure levels below a certain threshold, some recreational users and medical patients suffering from conditions like breast cancer or HIV prefer to steer clear of products created with such solvents. Unlike the concentrates that are made using gas extraction methods, solventless-products like kief, rosin, or bubble hash are often considered to be cleaner, healthier options.

Many cannabis consumers like to sprinkle a little bit of kief in a joint or on top of a bowl, but it can also be made into other forms of solventless concentrates like rosin or bubble hash. Rosin is made in a simple process using high heat and immense pressure. Commercial producers use a technical machine called a rosin press, but it can also be made at home using simple tools like a hair straightener or iron and parchment paper
Bubble hash is another form of cannabis concentrate made by harvesting trichomes. Instead of heat and pressure, bubble hash is created using ice water, a little turbulence, and a screen or bubble hash bag.

This post was originally published on July 28, 2020, it was updated on July 30, 2020.

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