A Toast to Trichomes

November 16th, 2022

Written by Zack Ruskin

Essential, aromatic, and endlessly fascinating, here’s a rundown on the basics behind of the cannabis plant’s signature stars.

Stick some top-notch strains under a microscope and a strange, wondrous forest will emerge before you. It’s a trip to observe, no doubt, but thankfully we now have a strong scientific understanding of what the heck we’re looking at as well.

What about those frosty, crystal-like protuberances that populate cannabis plants’ leaves and buds? They’re called trichomes and they play a pivotal role, both for their hostplant and for the humans who consume it.

What’s a trichome?

Originating from the Greek (“tríchōma”) for a “growth of hair,” trichomes can be defined as pungent, eye-catching little factories responsible for producing all the cannabis plant’s signature compounds. That means we have trichomes to thank for a strain’s specific output of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.

From a biological standpoint, the intent of trichomes in nature is varied. In the case of cannabis, they protect their host plant from predators with strong aromas and a reliably bitter taste that discourages animals from taking a bite.

In fact, trichomes can be found widely across the natural world. In some situations, trichomes will assist their host plants to trap prey, while others encourage pollination by means of appealing smells and coloring. Depending on the host plant, trichomes can also offer vital protection from harmful UV rays, unwanted fungal growths, and potentially determinantal wind surges.

As it relates to cannabis, they serve many of these functions and can often be found in three signature forms: bulbous, capitate sessile, and capitate-stalked.

Ironically, bulbous trichomes rank as the smallest of the trio. We are talking tiny: in some cases, just a few cells! Capitate sessile trichomes, meanwhile, feature both a stalk and a head and have some heft in contrast to the bulbous variety. But it’s the third type —capitate-stalked trichomes —that rank as the only version you can see with the naked eye.

Meet the cannabis plant’s production center and natural helper.

Big, beautiful, and ranging in size from 50-100 micrometers, capitate-stalked trichomes are, so to speak, the centerfold attraction but all three forms of trichomes found in cannabis follow a similar trajectory.

Crucially, they will all begin synthesizing cannabinoids in tandem with their hostplant’s blooming phase. For this reason, care paid to plants at the point of flower production can, depending on a myriad of factors, can ultimately yield higher concentrations of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.

One factor complicating things: cannabis trichomes are also quite delicate.

Considered highly volatile both on the vine and post-harvest, the possible perils trichomes face include physical contact with humans, overexposure to heat or light, and, ultimately, time itself. All plant matter has a finite shelf life, of course, but trichomes can be especially temperamental and prone to extreme behavior.

That’s why cultivators like Glass House Farms opt to handle plants with extra care while harvesting to minimize the risk of trichome loss and degradation. It’s just one of many extra steps we take to ensure the California-grown cannabis you’re enjoying looks as good in your hand as it did in our greenhouses!

Harvest hints and preservation techniques to keep trichomes happy.

Choosing when to harvest is itself a matter often dictated, at least in part, by a cannabis plant’strichomes. The reason is thanks to trichomes’coloring, why offer a reliable way to monitor a plant’s journey to maturation? Initially opaque, trichomes will eventually turn cloudy, then amber, in their lifecycle.

When trichomes hit the cloudy stage of their coloring, that’s the “green light” that a plant is ripe and ready for harvest. It varies with strains, genetics, and geographies, but by and large, this internal clock tends to tick right on time. If a plant’s fate is to be sold as flower, then the goal becomes to get it to consumers with as little delay as possible.

But advents in modern technology —as well as a few tried-and-true standbys —now offer the opportunity to preserve trichomes for later enjoyment. The more rudimentary options include dry sifting cannabis, causing the trichomes to separate into a dust known as kief. Conversely, there are also chemical extraction methods. Utilizing hydrocarbons (butane, propane), trichomes are stripped out and isolated to create hash oil in a plethora of different consistencies.

Such advances are why Glass House is able to offer prerolls infused with F/ELD’s tasty, terpy live resin and diamonds. The best of both worlds and a tribute to trichomes to boot!

Regardless of how you prefer to enjoy your trichomes, make sure you give them the credit they deserve! After all, without trichomes, we’d have no terpenes, cannabinoids, or flavonoids —which is why we’re stoked to stick with the wondrous, weird forests painted on the canvas of every Glass House nug. This puff’s for you, trichomes!

Zack Ruskin

Zack is a freelance cannabis and culture reporter. He served as San Francisco Weekly's "Pacific Highs" columnist for six years, covering local equity programs, Bay Area cannabis news, and interviewing everyone from Willie Nelson to Rep. Barbara Lee. His other bylines include the San Francisco Chronicle, Leafly, California Leaf Magazine, The Nib, Vanity Fair, KQED, and Variety. Follow him on Twitter: @zackruskin.