With 823 legal brick-and-mortar cannabis shops, numerous online retailers and delivery services, and 6,000+ licensed cultivators in California, there is stiff competition among cannabis brands and an overwhelming amount of products on the market. This wide selection can often make the selection process difficult.
With so many brands claiming to have the most premium, potent, and flavorful buds, how do you determine who has top-shelf flower? Genetics, cultivation techniques, and structure are just a few components contributing to quality. But, those new to cannabis and even some long-time users may not know exactly what to look for when selecting flower.
But, all is not lost! In this article, we break down 5 simple steps for evaluating cannabis flower — saving you time and money, and helping you find a more enjoyable experience.
5 Steps to Evaluating Cannabis Flower
Step 1 – Aroma
While all cannabis has a distinct smell, the easiest way to distinguish between high-quality and low-quality flower is from its aroma. Trichomes, the small, sugar-like crystals coating the outside of the flower, produce terpenoids (terpenes) which secrete aromatic oils that give each strain its unique scent and flavor.
A noticeably stronger smell often suggests a higher potency and more trichome density. A weak smell indicates poor quality buds that are dried out, old, or simply less potent.
Over 200 different cannabis terpenoids exist, but we’ve outlined the most common profiles below. When selecting flower, give it a good sniff and see which notes you pick out. Your flower is likely of a higher quality if you get a strong, overpowering whiff of one of these scents.
Common Terpene Profiles
Skunk – Skunky smells are most commonly associated with cannabis. A common misconception is that a “skunky” flower signifies “bad weed.” In truth, this smell results from a high concentration of myrcene, the terpene present in hops and mangos. The mix of terpenoids in specific cultivars, such as OG Kush, Gelato, and Blue Dream, results in a skunky smell, so don’t let the pungent odor throw you off.
Fuel/Gas – Strains like Sour Diesel, Miracle Alien Cookies, and Chemdawg are often called “dank” because they have a gassy, diesel-like aroma. This smell results from a combination of humulene, myrcene, linalool, and pinene. Strains with a potent fuel odor often produce a heavy body high and deep relaxation.
Earthy – The rich earthy, woody smell found in many popular strains is caused by high levels of humulene (basil and coriander), and pinene (pine needles). Green Crack and Northern Lights have a distinctly earthy aroma and are high in these two terpenes.
Sweet/Berry/Citrus – The terpene Limonene is found in citrus, while terpinolene is found in lilacs. Combined, these two terpenes create bright, citrus, and berry flavors and aromas — sometimes compared to perfume. Strains such as Peach Ozz, Orange Apricot, and Lemon Haze have a fruity, sweet flavor profile.
Aromas That Suggest Low-Quality
Fresh Cut Grass or Hay – The smell of fresh-cut grass or hay is a sure sign of chlorophyll, which means the cannabis flower has started to decompose into ammonia. This smell is often found in older flower and flower that has not been properly cured.
Mildew – A musty or mildew smell suggests that the flower has become contaminated with mold. Mold contamination typically occurs during flowering or curing (drying) phase. Buds that have been improperly cured retain moisture, ultimately leading to mold development. If the flower has been dried correctly, it will not develop mold after packaging as long as it remains dry.
Tip: To avoid getting stuck with old, dried out flower, always check the harvest date in addition to the aroma. A general rule of thumb is to purchase flower within 3 months of its harvest date. Most reputable cultivators want to get their flower on dispensary shelves within 10 days after the curing process is complete to ensure consumers get the freshest, most potent flower.
Step 2 – Structure
Like aroma, the structure of the bud can tell you a lot about its age and quality. The shape, hairs (pistils), trim, and color should be considered when selecting flower. Use the points below to find the best-looking buds.
Shape – Although it is not a hard and fast rule, high-quality indica buds tend to be fat and dense with tightly-packed buds, and high-quality sativa buds tend to be more open, wispy, and lean. Hybrid strains vary based on genetics and often have a combination of both. However, all buds should be intact, evenly sized, and spaced.
Hairs – The orange, curly hairs outside the buds are called “pistils.” White hairs are typically found on younger plants but transition from yellow to orange as they grow. Bright orange hairs clustered throughout the bud suggest a good quality, while dull, gray, or brown hairs mean the flower may be old or dry. It is also important to remember that sativa strains tend to have more pistils than indica.
Trimming – After the buds are cured, trimming removes any excess plant foliage. Many companies now use trimming machines to speed up this often long and arduous process. However, machines can damage the bud and strip it of trichomes. High-quality cannabis flower is carefully hand-trimmed by professionals who have the knowledge and tools to preserve the integrity of each bud. Missing trichomes or rough-cut flower may signify that the buds were trimmed by machine.
Color – The most important thing to consider when it comes to color is vibrancy. Fresh buds with a good cure will have shades of green, yellow, orange, red, and purple. The more complex the color scheme of your buds, the fresher it is. The trichomes covering the buds should have a sheer, pearl-like appearance, and pistils should be various shades of orange, amber, or red.
Tip: When looking at flower, you should be able to easily identify the bracts (flower clusters), and the pistils (hairs), colors should be varied and vibrant, and no stems or seeds should be present.
Step 3 – Trichomes
As mentioned above, trichomes produce terpenes that give each strain a distinct taste and smell. Trichomes also contain cannabinoids, the chemical compounds in cannabis that bind to the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) to help the body maintain adequate function. THCA is the cannabinoid responsible for the psychoactive effects most commonly associated with cannabis.
