What are Trichomes?

Trichomes on weed
By Rebecca Olmos Updated March 8th

Fact-checked by Alexandra Arnett, MS

The cannabis plant is composed of several different parts and compounds. Trichomes are among the most complex and crucial. Trichomes are the tiny hair-like glands that cover the cannabis plant and give it its signature sticky feeling. 

While you can see the layer of them with the naked eye, up close, they look like beautiful milky white or amber mushroom, stalk-like structures. They serve a natural protective purpose1 for the plant, but they also hold the key components of the cannabis experience – the cannabinoids and terpenes that determine each cultivar’s unique flavor and effects. 

These trichomes create the sought-after resin used to create many different types of concentrates. They're key to the cannabis experience, especially the production of extracts and concentrates.  

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Why Does Cannabis Have Trichomes?

Trichomes are sometimes called ‘goldmines.’ This is because they are essential to the health and survival of the plant while also producing and holding the vital components that affect the overall effects, flavors, and aromas we experience when handling and consuming the material. 

But what is a trichome? 

At a basic level, a trichome is a tiny sticky hair-like gland that grows on the cannabis plant’s surface. When looking at cannabis leaves or nugs under a microscope, a forest of trichomes will be revealed. They look like long stalky bulbous mushrooms and can be milky white or amber in color. 

Naturally, cannabis trichomes function in more ways than one. Since they develop on almost all parts of the plant, they can affect the leaf temperature and photosynthesis, influencing the final hues and colors.2 They also help shield the plant from environmental stressors and deter pests.3 

Trichomes produce essential oils that mainly live in the cap-like heads of the structure, which holds an array of cannabinoids and terpenes. These chemical compounds help determine each cultivar's unique flavors and effects. The trichomes' oils and compounds are essentially the plant's resin which can be extracted to make consumable cannabis concentrates.

Trichomes vs Pistils

There are many important physical features of cannabis anatomy like the bracts, fan leaves, and sugar leaves. One feature that is talked about frequently when discussing trichomes are the pistils and stigmas. Pistils look like skinny hairs, although much larger compared to trichomes. Stigmas are part of the pistils but have a unique job of their own. 

Pistils are found on the part of the plant known as the calyxes. This is a collection of small leaves where the flower meets the stem. Calyxes are the first part to form on the plant, and the pistils change color as the plant progresses from translucent white to orange-brownish, purple, or red colors that cover the cannabis nugs. 

These tiny hairs are only found on female plants. While trichomes hold the resin filled with terpenes and cannabinoids, pistils work as the reproductive part of the cannabis flower, and stigmas are part of the pistil that functions to receive pollen from the male plants. 

Do Other Plants Have Trichomes?

What are trichomes

Virtually all plants have some sort of trichome on them. They serve similar biological purposes on traditional agriculture and vegetation as they do to cannabis – the protection from pests and environmental stressors while helping to determine the aromas and flavors the plant produces.

Trichomes can cover whole parts of plants like soybeans or wheat, and others just cover parts of the plant like tomatoes, where trichomes are abundant on the base leaves and stems. 

There are three types of trichomes, bulbous trichomes, capitate-sessile trichomes, and capitate-stalked trichomes. Each can be found in some variation on other plants and cannabis.4

Where Are Trichomes Most Prevalent? 

There are several different types of trichomes that can be found on other plants. On the cannabis plant, however, three main types are prominent: bulbous, capitate sessile, and capitate-stalked. Bulbous and capitate-sessile trichomes are microscopic and look more like water droplets. Capitate-sessile trichomes have globular heads, while capitate-stalked have mushroom-cap-like heads and are much larger, visible to the naked eye. 

While trichomes are found on almost all parts of the plant, even the stems, it doesn’t mean you need to smoke them. There are other ways, however, to utilize the other parts of the plant that may not result in an intoxicating feeling but may provide other health benefits. Some consumers choose to make teas, juice, or tinctures from the remaining parts of the plant, since they are still full of potentially therapeutic chemical compounds.

Trichomes and Harvesting Cannabis

The environment can significantly affect the development of the cannabis trichomes during the growth process, so it is no surprise that they can also be used to help decide when the plant is ready to harvest

As the plant grows, the trichomes change. 

First, they start translucent in color, then transition to milky white, and can ultimately end up amber brown. It is believed that translucent trichomes indicate that the plant isn’t mature enough to harvest. On the other end of the spectrum, amber shade trichomes may be a sign that it’s past due to harvest.5 

At this point, the overall quality of the flower may have suffered, with the THCA and CBDA within the plant converting to CBNA. While this may not seem like a big deal, THCA and CBDA are better to have in abundance because they can vary from uplifting to mellow effects. CBNA, or CBN, when consumed at high levels with other cannabinoids, may only induce heavy sedating effects, which may not be ideal for the person growing the flower or consuming it. 

