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What are trichomes?

What are trichomes?
May 20, 2024
4 min read

Trichomes are small, hair-like structures that appear on the surface of cannabis and other plants, lichens, algae, and some protists. Cannabis produces THC and other active ingredients in the form of a resin contained in the bulbous head of glandular trichomes. Trichomes have all sorts of implications for medical cannabis patients, so it is important to have a complete understanding of the subject. In this article we aim to cover everything you need to know.

What are trichomes?

Why are trichomes important?

Trichomes are important plant structures that help defend against predators like insects and herbivores. They can either be glandular, containing insect repellants like the cannabis trichomes we’re familiar with, or non-glandular and hair-like, serving as the plant’s physical barrier against predators. While trichomes are common in plants, they are of particular importance to cannabis. Its glandular trichomes produce cannabinoid and terpene-rich resin that protect the plant from insects, bacteria, UV light, and disease.

Trichomes are crucial for the medical effects of cannabis as they are the only part of the cannabis plant that produces active ingredients. Put simply, the goal of cannabis cultivation is to produce the largest amount of trichomes possible. The post-harvest processing revolves around the preservation of trichomes.

What do trichomes look like?

Although there are different types, the stereotypical cannabis trichome is a near-microscopic structure resembling a mushroom, with a bulbous head attached to a long stalk. To the naked eye, cannabis trichomes look like a fine, sticky powder that coats the surface of the plant. 

Trichomes can exhibit certain mutations, such as differences in the shape and size of the stalk and head, twin-head mutations, “weak-neck” traits where the heads fall off more easily, and more.

What are the different types of cannabis trichomes?

Many types of trichomes exist throughout nature. However, cannabis produces three main types of trichomes:

  • Bulbous
  • Capitate-sessile
  • Capitate-stalked

Capitate-stalked trichomes are the most common type of trichome found in cannabis flower. They resemble mushrooms with their long stalks and glandular heads. The resin contained in the trichome head produces a large amount of active ingredients. They are the largest trichomes with heads measuring up to 300µm. 

Capitate-sessile trichomes resemble capitate-stalked trichomes with a very small stalk. Their heads are 20-30µm and are often found on leaves and stems.

Bulbous trichomes are the rarest and smallest form of trichomes. They measure only around 10µm wide and do not produce many active ingredients.

The Life Cycle of a Trichome

Cannabis trichomes begin growing with clear heads. As the plant matures, the glandular trichomes produce more active ingredients, and turn milky as they achieve ripeness. Eventually, trichomes turn amber as they become overripe and the THC inside begins to degrade and form CBN. The cannabis is harvested when a balance between clear, milky, and amber trichomes is achieved. 

Different effects can be expected depending on the ripeness of the trichomes. While clear trichomes are said to result in ‘daytime’ effects, amber trichomes are said to produce effects better suited for nighttime.

How are trichomes preserved?

Trichomes are preserved through careful post-harvest processing. Trichomes are extremely fragile — the head can break off easily or be crushed resulting in oxidation. Mass-production techniques such as machine trimming are damaging to trichomes and result in poorer quality cannabis.

Trichomes are best preserved using expensive, small-batch craft techniques such as hand-trimming, hang drying, and a prolonged cold cure. Controlled drying and curing steps are crucial for trichome preservation as an ideal balance of moisture provides a protective coating to trichomes, slowing their rate of decay and oxidation.

How do you observe and photograph trichomes?

Trichomes can be photographed and observed using a jeweller’s loupe, microscope, or high-quality camera. The best and cheapest way to take pictures of trichomes is using an inexpensive digital USB microscope. A modest 40x magnification is enough to provide useful information on the ripeness and damage of trichomes.

If photography is not necessary, a jeweller’s loupe is commonly used by medical cannabis cultivators to observe trichomes on living plants.

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Disclaimer

Please note that this blog was not written by a licensed medical practitioner and therefore is not providing medical advice. We do not endorse the use of cannabis or any other illicit drugs. Like any medication, cannabis has potential negative side effects and should only be used under the guidance of a qualified medical professional. For the latest information on cannabis prescription and use, please visit the TGA website. If you are considering cannabis as a treatment option, we encourage you to consult with a licensed healthcare professional.

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