Consider this a University Course in Cannabis 101 — it’s all about the plant itself, including its parts and a detailed look at trichomes. You’ll also learn how cannabinoids and terpenes are created, and why they matter so much.
What Is Cannabis?
How We Identify, Classify, Label, and Cultivate the Cannabis Plant
Throughout the weeks, months, or years that you’ve been using cannabis, you’ve probably encountered an overwhelming cross section of terms and labels, both for the cannabis plant and its byproducts. Perhaps it took you a while to grasp the interchangeability of terms like “marijuana” and “weed,” or understand the difference between “hemp” and CBD. You may even have found yourself asking, “What exactly is cannabis? And what isn’t it, for that matter?”
The confusion is understandable. The cannabis world has its own rich, frequently evolving language — making it difficult for beginners and intermediate users to feel like they’ve fully grasped how everything fits together.
Marijuana, weed, hemp. Indica, Sativa, Hybrid. Hash, flower, bud. It all fits under the cannabis umbrella. So how do we define cannabis in a way that’s both clear and practical?
Let’s break down the science, etymology, cultivation, and distinguishing characteristics of cannabis to find out.
In scientific classification, both hemp and marijuana are part of the Cannabaceae family. As such, both are considered cannabis.
In the United States, the term “hemp” is used to describe a cannabis plant that produces no more than 0.3% THC, which is the molecule that causes the euphoric effects associated with medicinal and adult-use cannabis. The classification does not take into consideration any other cannabinoid. Therefore, if a plant produces 20% CBD and only 0.29% THC, it’s still legally considered hemp.
Hemp has many uses; its fiber can be used for canvas, paper, rope, and other textiles, it is an incredibly efficient bioremediator (pulling toxic substances out of the soil), and it is increasingly being used as a construction material and biofuel. Hemp seeds have long been used in many cultures for their nutritional benefits to animals and people alike.
Many laws have been created based on this definition of hemp. It’s the level of THC the plant variety produces that differentiates it from cannabis’ intoxicating variety, “marijuana,” and allows for its legal classification as a commodity crop.
“Marijuana,” or “drug cultivars” are the terms used in reference to the variety of cannabis that produces more than 0.3% THC. There is a staggering diversity of molecules that plants in this legal category are capable of producing. Among these are the cannabinoids CBD, CBG, and CBC, which are valued for their medicinal properties.
In fact, cannabis produces more than 100 unique cannabinoids that mimic compounds produced in the human body. These plant-based cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids) can work in place of endogenous cannabinoids when the body experiences a deficiency in its endocannabinoid system.
Cannabis cultivars (commonly referred to as strains), also produce terpenes, the aromatic molecules that are the primary ingredient in the essential oils produced by many species of plants. Different cannabis cultivars have unique terpene profiles, which determine the aroma and flavor of the flower. Although research is still ongoing, we know that terpenes can enhance or alter the psychological and physiological effects of phytocannabinoids. When whole-plant cannabis is consumed, there is a unique interaction between all of these molecules that appears to have superior medical benefit compared to consuming isolated molecules.
Cannabis is a versatile crop that can grow in many climates. It’s a sun-loving annual plant that thrives under a variety of conditions, depending on the cultivar. Cannabis can be male or female, with reproductive organs, the male staminate (stamen) and female pistillate (pistils), usually occurring on different plants. In the presence of a male pollen, the female will begin to produce seeds.
Cannabis grown from seed starts with germination, a process through which the seed is “sprouted” then nurtured in starting material, which can range from soil to rock wool. At this stage, the plant is considered a seedling.
For more uniformity, some cultivators start with clones, which are clippings from a cannabis “mother plant” that’s been kept in a vegetative state. Clones are genetic copies of the mother plant and will exhibit more predictable growth and flowering patterns as well as cannabinoid and terpene profiles if grown under the same conditions.
