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What Are Trichomes and What Do They Do?

Education Posted Sep 9 2019

The term trichome is generally used to refer to the tiny hairs or miniscule glands that can be seen emerging from the surfaces of leaves and other epidermal surfaces of plants. Specifically speaking, trichomes are epidermal cells that are either unicellular or multicellular. Many are so small that a microscope is required to analyze them properly. The term originates from the Greek word "Trichoma" which refers to hair growth. One function of trichomes is to protect plants from invasive insects, fungi and larger animals, such as rodents. The presence of the wet and sticky trichomes in plants serve as an effective deterrent to predators, regardless of whether they are herbivores or omnivores. Some of the trichomes present on cannabis plants have even been found to be toxic to some insects. The protective natural shield also helps the plants stay healthy when exposed to harsh weather conditions and intense ultraviolet rays that could cause harm or mutation.

Cannabis trichomes are crystalized glands that produce resin on marijuana and carry the majority of the plant's cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD. They cover the major surfaces of the plant and under a microscope they look like tiny mushrooms. Marijuana enthusiasts often refer to trichomes as crystals or sticky hairs.

The Three Types of Cannabis Trichomes

Bulbous Trichomes

Clocking in at just 15-30 microns (a human hair is about 75 microns), the bulbous trichome is the smallest trichome found on marijuana. It is so tiny that it is difficult to see with the naked eye. Bulbous trichomes are comprised of a resin-secreting gland that sits on a short supporting stalk. As it swells, the trichome sometimes forms a small bulbous protrusion on the top of the membrane.

Capitate-Sessile Trichomes

Capitate-sessile trichomes are slightly larger glands (25-100 microns) that cover cannabis plants more densely than bulbous trichomes. These are the second most common form of trichome, as they occur on stems, leaves and bracts (modified or specialized leaves found above the leaves but below the flower). Capitate-sessile trichomes produce cannabinoids throughout the entire life cycle of the plant but at much lower levels than the next type of trichomes: capitate-stalked trichomes.

Capitate-Stalked Trichomes

Capitate-stalked trichomes are the most abundant trichomes on cannabis plants. They are packed with oils and secrete unique compounds, such as CBD and THC. Capitate-stalked trichomes are also the largest glandular trichomes, growing as big as 150-500 microns! They consist of a stalk and a waxy head which are visible to the naked eye. They begin to grow during the flowering phase and completely coat the area in and around the protective outer layer of small leaves that surround buds as they develop.

Trichomes and Cultivation

Capitate-stalked trichomes also assist cannabis growers by indicating when it is time to harvest their crops. Experienced farmers should know how to grow with the intention of preserving trichomes and how to use trichome growth to measure plant life. For example, the gland heads of trichomes are clear or a soft brown when the plant is in the early stages of the growth cycle. As cannabinoid levels increase, the gland heads turn opaque and cloudy, indicating that the plant is nearing maturity.

People cultivating cannabis also need to decide how much THC and CBD they want in their crop. By allowing the plants to mature completely and develop as many trichomes as possible, they also allow both CBD and THC to reach maximum potency. CBD cannabinoids can counter the psychoactive effects of THC that is often not the goal for a lot of growers. Those that want the highest level of THC with the lowest level of CBD cannabinoids will harvest their plants when half the trichomes on their plants are opaque so the THC in the trichome resin isn't inhibited by the counteracting CBD. Growers and distributors need to be mindful when working with the harvested buds as trichomes are very fragile. If they are protected during the harvesting, trimming and packaging processes, then the herb will maintain a complex aroma, taste better and be more effective.

Trichomes and Cannabis Concentrates

The world of cannabis concentrates has exploded due to our increased understanding of the key role these tiny glands play when it comes to the unique properties of cannabis. Consuming cannabis concentrates, for instance, provide a strong dose of cannabinoids while minimizing the harsh side-effects of inhaling burnt plant matter. As the number of consumers interested in alternatives to smoking weed increases, concentrates continue to grow in popularity. Cannabis extracts and concentrates provide highly efficient ways to get high or receive medical relief.

The process of making certain concentrates separates trichomes and cannabinoids from the rest of the plant matter. The psychoactive properties of THC and the therapeutic aspects of CBD are often isolated in concentrates. There are several types of concentrates that will allow you to enjoy trichomes to the fullest:

Kief

This is the sifted powder that falls to the bottom level of most cannabis grinders. The dried cannabis buds are run through the screens in the grinder and the trichomes are forced mechanically to fall off the buds or trimmings. Kief can be smoked on its own, added to joints or used to make other types of concentrates.

Butane Hash Oil

Butane Hash Oil (BHO) utilizes butane as a solvent to extract trichomes from the plant matter. The results include concentrates like shatter and wax which typically have very high levels of THC - often up to 80%.

Bubble Hash

In the process of making bubble hash, buds and trim are exposed to very cold water that strip trichomes from the plant matter. Hash is produced by filtering the cannabinoid-infused liquid through bags that have different sized mesh material at the bottom.

Wax

Wax is made by pushing a solvent through plant matter in order to extract THC trichomes and their active ingredients, cannabinoids and essential oils. THC levels sometimes reach 90% in this highly potent concentrate.

Shatter

This type of butane hash oil uses the same extraction method used to produce wax except that shatter is made by applying higher temperatures at the end of the BHO process. Any moisture left is released from the wax and the result is a potent glass-like concentrate that can be broken into tiny pieces.

Live Resin

Live resin is a form of cannabis concentrate made from plant matter that is frozen immediately after harvesting. The freezing process protects terpenes from breaking down during the curing and extraction process, making a full-flavored marijuana concentrate. Live resin in often more expensive than other concentrates due to the involved process of making the substance.

Taking a Closer Look at Trichomes

The next time you're in the market for some flower, take some time to examine it carefully. It's an important step in selecting the highest quality herb. If possible, look at the THC under the microscope. If the weed is covered in trichomes, it is indicative of a potent strain with fully developed cannabinoid production. There should be a thick coat of white resin filled with trichomes that deliver the cannabinoids and terpenes that provide the powerful effects and fascinating flavors. The weed should be sticky from the coating of trichomes without being wet or moist. Be aware, however, that extreme trichome production is not necessarily an indication of a potent plant. Some strains have sizeable layers of trichomes but still lack a strong psychoactive element. A thick layer of trichomes is an indication that there may be an elevated potency level but it is not a guarantee.

Cannabis trichomes not only protect marijuana plants from insects, animals and disease, they also manage to facilitate the production of hundreds of compounds that have therapeutic and medicinal benefits. They are a remarkable aspect of an extraordinary plant.

Do you have a trichome experience you would like to share? Have you had success separating trichomes to create cannabis concentrates? Let us know in the comment section below.

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