Pistils vs Trichomes: What are They and How Do They Help?

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Added 26 January 2023

If only there was a clear way to know when you should harvest your cannabis plant, life would be amazing. 

But there isn’t. 

Instead, you have to rely on close inspection of the flowers, more specifically the pistils and trichomes. 

But many new growers often confuse pistils and trichomes. While both appear to serve the same purpose for a cannabis cultivator, they are completely different organs that serve a wide range of purposes. 

In this article, learn all about pistils and trichomes, the purpose they serve, and how you can use them individually and together to know your plant’s maturity levels. 

What are Pistils on Cannabis?

What are Pistils on Cannabis?

Pistils are a vital part of the reproductive system of the cannabis plant, and each pistil contains one or more carpels, i.e., the female sex organ. But pistils aren’t found only in cannabis, they can be found in several other plant species, albeit slightly different in appearance but similar in function.

What is the function of cannabis pistils? Reproduction. 

The carpel of the pistil consists of an ovary, stigma (sticky pollen receptive tips), and style. Do note that if the pistil only has one carpel, both can be referred to interchangeably. When wind, insects, or birds bring pollen to the stigma on the cannabis plant, it sticks and leads to pollination. And soon enough, the ovary starts developing a seed. 

But pistils, for cannabis growers, don’t serve the same purpose. Read on to know more about the importance of pistils in cannabis for growers. 

Why are Cannabis Pistils Important?

Why are Cannabis Pistils Important?

When growing cannabis for consumption, whether medicinal or recreational, pistils don’t serve as a mere reproductive system — in our case, these pistils are important for three reasons, which are as follows.

1. Pistils Indicate the Buds’ Quality

In cannabis, pistils are often bright orange or bronze in color, and if the buds are rich in such pistil hairs, they are considered to be of higher quality. This is because such buds with dense pistils tend to contain more cannabinoids and terpenes (not always, but often).

And as a grower, you can use pistils to improve your buds’ flavor or potency by simply denying it pollination for longer. In an attempt to attract pollinators, the plant will start producing more trichomes, leading to better flavor and potency. 

2. They Help Identify the Plant’s Sex

Another importance of pistils for cannabis growers is that they help you identify the sex of your cannabis plants, which is super important if your goal is a bountiful yield of buds. And the method to do so is quite simple. 

All you have to do is look at the nodes for preflowers that contain pistils — if there are pistils, your plant is a female. If not, it’s a male plant and should be removed from your garden immediately to avoid accidental pollination of other female plants. 

3. They Help You Know the Right Time for Harvest

Perhaps the most important role of pistils for growers is that they are a pretty accurate way to understand your plant’s maturity. During the late flowering stage, the pistils change color, which helps you know when to harvest the buds. 

At first, the pistils are completely white, but over time, as your plant nears maturity, they start turning orange, brown, or red. This color change indicates your plant’s maturity, so you can harvest the buds. More on pistil colors later.

When Do Pistils Appear on the Cannabis Plant?

When Do Pistils Appear on the Cannabis Plant?

Cannabis plants start developing pistils early during bloom, soon after you switch the light cycle to 12/12 from 18/6. And the first pistillate flowers that appear on the plant are called preflowers since they don’t look like the buds that develop during the late flowering stage. These pistillate flowers start developing at the nodes, i.e., the point where branches meet the stems. 

As for autoflowering cannabis plants, the first pistils start appearing around weeks 3 to 4, since they have a much shorter growth cycle. 

But since pistils are white at first, many new growers freak out when they see them growing at the nodes instead of the flowers. But these white pistils indicate that buds will start appearing in a couple of weeks — so, there’s no need to worry. 

What Do the Colors of Cannabis Pistils Mean?

What Do the Colors of Cannabis Pistils Mean?

Cannabis pistils are usually white or orange, but not always — sometimes, they can be red or brown, too — all of this depends on their phytochemical content. However, most colors are an indicator of your plant’s progress or health. Here are what the common colors of pistils mean.

