The Dispensary Owner’s Guide to Trichomes

by Stu Waters,

Today’s commercial-quality cannabis is entirely unlike the black market marijuana it replaces.

Cultivators now enjoy access to equipment and expertise that very few people had in the counterculture heyday of the 1960s. The science of cannabis cultivation has undergone explosive growth and brought previously obscure words into the English lexicon.

Before cannabis culture began to take root, botanists and biologists were among the few people to regularly use the word trichomes in their daily lives. Now, the term forms an important part of many cannabis consumers’ purchase decisions.

Knowing what trichomes are – and how to communicate information about them to your customers – is a valuable skill in the cannabis industry. Dispensary owners have a clear motive to educate their customers successfully about these tiny biological structures.

What Are Trichomes, Exactly?

The word trichome comes from the Greek word “Tríchōma,” which means “growth of hair.” They are near-microscopic, threadlike outgrowths that look very similar to hair.

Attention: Trichromes are different from pistils, which are hair-like strands that protrude from the calyx of the flowering female cannabis plant. Those are clearly visible to the naked eye and serve an entirely different function. 

Botany is full of confusing Greek names. We are all stuck with the words that an ancient Greek philosopher named Theophrastus came up with more than two millennia ago.

Cannabis trichomes are important because they produce cannabinoids. High-quality cannabis strains are potent because they have more (and larger) trichomes than others. Just as there are many different types of cannabinoids, there are many different types of trichomes responsible for producing them. Every strain has a unique assortment of trichomes that give it its particular characteristics.

Three Types of Trichomes

Cannabis cultivators distinguish between three broad types of trichomes. Each one plays a unique role in nature and helps cultivators harvest in different ways.

Capitate-Stalked Trichomes

These trichomes are the largest and most plentiful kind found on high-quality cannabis. These trichomes are large enough to be visible to the naked eye, but at 50-100 micrometers in length, they are only slightly larger than the width of human hair.

Cultivators monitor the size and appearance of capitate-stalked trichomes to find the right time to harvest. When these trichomes develop complete, resin-filled heads, it means the cannabinoid-rich oils they produce are at maximum saturation. Wait too long, and they will recede, resulting in a lesser-quality product.

Capitate-Sessile Trichomes

Capitate-sessile trichomes are slightly smaller and less abundant than their stalked cousins. The easiest way to tell the difference is through the shape. While capitate-stalked trichomes have a clearly defined stalk and head, capitate-sessile trichomes have a more globe-shaped, mushroom-like appearance.

These trichomes secrete cannabinoids that can be just as important as capitate-stalked trichomes (depending on the strain and desired potency). However, since they don’t change shape and color, they aren’t as useful as a harvest-time bellwether.

Bulbous Trichomes

These are the smallest and least abundant trichomes on the cannabis plant. At 15 to 30 micrometers in length, they are impossible to discern without magnification. These trichomes play more of a functional biological role than the others. Studies suggest they may help protect the plant against insects, ultraviolet light, high winds, and humidity.

How Trichomes Work

Trichomes form an essential part of the cannabis plant’s photosynthetic process. They capture light and transform it into the aromatic terpenes and psychoactive cannabinoids that cultivators breed for.

As the plant matures, the trichomes store much of the excess energy they generate in their stalks and heads. If you look at a juvenile cannabis plant under magnification, you will see transparent trichomes that are not yet filled with resin. If harvested, this plant will have a bland aroma and a reduced psychoactive effect.

The moment a cannabis plant’s trichomes are filled with resin, the plant has reached full maturity. The heads of the largest trichomes will appear cloudy, and the plant will be sticky to the touch. Wait much longer, and they will turn amber as the compounds degrade.

Speaking of touch, these tiny cannabinoid-producing structures are incredibly delicate. Mishandling live cannabis plants will damage trichomes and result in lower-quality products. Careful trimming, drying, and curing keep trichomes intact and play a critical role in quality assurance in the cannabis industry.

Trichome Extraction

Since they contain a higher density of cannabinoid compounds than the rest of the plant, trichome extraction is the preferred way to extend the shelf life of these delicate structures. The simplest method is to use a three-chambered grinder to mechanically remove trichomes from the leaf. The result is called kief, and it’s a popular add-on for packing an extra cannabinoid punch into edibles and joints.

Chemical processes turn trichomes into concentrates, waxes, and tinctures. Some of these – like ice water extraction – are simple enough to perform at home. Others are incredibly complex processes designed to produce very large volumes of uniform-quality concentrate at scale.

Educate Your Customers About Trichomes

Cannabis dispensary owners have ample opportunities to talk about their products with customers. This information can be included in marketing materials in a medical dispensary waiting room. It could be part of the introduction a well-informed budtender gives to newcomers, accompanied by an examination of real trichomes under magnification.

Your customers are as fascinated by cannabis as you are. Help them indulge their curiosity through interactive education, and you can transform the customer experience your dispensary offers. The more your customers know, the better the purchase decision they make will be – and the more likely they will be to continue making those purchases from your dispensary.