Whether you live in a legal state or not (and perhaps especially if not), chances are you have encountered subpar cannabis flowers before. The era of weak, brown “brick weed” is long over, but that doesn’t mean that all flower is created equally.
The good news is that you can avoid being stuck with subpar weed if you know what to look for. In our experience, there is no substitute for a smoke test in a perfectly rolled joint or blunt, but a methodical visual inspection of the buds will give you a good idea as to the type of strain and the conditions in which it was grown. Once you know what to look for, you’ll always have the best in your 420 travel kit.
Well-grown, quality cannabis buds should have a pungent, identifiable smell — that skunky aroma that ranges from slightly sweet to earthy to diesel-like — indicating high terpene content. Alternatively, inferior buds often lack any smell or smell similarly to hay or alfalfa, a sure sign of poorly grown and/or cured cannabis.
For reference, rich scents like coffee and chocolate are typically indicative of an indica strain, while bright, acidic citrus notes are generally characteristic of a sativa. Hybrid strains will likely contain components of both profiles.
Avoid buds that smell like hay or have no discernible smell at all. If it doesn’t have that characteristic dankness, you probably don’t want it.
Pungency is directly linked to potency and terpene content.
Quality cannabis buds should be generally green in color, not brown! The exact shade can range from lighter, frosty greens to darker, forest greens, with undertones that range from purple to rosy to golden.
The important question to ask is: does the bud look like it came from a healthy plant? It is not uncommon for quality buds to have hints of purple, pink, blue, etc. However, if the majority of the bud is rusty red, brown, tan, or yellow in color, it came from an unhealthy plant.
Buds that looked bleached white (not frosty with crystals) are the unfortunate victims of light burn, an unfavorable growing condition in which the plant is subjected to extremely high-intensity light. Avoid these buds, as they won’t give you a quality smoking or vaping experience.
Avoid buds that are brown, tan, yellow, red, or white in color.
Quality cannabis is primarily green in color, with a wide range of accent colors and undertones.
As a general rule of thumb, indica buds should be tight and dense, while sativa buds are often more light and fluffy. However, when grown carelessly, indica buds can take on sativa-like appearance, with open, incomplete buds and visible stems. Hybrid strains often share structural traits of both indicas and sativas.
For reference, sativa buds are typically covered in more pistils (little orange/red hairs) than indica buds. The pistils should be dispersed throughout the bud, not clustered in some areas and absent from others.
Avoid buds with loose, open structures and visible stems
Indicas are generally tight and dense, while sativas are fluffier with more pistils
Following the harvest, cannabis buds must be trimmed in order to eliminate the leaves surrounding the bud. Quality cannabis buds should be tightly hand-trimmed as opposed to machine-trimmed.
Trimming machines tend to mangle buds and disrupt the fragile trichomes they harbor. Avoid buds that have been machine trimmed or untrimmed buds with excessive leaves; typical indications of rushed cultivation practices.
Avoid buds that haven’t been trimmed well, or are visibly mangled by a trim machine
Quality cannabis is trimmed by hand to preserve trichomes and buds
The goal of properly grown cannabis is to produce buds densely packed with ripe trichomes, the visible crystals on the surface of the buds. This is because trichomes are where the cannabinoids and terpenes are stored.
Trichome density is relatively easy to distinguish with the naked eye; i.e. how ‘frosty’ is the bud? Quality buds will be covered in trichomes that sparkle like crystals, whereas poor quality buds will lack trichome coverage.
Trichome ripeness, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to assess without the aid of a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe. The question at hand; was the plant grown to maturity, or was it harvested prematurely (or even late)?
Usually, the problem is prematurely harvested buds as opposed to those which are over-ripened (especially with sativa strains, as they have longer flowering periods). Premature harvesting is especially common in illegal states where the underground cultivators seek to complete more flower cycles in a year to maximize yield (at the expense of quality).
The color of the glandular trichome head is the easiest way to determine trichome ripeness. Ideally, the trichome heads should be milky white, possibly with a hint of amber. If the trichome heads are clear, the plant was harvested prematurely, and if all the heads are amber, the plant was harvested after peak ripeness.
Avoid buds that don’t look ‘frosty,’ as they were not grown to peak ripeness
Quality cannabis is dense with cannabinoid-rich, milky-white trichome heads
Quality buds are only produced by female cannabis plants – males produce pollen sacks, which you don’t want to smoke! Strong female genetics remain female even through the potential stresses encountered while growing.
The key here is strong female genetics; some more finicky strains will produce female plants with hermaphroditic traits. This means that, with enough stress or time, the plant has a tendency to produce either male flower sites or “bananas” (also called nanners).
These are generally not desirable characteristics and buds showing these traits should be avoided. This is a plant’s final attempt to self-pollinate and reproduce after being stressed to a point where it views death as imminent. All that stress means that the plant hasn’t had the energy to devote to becoming potent — it’s been in survival mode. Thus, the earlier in its lifecycle the plant shows hermaphroditic traits, the higher likelihood the bud is seeded.
Avoid cannabis with seeds, male flower sites, or “bananas.”
Quality cannabis is only produced by the female plant – male characteristics indicate the plant was cultivated under stress and the quality of the buds will be substantially lower.
Mold and Pests
It should go without saying that quality cannabis buds are free of mold and pests, but these issues can sometimes surface in cannabis purchased from a source outside the regulated legal market.
Mold manifests itself as white, powdery mildew (distinct from the crystalline trichomes) or a grey, fuzzy mold, depending on the particular fungal pest. Insects like mites, gnats, thrips, and aphids can leave fecal matter, eggs and even dead friends behind on your buds — ew. If any of these critters, or traces of them, are in your herb, don’t smoke it!
Avoid cannabis with any evidence of mold and pests
Did You Know?
Aside from the obvious (not wanting to smoke bad weed), those same buds pictured above comprise the starting material used to make all other forms of cannabis. Whether you prefer vaporizing concentrates or consuming edibles, every form of cannabis consumptionstems from the flower the plant produces.
Healthy plants have the best chance of producing a robust cannabinoid profile, and while most people are looking for maximum THC content, one of the most beneficial cannabinoids is called cannabidiol, or CBD.
Though it doesn’t get you high (unlike THC, it is non-psychoactive), athletes and travelers find CBD incredibly helpful for pain relief. Others find help with anxiety and stress, and it is used to treat drug-resistant epilepsy and other inflammatory disorders.
Commonly sold in concentrated forms such as tinctures or softgels, CBD can also be found in high concentrations in organic hemp flower (Lifter strain from Canna Comforts shown below), the source material from which those concentrates are extracted.