1. White 

When pistils start developing as preflowers, the stigmas are completely white. During this time, the flowers are very young and immature, featuring low terpene and cannabinoid content. So, the white color in pistils indicates that the buds are immature and you should wait for a while before harvesting them.

2. Orange 

When the phytochemical changes occur within the pistils, they start turning from white to orange. During this time, the pistils start developing carotenoids (a type of triterpene) that gives them a vibrant orange color. 

Carotenoids aren’t only found in cannabis flowers, though, they are found in other fruits and vegetables like oranges, carrots (hence the name), peppers, and papayas. And these molecules serve as pollinator attractors. 

But when the pistils start turning from white to orange, they also start getting filled with terpenes and cannabinoids. So, if most of the pistils on your plant appear orange, it is time to harvest your plant.

3. Red or Pink

Similarly, due to chemical changes within the pistils, some strains develop red or pink hairs instead of orange ones, depending on their genetics. These colors are a result of anthocyanins — a flavonoid pigment that is responsible for giving blueberries, cherries, and red onions their color, too. 

Again, this flavonoid works to attract pollinators while also protecting the buds from the harmful UV rays of the sun. An abundance of this color also indicates your plant’s maturity.

4. Brown

But when the pistils start turning brown, that’s a sign of trouble. When the top section of the pistils turns brown, your plant has been fertilized and will soon start growing seeds. This is because the pistil has served its purpose of attracting pollen and is now dying down, leading to the brown color. 

If the pistils are turning brown but you don’t have a male plant in your garden, you need to look carefully. One of your female plants may have turned hermaphrodite and started producing pollen. 

Hermaphroditism or intersex plants are a result of undue stress on the plant due to excess light, light leaks, or unfavorable conditions. Even excessively long flowering periods can lead to this problem. So, avoid stressing out your cannabis plant so it does not turn into a hermie.

Are Pistils a Reliable Way to Check Cannabis Plant’s Maturity?

Are Pistils a Reliable Way to Check Cannabis Plant’s Maturity?

Most times, pistils are a reliable way to check your cannabis plant’s maturity, but sometimes, they can not be so accurate if your plant is facing some underlying stress. 

Pistils develop due to correct temperatures and lighting conditions and they keep growing even during the plant’s late flowering stage. However, if the pistils continue to develop on the buds that are closer to the light source, you likely have a problem. 

When pistils keep growing on mature buds, the stigmas appear white — a sign of immaturity — but since the flowers have been developing for longer, they are already mature. This is an instance where pistils aren’t a reliable way to check for a plant’s maturity. 

Of course, you can prevent this from happening by providing your plant with consistent temperatures and ideal light conditions. However, it is always a good sign to use a multi-pronged approach when checking your plant’s maturity.

This is where trichomes come in. Let’s take a look at trichomes in the following sections and how they can help you know if it’s the right time to harvest. 

What are Cannabis Trichomes?

What are Cannabis Trichomes?

Pistil stigmas aren’t the only part of your plant that can help you understand your plant’s maturity. Trichomes serve a similar purpose, too, and for many growers, trichomes are a much better way to figure out the time for harvest. 

Trichomes develop on the surface of the buds (and sometimes the leaves too) and are made of glandular hairs, papillae, and scales, and contain most cannabinoids and terpenes. Trichomes are the primary reason why your buds taste, smell, and hit the way they do. 

What are the Types of Trichomes Found in Cannabis?

What are the Types of Trichomes Found in Cannabis?

Trichomes can be classified into two categories — glandular and non-glandular. Here, glandular trichomes are responsible for producing cannabinoids whereas non-glandular, aka cystoliths, serve a defensive role as they repel insects by impaling them. 

Glandular terpenes can further be divided into three groups, such as the following.

  • Bulbous Trichomes 

Bulbous trichomes look like tiny bulbs and these grow all over the plant’s surface but are so tiny that they can’t be seen without a microscope. These trichomes give the buds their stickiness and sheen, but experts aren’t sure whether they produce any cannabinoids or not yet.

