You can smoke it, you can eat it and you can vape it, but sometimes just looking at marijuana is enough to expand your consciousness a little. After all, Cannabis sativa may be known for its medicinal, emotional and spiritual properties, but it’s also one hell of a looker – especially when you get up really close.
Botanists have been captivated by the plant for decades, and began publishing detailed microscopic images of it back in the early 70s. Imaging tech has come a long way in that time, allowing the plant’s most intricate details to be documented with jaw-dropping clarity. You don’t have to be high to completely lose yourself in some of these images…
The Early Days
While the earliest microscopic cannabis images were a little crude and very grainy, a technique called scanning electron microscopy (SEM) soon allowed scientists to begin taking seriously attractive pictures of cannabis trichomes. The first of these appeared in the Journal of the Forensic Science Society back in 1972, as seen below.
Four years later, The American Journal of Botany published an in-depth study on the structure of cannabis trichomes, featuring a series of images that are basically weed porn.
In this image we see the lobe of a young leaf, featuring numerous non-glandular trichomes.
Here we see the surface of the petiole – which is the stalk that connects the leaves to the main stem – covered in non-glandular hairs and capitate glands.
SEM is still used today, although modern equipment allows for much more detailed colour images. The series of pictures below shows the three different types of glandular trichome on Cannabis sativa. These are the structures that synthesise and store cannabinoids like THC and CBD.
The image on the left shows a capitate-stalk trichome, featuring a head that typically measures 50–70 µm in diameter, though this can increase to 119 µm for certain high-THC strains. The centre image is a capitate-sessile trichome, while the picture on the right shows a bulbous trichome. This is the smallest of the glandular trichomes, with a head that contains no more than four cells.
In 2018, a professor in the Photographic Sciences Department at Rochester Institute of Technology named Ted Kinsman took cannabis imaging to the next level, when he published a book called Cannabis: Marijuana Under The Microscope[v]. Utilising the very latest SEM equipment, he produced some of the most detailed images of marijuana’s microscopic features ever seen – including the shots below.
The following year, researchers from The University of British Columbia used a technique called multiphoton microscopy to take even more detailed images, as seen below.
As well as producing these incredible shots, this particular study also provided confirmation that the largest trichomes tend to contain the highest amounts of THC and CBD, and that plants with more trichomes generally have greater cannabinoid concentrations[vii].
Of course, you don’t need to be a lab scientist to take great photos of your bud – as evidenced by all the amazing entries in our recent Photo Cup competitions. Last autumn’s winning image, which was sent in by Highlyelevated1 and is entitled Trichomes, rivals any of the snaps featured in the academic literature:
[i] Image: Mitosinka, G. T., Thornton, J. I., & Hayes, T. L. (1972). The Examination of Cystolithic Hairs of Cannabis and other Plants by means of the Scanning Electron Microscope. Journal of the Forensic Science Society, 12(3), 521–529. doi:10.1016/s0015-7368(72)70717-3
[ii] Image: Dayanandan, P., & Kaufman, P. B. (1976). TRICHOMES OF CANNABIS SATIVA L. (CANNABACEAE). American Journal of Botany, 63(5), 578–591. doi:10.1002/j.1537-2197.1976.tb11846.x
[iv] Image: Happyana, N., Agnolet, S., Muntendam, R., Van Dam, A., Schneider, B., & Kayser, O. (2013). Analysis of cannabinoids in laser-microdissected trichomes of medicinal Cannabis sativa using LCMS and cryogenic NMR. Phytochemistry, 87, 51–59. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2012.11.001
[vii] Livingston SJ, Quilichini TD, Booth JK, Wong DC, Rensing KH, Laflamme‐Yonkman J, Castellarin SD, Bohlmann J, Page JE, Samuels AL. Cannabis glandular trichomes alter morphology and metabolite content during flower maturation. The Plant Journal. 2020 Jan;101(1):37-56. https://doi.org/10.1111/tpj.14516