Buds covered in a thick layer of sparkling trichomes are of higher quality and are more likely to have beneficial effects. While trichomes are difficult to see with the naked eye, you can use a jeweler’s loupe or a magnifying jar. Most dispensaries will provide shoppers with a hand-held magnifying glass or jar to better look at the trichomes.
Tip: In a pinch, you can also use your smartphone to get a good look at the trichomes. Snap a few pics of the buds and zoom in on the image to check the color, clarity, and coverage of the crystals.
Trichomes should be pearly white and should resemble small mushrooms. If you notice tiny or underdeveloped trichomes, that may signify that the flower was harvested too early. If large sections of the bud are missing trichomes, this could indicate that it was machine trimmed and may not be as potent.
Mold vs. Trichomes
The presence of mold on cannabis flower is dangerous. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the difference between mold and trichomes. Crystalline trichomes have a sparkle or sheen and have tiny mushroom-shaped tops. Mold is white or gray, with a fuzzy or powdery texture. If you are even in doubt about the presence of mold, it is best not to smoke it.
Step 4 – Texture and Moisture Content
Although most dispensaries do not let consumers touch flower before purchase, it is always a good idea to give buds a light squeeze once you get home and open the jar or bag. Quality cannabis buds are properly cured to achieve the ideal moisture content. Too much moisture can lead to mold, and too little can lead to brittle, dry buds with minimal potency. High-quality flower will feel soft and springy with some give.
Once you do get the opportunity to touch the flower, look for the following points to make sure you’ve purchased quality buds.
Soft & Plump – High-quality buds will feel soft and plump, similar to ripe fruit. It should also maintain its shape when handled.
Supple – Buds should never feel dry or brittle to the touch. Properly cured flower is supple and springy. If you notice any sharp points, the flower may not be properly cut or be old and dried out.
Stickiness – Trichomes are naturally sticky, so your flower should feel tacky to the touch. However, it should not feel saturated or damp. Wet buds are a sign of an improper cure and, in most cases, they will be difficult to consume and often has an unpleasant taste.
Springiness – Correctly cured flower will return to its original shape when pressure is applied. If you squeeze the buds and notice a depression or dent, it is a sign that the flower is too moist. If the flower breaks and falls apart immediately, it signifies dryness.
Tip: If you notice any textural issues once you get the flower home, you may be able to return it for a refund or store credit. Most dispensaries do their best to keep old flower off their shelves, but mistakes do happen and most will do what they can to make it right.
Step 5 – Genetics and THC Percentage
Healthy plants have a better chance of producing a complex cannabinoid profile with rich terpenes and a high THC percentage. However, a high THC percentage (30%+) does not necessarily suggest quality; you should also consider the abovementioned points. Vise versa, an average THC percentage (between 20-30%) does not necessarily mean poor quality buds. Some genetic strains are predisposed to have a lower THC percentage.
The best way to select flower is to look at the quality, the strain’s terpene profile, and cannabinoid content. This will give you a better idea of the taste/aroma, effects, and the type of high you will experience.
Tip: While sativa leaning strains tend to be best for daytime use and indica leaning strains are best for sleep, there is a wide selection of strains on the market, so it’s best to understand the individual strain and its effects.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is cannabis quality important?
When consuming cannabis, you want the best experience possible. However, you also want to protect yourself against harmful contaminants. Below, we outline why it’s so essential to check bud quality before consuming.
Health Benefits and A Better High – Cannabis plants that are meticulously cared for will naturally have a higher cannabinoid content and a more varied terpene profile. Therefore, you are more likely to reap the numerous health benefits of cannabis when smoking high-quality buds. Additionally, if you want a more intense high, top-shelf flower is more likely to offer THC percentages over 30.
Reduced Contamination – Cannabis plants poorly grown, harvested, cured, or stored will not reach their fullest potential and may not provide the benefits you are after. Inferior buds are also more likely to be contaminated with impurities, such as pesticides, spider mites, and mold, which could have adverse side effects if consumed. Clean flower is especially important when considering cannabis for medicinal use.
Longer Shelf Life – Poor quality buds tend to deteriorate quickly. They often dry out and lose their potency and flavor. However, properly grown and cured flower will naturally have a long shelf life, allowing you to consume it more slowly.
Should you buy from reputable cultivators?
Yes. Before you head to the dispensary, research the brands available to you. Most companies are forthcoming with their cultivation methods and want to share with consumers the care they put into their products.
At Canndescent, our cultivation team collectively has over 30 years of experience in cannabis. We also grow all our own flower, giving us complete control of the process. Our knowledge and expertise ensure that you always find a quality product when shopping our brands.
Does the smell of weed determine potency?
While the smell of weed does not necessarily determine potency, it can be a good indicator of strength and quality. As we explain above, when flower has a strong, pungent smell, it typically means that it has good trichome coverage and is therefore of higher quality. However, if you are concerned about potency, you should check the THC percentage.
Does weed go bad?
Yes. Even the best quality flower will eventually go bad, dry out, and lose its color, taste, smell, and potency. Therefore, it is important to check the harvest date before purchase. As mentioned above, it is best to purchase flower within 3 months of the harvest date. If you plan to consume your flower slowly, you should get buds within a month or 2 of the harvest to ensure they stay fresh.
Contact with air and the oils on your hands can also cause flower to deteriorate quickly, so it is best to keep your flower in a humidity-controlled, airtight container and try not to handle it too much.
Using the points outlined above, you are now armed and ready to identify top-shelf cannabis that will offer you a better overall experience — from taste to flavor to effects, you will enjoy cannabis consumption even more when you select flower that has been carefully grown, cured, and packaged.