Trichome stalk lengths and head diameter are other physical factors that change during the growing process.6 The curing and drying portion of the post-harvest process may also affect the colors and structure of the flower's trichomes. 

Trichomes are one primary way cultivators determine if their crop is ready for harvest. However, several other physical indicators on the plant may help determine if it’s prepared or not. 

Trichomes and Cannabis Concentrates

Crystals on weed

Trichomes produce the resin that holds the cannabinoids and terpenes primarily responsible for the psychoactive and intoxicating experience of cannabis consumption. For this reason, they have long been sought after in the extraction process, with the goal of removing as much plant material as possible only to leave the most potent and flavorful components behind. 

Extraction methods vary, and each one produces a concentrate that can range in texture and consistency. Two of the most traditional types of extracts are hash and kief, which are made using a method called dry sieve extraction. 

This method requires the dry or frozen cannabis to be beaten against a mesh screen material where the trichomes fall off the plant, through the mesh and create the final powder-like product known as kief. This can then be pressed and turned into hash.7,8 

Other popular extraction methods require solvents but can create variations of concentrate like shatter, live resin or distillate.9 Either way, the main idea behind all of these methods is the removal of the trichomes rich in cannabinoids and terpenes that will be utilized to create a more potent and flavorful product. Concentrates can usually be consumed in much smaller quantities than traditional flower, through dabbing and infusion of bowls or joints. They typically range between 60-90+% THC.

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  1.  Wang X, Shen C, Meng PH, Tan GF, Litang Lv. Analysis and review of trichomes in plants. BMC Plant Biology. 2021;21(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/s12870-021-02840-x
  2.  Tanney CAS, Backer R, Geitmann A, Smith DL. Cannabis Glandular Trichomes: A Cellular Metabolite Factory. Front Plant Sci. 2021;12:721986. Published 2021 Sep 20. doi:10.3389/fpls.2021.721986
  3.  Karabourniotis G, Liakopoulos G, Nikolopoulos D, Bresta P. Protective and defensive roles of non-glandular trichomes against multiple stresses: structure–function coordination. Journal of Forestry Research. 2019;31(1):1-12. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11676-019-01034-4
  4.  Huchelmann A, Boutry M, Hachez C. Plant Glandular Trichomes: Natural Cell Factories of High Biotechnological Interest. Plant Physiology. 2017;175(1):6-22. doi:https://doi.org/10.1104/pp.17.00727
  5.  Crispim Massuela D, Hartung J, Munz S, Erpenbach F, Graeff-Hönninger S. Impact of Harvest Time and Pruning Technique on Total CBD Concentration and Yield of Medicinal Cannabis. Plants. 2022; 11(1):140. https://doi.org/10.3390/plants11010140Crispim Massuela, Danilo, et al. “Impact of Harvest Time and Pruning Technique on Total CBD Concentration and Yield of Medicinal Cannabis.” Plants, vol. 11, no. 1, 5 Jan. 2022, p. 140, https://doi.org/10.3390/plants11010140.
  6.  Punja ZK, Sutton D, Kim T. Glandular trichome development, morphology, and maturation are influenced by plant age and genotype in high THC-containing cannabis (Cannabis sativa L.) inflorescences. Journal of cannabis research. 2023;5(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/s42238-023-00178-9
  7.  Sommano SR, Chittasupho C, Ruksiriwanich W, Jantrawut P. The Cannabis Terpenes. Molecules. 2020;25(24):5792. Published 2020 Dec 8. doi:10.3390/molecules25245792
  8.  Lazarjani MP, Young OA, Kebede L, Seyfoddin A. Processing and extraction methods of medicinal cannabis: a narrative review. Journal of cannabis research. 2021;3(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/s42238-021-00087-9
  9.  Valizadehderakhshan M, Shahbazi A, Kazem-Rostami M, Todd MS, Bhowmik A, Wang L. Extraction of Cannabinoids from Cannabis sativa L. (Hemp)—Review. Agriculture. 2021; 11(5):384. https://doi.org/10.3390/agriculture11050384

The information in this article and any included images or charts are for educational purposes only. This information is neither a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional legal advice or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about laws, regulations, or your health, you should always consult with an attorney, physician or other licensed professional.

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