Cannabis is typically grown in soil or hydroponically in indoor or outdoor conditions. A number of factors affect the success of cannabis growth, including, but not limited to: climate, nutrients used, water quality, and consistency of irrigation.
The light cycle to which a cannabis plant is exposed during its lifetime has a marked impact on the plant’s growth. The number of hours in the day to which cannabis is exposed to light will determine the type of growth the plant will experience: vegetative (engaged in growth functions) with over 16 hours of light and flowering (engaged in reproductive functions) when the light is limited to 12 hours.
Once cannabis has been successfully grown and flowered, it’s ready for processing. Flower needs to be dried and cured for consumption or concentrate production. The freshly-harvested plant can also be sent immediately to processing for concentrate production. After the cannabis has been processed in the desired manner, it’s ready to consume.
Parts Of The Cannabis Plant
Behind Every Joint, Edible, or Oil Cartridge is a Raw Cannabis Plant with Several Equally Distinct Parts
How familiar are you with the cannabis plant? Like, the actual, physical plant?
Unless you grow cannabis yourself, the raw plant from which all your favorite “green” products derive may still be a mystery to you.
Cannabis grows in a variety of climates around the world and can be used in many applications, from rope, canvas, and paper, to medical and recreational uses. The plant is part of the Cannabaceae family, which also includes hops. Each part of the plant serves a purpose and some parts are more important than others. Below are descriptions of each part of the plant.
The flower of the female cannabis plant, identified by small sugar leaves that hold a collection of calyxes, contains red-haired pollen receptors called pistils and a frosty coating of trichomes.
The main “flower” at the end of a stem on a female cannabis plant. The cola is made up of a large cluster of calyxes – the flower’s base – held together by small sugar leaves.
The “flower” that stacks at the end of a stem and is held together by sugar leaves.
A resinous mushroom-shaped structure that contains the cannabinoids and terpenes of the cannabis plant. Trichomes give flower buds a crystal-like sheen and sticky feel. They can be found throughout the surface of the plant including the flowers, leaves, and stems.
Small leaves found throughout cannabis colas that are typically trimmed off the flower after harvest. Called ‘sugar’ leaves because the high volume of trichomes found on the leaves resemble sugar. Sugar leaf trimmings can be used to make hash or concentrates.
Large, protruding leaves that appear along the length of the plant that are essential to the plant’s photosynthesis.
The nontechnical name used in the cannabis industry to refer to receptors on the female plant that catch male pollen to create seeds. Technically called Stigma.
The main structural component of the plant that provides a support structure for the growth of leaves and flowers. Stems transport fluids and nutrients from the roots to the rest of the plant and provide a foundation to give leaves access to the light they need to facilitate growth.
The point at which the stem and leaf intersect. Nodes can hold one or more leaves.
Relatively few cannabis users have handled a whole cannabis plant, let alone been able to identify its individual parts. As the cannabis industry grows, it will inevitably create further distance between the raw plant and the end user. Collectively, we consume thousands of foods and beverages without thinking of the crops of corn that were harvested to make them.
But knowing the origins of one’s food has become a rising trend among American consumers — one that’s likely to carry over into the cannabis trade. If you want to stay in touch with the origins of your favorite cannabis products, knowing the ins and outs of the plant at the industry’s core might be a good place to start.
Cannabis Trichomes – How Cannabinoids, Terpenes, and Flavonoids Are Made
Trichomes are kind of a big deal. Why? Because they deliver the goods
Though you may not know exactly what they are, you’ve probably noticed the tiny hairs that cover the cannabis plant, giving it a crystal-like sheen and sticky feel. These glandular hairs are called trichomes, and they’re responsible for practically everything you love about cannabis.
Trichomes are glandular hairs found on the surface of plants and are responsible for producing the cannabis plant’s cannabinoids and terpenes. Trichomes contain resin glands that make the terpenes, THCA, CBDA, and other phytocannabinoids for which cannabis is known.
