Cannabis enthusiast and student of the art of solventless extraction
In order to enjoy the fullest potential of what the cannabis plant has to offer, it’s important to harvest when its flowers are producing the maximum amount of therapeutic compounds. If the flowers are harvested too early, many of the beneficial compounds exist only in their precursor forms or in underwhelming amounts. If harvested too late, the cannabinoid content may begin to decrease or convert into compounds with less desirable effects. Therefore, harvesting at peak ripeness is key whether you intend to smoke the flowers as they are, or prepare them as starting material for solventless extraction.
We need to look at more than just the growth structure of the flowers themselves, like the condition of the pistils or the density of the bud. The true indicators of peak cannabis ripeness remain encapsulated within the trichome heads, which is where all the magic happens. Cannabinoid, terpene, and flavonoid content are concentrated within the oily resin that the plant produces, and this resin is manufactured inside the trichome heads.
So how can we gauge trichome ripeness, and when is the best time to harvest cannabis flowers?
Why It’s Important To Harvest at Peak Ripeness
Ripeness is determined by both the amount of resin and the quality of the resin produced by cannabis within the trichome heads. Ripeness is at its peak when both quantity and quality of the resin has reached maximum expression. Therefore, the amount of solventless extract that cannabis flowers can produce, as well as the therapeutic effectiveness of that extract, are both determined by the ripeness of the plant and the quality of its resin.
For the maximum amount of cannabinoid and terpene production, it’s critical to harvest cannabis flowers at the peak of ripeness.
How long does it take a cannabis plant to reach peak ripeness?
Plant genetics and growing environment help to determine the ripeness of the resin. While exact timing varies, resin quality and production invariably peaks during the later stages of the flowering cycle. While many breeders and seed banks point growers to the 8-9 week length of flowering time, many growers will keep their buds growing for at least a couple weeks longer.
For plants with sativa-heavy genetics, over 12 weeks of flowering isn’t uncommon to reach optimal ripeness. Often, giving the plant an extra week or two in the flowering stage, even after prominent amber coloring is present, will provide additional THC content.
What happens if you harvest outside the peak ripeness window?
Harvesting cannabis flowers too early or too late means diminishing returns in medicinal value, whether smoking the flower itself or using the flower as starting material for extracts. However, harvesting on the later side will still give you a better value than harvesting on the earlier side before the plant has fully developed.
One advantage to harvesting on the early side is capturing a lighter color in solventless extracts. Trichomes that are not fully mature remain translucent and therefore produce a lighter hash and rosin. However, this comes at the expense of maximum psychoactive value.
How To Tell When the Cannabis Plant Is at Peak Ripeness
While the plant may give a variety of signals to demonstrate the pinnacle of ripeness, the clearest signal is within the trichome heads. Trichome heads sit on top of tiny stalks that emerge from the flowers like tiny appendages. Seen with the naked eye, trichome heads look like crystals of sugar glistening on the flowers. But viewed under a microscope the bulbous heads can be seen in their true form, and they appear like minuscule globes perched on top of long, skinny straws.
We can observe the shades of each individual trichome when viewed through a magnifier such as a jeweler's loupe. Examining trichomes up close is the best way to gauge for ripeness.
Trichome heads that are transparent are still in development and well below their maximum resin potential. While these heads could produce very light-colored hash or rosin, their psychoactive effect may disappoint. Do whatever you can to avoid harvesting cannabis while the trichomes are still immature.
The next phase of development for trichomes is marked by a milky color. The resin inside is now producing high levels of terpenes, flavonoids, and key cannabinoids like THCA and CBDA. Milky trichome heads are worth harvesting, although there is still another level of ripeness to go.
Once trichome heads begin to turn amber, they’re in the final phase of development to reach peak ripeness. The later stages of trichome development are where we find the most desirable compounds in the cannabis resin being produced in optimum amounts. We need only to know how to read the plant’s signals to perfectly time this harvest window.
When about 80% of a trichome has become amber with only 20% remaining milky, the trichome can be considered prime for picking. This is the ultimate perfection in ripeness, although it’s also more ripe than many growers choose to extend their crops. The general trend is to err on the side of under-ripeness in terms of color assessment. It could be that we’ve been missing the holy grail of ripeness all along, mistakenly seeing a mostly amber trichome as too far past its prime. In fact, darkness is a bellwether of quality in terms of ripeness.
After more than 80% of a trichome has turned amber, THC begins to convert into CBN at a quickening rate. The plant is now in the phase of diminishing returns.
Look at the coloration of individual trichome heads rather than making the decision based on the overall coloring of the majority of trichomes. For example, you want to see a trichome head that is 60-80% amber and 20-40% milky, as opposed to 80% of all the plant’s trichomes being amber-colored.
Color is intimately linked with trichome ripeness, but there are other factors at play. Plant genetics and growing environment dictate optimal ripeness.
Ripeness, like many dimensions of the cannabis experience, is best left to personal preference rather than scientific dictates. That said, it’s important to understand chemically what’s happening inside of the trichome at every stage of development so that we understand the spectrum of ripeness. It’s equally important to recognize the signals that the plant gives us regarding it’s ripeness. And it’s all in the trichomes.
Color gives us some insight into what’s going on inside, however it exists in the context of the entire plant. As scientific research continues to focus on the magic of trichomes, we’ll learn more about ripeness and how to optimize for it. Exciting times ahead in the cannabis space!
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Can immature trichomes still be good?
Immature trichomes will contain resin that hasn't yet expressed its full therapeutic potential. Yet, it can still provide an effect, although it will be more mild.
How long does a cannabis plant take to be fully ripe?
Most cultivars will be ripe after 8-10 weeks of flowering. Growing environment and genetics impact ripeness so the only way to tell for sure is to examine trichomes.
Why do trichomes turn amber?
Trichomes turn amber when they reach maturity, a reflection of the chemical composition of the resin reaching peak ripeness.
Why do people harvest cannabis before it's fully ripe?
Many factors can influence this decision, such as growing conditions outdoors with the changing season, pests, rains, etc. However, one common reason is to make hash and rosin look lighter due to lack of amber in the trichomes.
How do you examine trichome color?
Using a jeweler's loupe, a specific type of magnifier used by jewelers, is the best way to examine trichomes. There are also magnifiers that will take a picture of the trichomes, which can be a great benefit.