Sometimes the tiniest structures hold the most power.
TRICHOMES IN NATURE
From the Greek word Tríchōma, meaning “growth of hair,” trichomes are fine outgrowths or appendages that are not unique to cannabis. A wide variety of plants, algae, lichen, and certain protists (microscopic, primarily single-celled organisms) have trichomes, and the function of trichomes is as diverse as the list of plants that contain them.
For example, the Sundew is a carnivorous plant that uses trichomes to attract and entangle its prey. The trichomes exude a sticky substance that certain insects find irresistible, and once they take a taste, the plant wraps its leaf around the insect and digests it with enzymes that turn the little creature into one of the most important nutrients for plants: nitrogen.
On the other hand, the stinging nettle plant use its trichomes to repel insects and animals – even humans. The bulbous tip of the stinging nettle trichome breaks off when agitated and reveals a needle-like tube that pierces skin and injects a mix of acetylcholine, formic acid, histamine, and serotonin. This chemical cocktail causes a burning, itchy rash in humans and other animals that can last up to 12 hours.
Similar to the stinging nettle plant, cannabis also uses its hair-like appendages as a defense mechanism. The bitter taste and powerful smells contained within the cannabis trichome make the plant seem unpalatable, so animals and insects are less likely to eat them. The presence of the trichome provides protection from environmental threats too. Trichomes act as sunscreen, reflecting light and shielding the plant from harmful UV rays. They provide insulation in times of high wind, high heat, and even frost. Trichomes help to control the rate of transpiration of the plant as well, keeping enough moisture available even in dry climates.
But past its own survivalist attributes, humans have found an almost endless list of uses for the cannabis plant, and specifically for what is inside the trichome.
TRICHOMES: HOW THEY WORK AND WHAT’S INSIDE
THC and other cannabinoids are produced in only one part of the cannabis plant: the heads of trichomes. These tiny glands are where we derive all the recreational and medicinal value from the cannabis plant, so preservation of the trichome is imperative.
There are three types of trichomes found on the cannabis plant, and though they vary in size, shape, and potential, all three produce the cannabinoids, terpenes, and other chemicals that make cannabis special.
- Bulbous trichomes are the smallest, measuring 10-15 micrometers. They begin forming when the plant is young. Bulbous trichomes help protect the plant and can be found on every part of it.
- Capitate Sessile trichomes are mid-sized glands and only secrete cannabinoids as the plant matures. They are found mainly on the underside of sugar and fan leaves.
- Capitate Stalked trichomes are the largest of the three. They look like mushrooms and measure up to 500 micrometers. These trichomes appear during the flowering stage and serve as the center of cannabinoid and terpene synthesis, producing the highest concentrations of these chemical compounds.
Growers focus mainly on the capitate stalked trichomes because they indicate harvest readiness through color change, and they are the ones largely responsible for producing and housing the chemicals we use today for medicine and recreation.
Inside the trichome, cannabinoids are produced through biosynthesis. Without getting too bogged down in biology, we can understand biosynthesis as a process in which “enzymes catalyze a series of chemical reactions to produce complex molecules from simple molecules.”
Basically, two types of tiny organs (called organelles) at the base of the trichome’s head work to combine their secretions. Vacuoles secrete phenols and plastids secrete terpenes. When phenols and terpenes meet in the growing secretory cavity at the top of the trichome, they are transformed into cannabinoids by enzymes and UV light.
(Original visual representation courtesy of https://issuu.com/dabscience/docs/trichomes)
(simplification and colors by Weez)
There are three types of cannabinoids: phytocannabinoids, endocannabinoids, and synthetic cannabinoids.
- Phytocannabinoids occur naturally in the cannabis plant and include the most popular THC and CBD, among a host of others.
- Endocannabinoids are molecules that are naturally produced in the human body. Two major endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-AG.
- Synthetic cannabinoids are lab-created molecules that mimic naturally occurring cannabinoids.
The purpose of all cannabinoids is to activate the endocannabinoid system, which plays a crucial role in keeping the human body (and all vertebrate species) in a state of homeostasis (perfect balance).
There are more than 20,000 terpenes found in nature and the cannabis plant produces over 100 of them. Terpenes are basically essential oils; they are aromatic metabolites found in the oils of all plants and they each have their own medicinal and/or recreational benefits when consumed. Here are three examples of the power inherent to terpenes.
- Myrcene (earthy, sweet; like cloves): Myrcene is the most commonly found terpene in cannabis. It can also be found in guavas, mangoes, hops, thyme, basil, and lemongrass. It suppresses muscle spasms, inhibits cell mutation (even cancer cells), and acts as an anti-inflammatory and sleep aid. Myrcene is also responsible for lowering the resistance across the blood-brain barrier, which means it lessens the time between consumption and feeling the effects of the cannabinoids it accompanies.
- Pinene (pine): Pinene is the most commonly occurring terpene in the world, found in pine needles, cannabis, and foods like orange peels, parsley, and basil. It has anti-inflammatory properties and has been known to oppose the short-term memory loss associated with THC, promote alertness, and improve airflow to the lungs.
- Linalool (floral, spicy): Linalool is found in flowers and spices like lavender and bergamot (and of course, cannabis), and it is often used in perfume-making. It is well known for its helpful role in treating depression and anxiety and it has anti-inflammatory properties. Linalool balances the anxious side effects of THC and may even boost the immune system.
When combined with terpenes, the effects of cannabinoids can be magnified or subdued, depending on the unique mixtures. This phenomenon is referred to as the entourage effect. As we saw in the list of terpenes above, some beneficial effects of the synergistic work between cannabinoids and terpenes include balancing the anxious side effects of THC, countering short term memory loss associated with THC, and quicker onset of desired psychotropic or symptom relief effects.
All these benefits and more are available to any creature with an endocannabinoid system, and one of the best ways to tell what type of cannabis is right for you is by smelling it. When we inhale the aroma of different types of cannabis our bodies react to the terpenes, making us prefer one strain over another. This built-in sampling system allows us to try before we buy, reminding us of what we need in order to achieve homeostasis just by what smells best.
PROTECTING THE TRICHOME
The key to all this biological magic is the trichome. Its delicate yet intricate structure produces and stores the cannabinoids and terpenes we seek, and its life is dependent on the care it receives throughout the processing of the cannabis plant. Excess heat and light, agitation, and time itself can compromise the sensitive glands and, thereby, the goodies they hold, so appropriate measures must be taken to ensure the trichome’s protection. Here are a few tips for protecting the trichome:
- During harvest, avoid excess handling of buds and be gentle when touching them.
- During and after curing, avoid moving buds from container to container to decrease the amount of possible agitation.
- After the curing process, keep cannabis in a cool, dark place with as little exposure to oxygen as possible. A humidity level between 55%-65% is best.
- Trim cured buds by hand.
- Trim cured buds as close to sale-time as possible.
The trichome plays an instrumental role in the existence of plant life; without it there may be no plant kingdom. And since virtually all living things rely on plants to survive, without the trichome life as we know it may cease to exist. While this may seem dramatic, one thing is for sure: without the cannabis trichome, we would not have the myriad medicinal benefits we do today, or the potential for more in the future. The trichome is precious. It is special. And it must be protected in order to reap the benefits within.