The crystal-like sheen and sticky feeling of cannabis buds are caused by high accumulations of trichomes. While they’re most visible to the naked eye on cannabis flower, trichomes can also be found on the leaves and stems of the plant.
There are two primary categories for trichomes: glandular and nonglandular. The glandular type produces cannabinoids while the nonglandular type does not. Within the glandular trichomes, there are three main types: bulbous, capitate sessile and capitate-stalked. Nonglandular trichomes are called cystoliths.
Bulbous trichomes are tiny bulbs that dot the surface of the plant. They cannot be seen without a microscope. While their production of cannabinoids is still in question, they add a crystal-like sheen to the cannabis plant and add to the stickiness of the flower. Bulbous trichomes aren’t restricted to particular areas of cannabis; they are evenly distributed throughout the surface of the plant.
Capitate Sessile trichomes are more abundant than bulbous trichomes, but still typically only visible with the aid of a microscope. Like bulbous trichomes, capitate sessile trichomes have large bulbs, but with more of the classic “mushroom” structure. This type of trichome is primarily found on the underside of the sugar and fan leaves.
Capitate-Stalked trichomes are shaped like mushrooms and contain a large bulb at the head of the stalk. These are the largest and most abundant trichomes in cannabis and the shape with which consumers are most familiar because they can be easily seen with the naked eye. The stalked trichome is primarily found of the surface of cannabis flowers and rarely seen on sugar or fan leaves.
How Cannabinoids Are Created in the Trichome
Cannabinoids are produced within the trichome cells through biosynthesis, in which enzymes catalyze a series of chemical reactions to produce complex molecules from simple (smaller) molecules. Biosynthesis can be summarized in a few simple steps.
The three basic steps for cannabinoid biosynthesis are binding, prenylation, and cyclization. On a molecular level, the activity is as follows: Nanoscale macromolecules called enzymes bind to one or two small molecules (substrates), attach the substrates to each other (prenylation, catalytic chemical conversion of the substrates), then pass the small molecule (transformed substrate) down an assembly line to another enzyme that processes it, making sequential changes to the small molecule (cyclization). Think of enzymes as biological nanomachines that use chemical energy rather than mechanical energy to build structures. Enzymes have inspired numerous studies in nanotechnology, biology, and other fields.
The following figures depict some of the molecular structures involved in cannabinoid biosynthesis. In these figures, each line is a bond between atoms. When two lines meet at a point and no letter is written, the atom is, by default, carbon. Oxygen and phosphorus atoms are explicitly indicated. Hydrogen atoms are only drawn in when bonded to oxygen or on the aromatic ring, they are not drawn on the alkyl chains. The curved arrows that point from one atom to another indicate that a new bond is formed between those atoms during the reaction, they also indicate the motion or exchange of electrons which make up a bond. Not all steps are shown, so there are some bonds that break and by-products formed which are not displayed.
The precursors to all natural cannabinoids, geranyl pyrophosphate, and olivetolic acid, are produced themselves by a complex series of biosynthetic reactions. Geranyl pyrophosphate and olivetolic acid bond to one another with the assistance of an enzyme in the prenyltransferase category known as GOT, thus creating the first cannabinoid, CBGA (see Figure 1). The CBGA contains a carboxylic acid group with the molecular formula COOH, and due to the presence of that acidic group, an “A” is placed at the end of CBGA. This is true for the rest of the cannabinoids whose acronym ends with the letter A (THCA, CBDA, etc.). The carboxylic acid groups spontaneously break off the cannabinoid structures as carbon dioxide (CO2) gas when heated. This process is called decarboxylation, after which the “A” designation is lost. For example, decarboxylated CBGA becomes CBG. This is considered a degradation process because it does not require enzymes and occurs after the plant is harvested. The CBG type of cannabinoids have one ring in the molecular structure, it’s the aromatic ring that came from the olivetolic acid.