  • Capitate-Sessile Trichomes

These trichomes are not visible to the naked eye but are present in higher concentrations than bulbous trichomes. And they have a mushroom-like shape with secretory cells at the base, which produce cannabinoids and terpenes. However, these trichomes are typically found on the fan and sugar leaves only.

  • Capitate-Stalked Trichomes

These are the trichomes that most people are most familiar with since they are the largest and most abundant on the buds — they can be seen with your naked eye. Since these trichomes are bigger, they also contain the most amount of cannabinoids and terpenes compared to the other two types of trichomes.

Why are Trichomes Important?

Why are Trichomes Important?

Trichomes, like pistils, serve a variety of functions for the cannabis plant, like defense, cannabinoid production, UV protection, etc., and they also help you understand your plant’s maturity. So, let’s take a look at its function in detail below.

  • Trichomes Act as a Line of Defense 

Cannabis buds are vulnerable to predators like insects and animals, and at the same time, to harsh environmental factors like the sun’s UV rays. Here, trichomes serve a bi-fold benefit.

First, trichomes produce terpenes that smell and taste amazing for us but are harsh and bitter for animals. So, they help deter predators like insects and animals.

Second, trichomes act as a sunshade for the buds, protecting them from harmful UV rays. Additionally, trichomes also protect the buds from harsh winds and some forms of fungal growth. Trichomes also help the cannabis plant retain water in hot and arid conditions, preventing water loss. 

  • They Produce Cannabinoids and Terpenes

This is a benefit not only for the plant but also for the growers — trichomes produce cannabinoids and terpenes that we desire so much. So, next time you want your cannabis plant to be as potent as its genetics allow it to be, take great care of the trichomes.

The healthier the trichomes on your cannabis buds, the more flavorful and potent they will be since they contain more cannabinoids and terpenes.

  • They Help You Understand Plant’s Maturity

Lastly, like pistils, trichomes can also help you understand how mature your cannabis plant is and when it is the right time to harvest. Even trichomes change their color as the plant grows through the flowering stage and each color indicates something different. More on this later. 

When Do Trichomes Appear on the Cannabis Plant?

When Do Trichomes Appear on the Cannabis Plant?

In a healthy cannabis plant, trichomes tend to start developing on the flowers during the early flowering stage. During this time, they start transporting vacuoles and plastids from their stalk to the gland heads. 

Further, the gland heads begin to metabolize, which leads to the development of compounds that later turn into cannabinoids. And as they age, these chemical changes within the trichomes make their color turn from opaque to milky white to amber. 

However, the rate at which they grow or when they appear is also dependent on strain genetics — some strains tend to grow trichomes a lot faster than others. 

What Do the Colors of Trichomes on Cannabis Plants Indicate?

What Do the Colors of Trichomes on Cannabis Plants Indicate?

Trichomes don’t represent the plant’s maturity the same way as pistils do — the results aren’t so crystal clear with trichomes, pun intended. As most of the trichomes mature, some start degrading. 

You need to find the perfect balance of mature trichomes vs degrading ones when harvesting, where most trichomes are mature and some have started degrading. If it’s too early, the bud may still be immature, and if you wait for all trichomes to turn into the right color, it may be too late as many trichomes would have degraded. 

Let’s take a further look at the colors of trichomes and how they can help you figure out the peak ripeness of your buds.

  • Clear Trichomes

During the first stage of development, trichomes are clear. And during this time, the trichomes are young and immature and do not contain a lot of cannabinoids and terpenes. Since the buds still have a lot of room to grow, you shouldn’t harvest them if the trichomes are still clear. The buds won’t be potent and flavorful.

  • Cloudy Trichomes

In the next stage of trichome development, they start turning milky white or opaque. This is the stage when they start developing cannabinoids, especially THC, and terpenes that we ideally want from our cannabis buds. 