So, CBGA is the first cannabinoid formed from a biosynthetic reaction that joined two smaller pieces together — it is also the precursor to all other natural cannabinoids. Next, CBGA is cyclized into THCA, CBDA, or CBCA via the enzymes known as TCHA synthase, CBDA synthase, and CBCA synthase. The presence and relative quantities of the specific enzymes are what controls which cannabinoid is the major product from each particular strain, and each particular cell. Remember, the CBG type cannabinoids have only one ring in their structure. After the cyclization reactions, the THCA, CBDA, and CBCA cannabinoids have more rings in their structures (see Figure 2).
For THCA, two new rings are formed by creation of two new covalent bonds, a carbon-oxygen bond and a carbon-carbon bond. The CBDA synthase enzyme catalyzes a reaction that creates one new carbon-carbon (C-C) bond at the same position that the C-C bond formed in THCA, but without the new C-O bond, thus forming CBDA. The formation of CBCA occurs by the formation of one carbon-oxygen bond at a different position of the molecule than the carbon-oxygen bond formed in THCA. Compounds with two rings fused to one another, such as in CBCA and CBC, are said to be bicyclic. That’s how THCA, CBDA, and CBCA are made through biosynthesis.
When cannabis flower is dried and cured properly, the most prominent cannabinoid will be the acidic form of the cannabinoid (THCA, CBDA, CBCA or CBGA). When smoked, or baked into edibles, these molecules decarboxylate (decarboxylated forms might be produced to a small extent biosynthetically and while drying, but acidic forms are the major product). The decarboxylation products are Δ9-THC, CBD, and CBC (see Figure 2).
As you can see, the source of cannabis’ effects is the result of complex developments that take place in the plant’s trichomes.
How Do Strains Differentiate
Separating the Facts and Fiction in a Strain Name
Let’s get one thing straight: Strain names are pretty amazing.
When it comes to strain names, there are the classics (OG Kush, Sour Diesel, Super Silver Haze), the favorites (Blue Dream, Girl Scout Cookies, Jack Herer), the pop culture references (Pineapple Express, Obama Kush) and the downright strange (Lamb’s Bread, Alaskan Thunder Fuck, Mr. Nice).
It seems that everyday a new strain pops up, which can make selecting cannabis flower a bit confusing. This is due in large part to the fact strain names don’t do a great job of conveying a strain’s effects, flavors, or medicinal benefits. A strain name is more or less a marketing message.
Some strains are proprietary and their genetics have been protected by those involved in the plant’s creation. You can only get Mega Wellness from one authentic cultivator, for example. These growers keep tight control of their inventory and can verify the markets where their products can be found. But the name “Mega Wellness” alone doesn’t tell you anything about the effects you can expect. You can only determine that if you’re familiar with the cultivator.
Let’s use OG Kush as the next example. It’s one of Southern California’s most popular strains and can be found in nearly every dispensary, but the effects from one dispensary to the next can be completely different. This is primarily due to the fact that the growing conditions from grower to grower can vary and alter the resulting composition of cannabinoids and terpenes. “Annie’s” OG Kush can be drastically different from “Johnny’s” OG Kush. So if you want the same experience, make sure you are buying it from the same cultivator or brand.
Due to the legal landscape of cannabis throughout the world, most current strains that are found have been hybridized through selective breeding by breeders. Landrace strains are the exception. They’re cultivars of cannabis that have never been crossed and have evolved naturally due to prolonged exposure to elements in their natural environment. Known landrace strains originated in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jamaica, Mexico, Africa, South and Central America, and Asia.
Where and how cannabis is grown, harvested and processed directly contributes to the composition of terpenes and cannabinoids found in the final product. If you’re looking for consistent quality, everything starts with the source (the brand) — not the strain. So it’s important to explore your options to find the right flower that works for you based on what’s in it and who made it, rather than the strain name alone.
The names of various cannabis strains can be inconsistent and have primarily been developed to add marketing appeal, though some value can be garnered from them. For example, you can expect a bright, fresh aroma from the California Orange, Tangie and Sour Tangie strains, all of which share a fragrance of citrus fruit. Sour Diesel, NYC Diesel, and Blue Diesel strains all have, to some degree, a gasoline-like pungence, as suggested by the word “diesel” in the names. Strain names may lack uniformity and overall structure, but can add insight to some of a strain’s characteristics.
Indica vs. Sativa
“Indica” and “Sativa” are terms used to describe different types of cannabis. These terms give cultivators an idea of the physical qualities that a particular cultivar, or strain, will exhibit during cultivation. These terms may offer insight into the optimal growth conditions under which it is likely to thrive. They are also used by cannabis manufacturers and retailers to help market and describe the effects the plant is likely to offer.
Indica varieties of cannabis are typically short, dense, bush-like plants with wide leaves. By comparison, Sativa varieties grow taller and have narrower leaves, similar to outstretched fingers. Indica leaves gravitate toward deeper green hues while Sativa leaves lean more on the bright green side. Purple leaves are the result of a lack of the pigment chlorophyll, which gives plants their green color. Purple leaves on a cannabis plant aren’t an indicator of whether it’s of the Sativa or Indica variety.
In the cannabis marketplace, the terms Indica and Sativa are used to refer to two common effects that cannabis is known to produce: deep relaxation vs invigoration. The term Indica is commonly assigned to plants with body-heavy effects, while Sativa is used to indicate an uplifting high. This isn’t the case for everyone, however. The effects you experience are more directly associated with the specific combination of active compounds that the plant produces (cannabinoids, terpenes) rather than its designation as Indica or Sativa.
To better evaluate the quality and potential effects of a cannabis strain, examine its terpene content and cannabinoid makeup. The terms Indica and Sativa are a good starting point to describe the kind of experience you seek, but these terms do not paint the full picture of the cannabis you consume.
Visual Quality Guide to Selecting Cannabis
Picking out cannabis is a lot like selecting fresh produce or flowers — you’re looking for something that looks appealing, has a good color, and produces an enticing aroma. Additionally, you want to avoid any glaring defects like mold and mildew, insects, and discoloration. Different qualities can come from the same plant; for example, I’ve seen many dispensaries that separate the prized colas from the small wispy buds found on low- hanging branches (I call these “popcorn nugs”).
Keep in mind a few key points when assessing the visual quality of your cannabis:
- Quality standards vary based on your location and access to cannabis, your personal experiences with the plant, and local cannabis laws.
- There are many other attributes to consider when choosing the best strain for you, including the price, the smell, desired effects, and quantity available.
- A high concentration of trichomes indicates a strain with advanced cannabinoid production, which leads to potent cannabis. However, potent cannabis is not necessarily indicative of high quality — it could be lacking the flavor profile you are looking for, or, for example, it may be a stimulating sativa when you prefer a mellow indica.
- Test data can go a long way in visualizing and understanding the various attributes of each strain, so always look for current and accurate test results from a trusted third-party laboratory
Let’s check out some examples of low, medium and high-quality cannabis so you can better assess the quality of the buds you’re acquiring.
Example of Low Quality Cannabis Strain
Also called: Shwag, shake weed, bottom shelf, popcorn, dirt weed, brick weed, ditch weed, Bobby Brown, and more
Low-quality cannabis is often transported as compact bricks, resulting in a mix of shake, stems, and compressed buds. Typically only found on the black market, shwag tends to be less colorful than your average cannabis, often more brown than green (thus the nickname Bobby Brown — no relation to the former member of New Edition). It is dry and earthy in aroma with a taste that can be harsh and spicy, as opposed to the sweet and floral notes of top-grade cannabis.