If you want your cannabis high to be energetic, euphoric, and creative, you should consider harvesting your flowers soon after most of the trichomes have turned milky white or opaque.

Do note that trichomes generally remain opaque for two weeks, and beyond this window, they will start changing their color again due to phytochemical changes within.

  • Amber Trichomes

The final stage in trichome development is when they start turning amber. This color starts appearing during the end of the flowering stage and, during this time, the trichomes hold relatively less THC than cloudy trichomes.

This is because of degradation, where THC starts converting to CBN or cannabinol due to environmental exposure like light and heat. But that’s not a bad thing. If you are aiming for a lazy high, you should harvest the buds when the trichomes are amber.

  • Mixed Colors of Trichomes

But as mentioned earlier, trichomes’ colors are a parabola — some trichomes start turning amber when some are still turning cloudy. In that case, what do you do? 

The answer is simple — harvest your buds when most of the trichomes (around 70%) are the desired color. For example, if you want your buds to possess high THC levels for an energetic high, you should harvest them when 70% of the trichomes are cloudy.

When 70% of the trichomes are cloudy, some trichomes may still be transparent and others may have already started turning amber and degrading. But this range can be considered peak ripeness because if you wait too long, more trichomes will degrade and turn amber and the buds will start losing THC. 

Are Trichomes a Reliable Way to Understand Your Cannabis Plant’s Maturity?

Are Trichomes a Reliable Way to Understand Your Cannabis Plant’s Maturity?

Yes, trichomes are a terrific way to understand your plant’s maturity, but like pistils, they can sometimes be unreliable due to external factors. So, it is recommended that you observe trichomes alongside pistils and find the perfect balance between the two — when most trichomes are of the desirable color and when pistils are orange. 

But with trichomes, you need to be a little careful. Trichomes are highly volatile and even if you harvest the buds when most trichomes are cloudy white, they can still degrade due to various reasons like excess heat or light, heavy-handed handling, oxygen, or time. 

When trichomes get damaged due to these elements, the cannabinoids and terpenes within can also get damaged. So, while you wouldn’t have to worry about damaging pistils post-harvest, you have to be meticulous about trichomes during and after harvesting the buds. 

Limit the buds’ exposure to excess heat or light, limit physical touch, follow the right curing and drying methods, and store the buds in ideal containers to protect the trichomes and ensure that your buds stay potent and flavorful even after harvest. 

Summary: Pistils vs Trichomes — What are They and How They Help Your Plant

Pistils and trichomes — individually, both are reliable in most cases but there are always chances of errors due to external factors. Hence, it is recommended that you take both into consideration simultaneously to know when to harvest your cannabis plant.

But do note that pistils and trichomes are tiny structures — some are not even visible to the naked eye. So, it is recommended that you use a pocket scope or magnifying glass to observe them. 

To sum it all up, pistils are the reproductive organs of the cannabis plant that grow on female specimens. These structures contain ovaries but when they are not pollinated, they start changing their colors. During peak ripeness of the buds, these pistils appear orange, and in some cases, red or pink, depending on the genetics. 

On the other hand, trichomes are organs that produce and store cannabinoids and terpenes. They act as a defense mechanism for the plant, protecting it from harmful UV rays, harsh winds, and predators. 

Similar to pistils, trichomes also change their color over time. When they are young, they appear transparent. Over time, they turn opaque or milky white followed by amber. When they are milky white, they contain the highest amount of THC, and when THC starts degrading, they start turning amber. 

So, you need to find the right balance between the colors of pistils and trichomes to know the best time for harvest. Typically, you should harvest your buds when the pistils are orange (or red or pink) and most trichomes are opaque or milky white. 

However, if you want a lazy high, you can wait for some time until most trichomes turn amber, but don’t wait so long that the pistils start turning brown. If pistils turn brown, that’s a sign that your plant has been pollinated or turned hermie and the buds will degrade drastically. 



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