When it’s not compacted into brick weed, low-quality buds tend to be light, leafy, and wispy. The concentration of cannabinoids is likely to be very low due to extreme environmental factors, like excessive heat or other variables, which cause trichomes and other crucial parts of the plant to under-develop. The harsh growing conditions typical for low-quality, improperly cared-for cannabis has a tendency to be high in CBN, a byproduct of degradation. Advanced levels of CBN are often attributed to poor or improper storage and handling during transportation.
The effects from low-quality cannabis tend to be mellow, relaxing, lazy, and sleep-inducing (thanks to the CBN). It’s not uncommon to experience headaches and other adverse side effects from poorly grown and cared-for cannabis. The lack of quality standards at the street level also opens consumers up to contaminated flower that has been tainted by dirt, mold, mildew, insects, and even pesticides.
One glaring advantage of low-quality cannabis is that it is usually available at discounted prices. While I wouldn’t normally recommend consuming sub-standard buds, some cannabis consumers prefer to bargain hunt and turn their shwag into affordable and effective edibles.
Example of Medium Quality Cannabis Strain
Also called: Mids, middle shelf, regs, Reggie, beasters, B+, work, and more
Medium-quality cannabis is where most domestically-grown US cannabis lands on the quality scale. Northern states also see an influx of mids and regs from commercial Canadian cannabis, known as Beasters or BC Buds (though the influx is starting to dwindle now that the US is shifting towards legal access).
Mids can be identified by their spectrum of green hues and the presence of colorful pistils. Solid middle shelf genetics showcase purple tinge, moderate flavor profiles, and sugary trichomes. Seeds and stems are minimal-to-none, but the buds can suffer from a number of quick-to-market techniques like improper flushing of nutrients, quick curing methods, and sloppy trim jobs. Pricing for middle quality is somewhat standardized based on your region, and oftentimes bulk discounts become available when buying more than a ¼ or ½ oz at a time.
Experiences with Reggies can vary across the board, but generally if the genetics are strong, the resulting effects are potent and enjoyable. Unstable genetics or stressful environments can cause hermaphrodite plants that begin to show both sexes. These partially-formed seeds are often referred to as bananas for their elongated shape and yellow hues.
Example of High Quality Cannabis Strain
Also called: Fire, primo, top shelf, loud, kill, chronic, dank, headies, flame, kine, kind, and a host of other regional naming trends
Everybody claims to have high-quality cannabis in stock, but how can you tell for yourself?
The first thing you should know is that top-shelf buds will stand out in a sea of green. Besides the diverse spectrum of colors that premier genetics show, the amazing quality and complex aromas of truly dank weed will scream “pick me!” The nickname “loud” is used for this exact reason, because the pungent flavors are often too much to contain and can draw attention to those who have it, especially when trying to be discreet. Truly outstanding cannabis has no price cap — it can be considered a luxury item like fine wine and, depending on the laws where you live, prices can reach extreme levels.
First-class cannabis will have a thick coat of sugary resin that contains the cannabinoids and terpenes, giving the plant its powerful effects and captivating flavors. Advanced potency and flavor profiles provide a diverse range of effects and individual experiences that amplify the consumer’s connection to the cannabis plant. The buds themselves are typically dense and chunky, thick from advanced CO2 levels during the flowering cycle and other innovative growing techniques.
The harvesting, drying, and curing methods used by the grower can greatly influence the end result. Truly dank herb should be sticky from the frosting of trichomes without being moist or wet. When ground, it should break apart without becoming a pile of dust, and when burnt, it should leave behind white ash (black ash is a signal that there is excess moisture in your flowers).
Proper trimming is paramount to true connoisseurs, allowing each cola and nug to be showcased and perfectly framed. If top-shelf cannabis appears leafy, it’s most often because the sugar leaves surrounding the buds are covered with trichomes too precious to discard. Seeds are extremely rare to find in the finest-quality cannabis, so if you uncover one in your stash, keep it for your own garden (providing you can legally grow in your state, of course).