Many smokers who buy weed from a dispensary or dealer don’t even think about the plant it came from.
Sure, most people — even if they have no interest in cannabis — can draw the five- or seven-point fan leaf that’s become the universal symbol for marijuana.
But while those leaves are recognizable, they have very little to do with getting high.
The fan leaves’ basic functions are simply absorbing light and carbon dioxide, and releasing oxygen. They’re essentially like the leaves on any plant.
What makes cannabis plants different? Their unique flowers, and to a lesser extent the “sugar” leaves that protect the flowers.
To fully understand what weed looks like, let’s consider the complete plant — which is a marvel of nature. We’ll be starting with the more ordinary parts of a weed plant and then moving on to the parts we all care about.
Stems and Branches
Like most plants, the cannabis plant has a large main stem with several branches attached. Their functions aren’t unusual; they provide support for the plant and connect with its roots to provide the leaves and flowers with food and water. (They also contain very little psychoactive THC.)
The stems of Sativa strains grow tall, while Indica plants are likely to be shorter with longer branches. The branches on both strains have a characteristic arch.
Cannabis Fan Leaves
We’ve already mentioned these distinctive green, serrated leaves that identify a plant as a marijuana plant. But there aren’t always five or seven points on fan leaves.
They may have anywhere between one and 13 “lobes,” and the number of lobes often changes as the plants mature. Fewer than five points on weed leaves, once the plant has reached the flowering stage, may indicate issues like not enough water or temperatures that are too high.
In most cases, Indica plants will have short, broad fan leaves with seven points; Sativa leaves will be more slender and are likely to have more than seven lobes. In either case, there’s not enough THC in fan leaves to get a satisfying high.
Let’s get to the good stuff.
Marijuana Flowers and Sugar Leaves Identification
First things first: not all marijuana plants flower. Only female plants do. Male plants will simply grow difficult-to-find pollen sacs at the junctions of the stem and the branches.
You also might have trouble finding the flowers on female plants, if you’re expecting to see beautiful, colorful blooms. The sticky “buds” that smokers are familiar with are the plant’s flowers, which have been harvested and dried for sale; cannabis buds don’t bloom the way they do on most flowering plants.
(Now you know why bud and flower are synonyms when people are talking about pot.)
So if you’re trying to figure out what a weed plant looks like, look for the trademark fan leaves, topped by buds that look much like the stuff that you grind and pack your bowl with.
Let’s go a little more in-depth.
What Weed Flowers Look Like
Dense buds make up most of a marijuana flower, and they’re ideally coated with white, sticky trichomes. Those trichomes are the reason that smoking up gets you high; they produce the resin which contains most of the plant’s cannabinoids (including THC) and terpenes.
If you look closely at a trichome, it looks something like a mushroom with tiny hairs. But when you’re looking at the entire plant you’ll simply see the trichomes as white spots with hairs growing from them.
You may sometimes see color within weed flowers, but it’s not from the type of flowers you’d normally expect to be there.
That color is provided by tiny leaves called bracts, and they may be purple or blue, orange, red, or yellow. They’re so small you might not notice them unless you’re searching for them.
Colored hairs grow from the bracts as well; they’re the stigmas of the flowers’ pistils, designed to catch pollen for fertilization. (Cultivators take great care to prevent their plants from being fertilized because that will cause them to stop growing bud and start growing seeds instead.)
Stigmas are white when they first emerge, and the plant is almost ready for harvest when they turn color.
What Sugar Leaves Look Like
There’s another set of long and thin leaves surrounding the flower that is more easily seen by the naked eye. They’re known as sugar leaves.
Why “sugar” leaves? It’s because they’re often coated in the same white trichomes that are found on the buds. There won’t be as many trichomes on sugar leaves as there are on the flowers, meaning the leaves aren’t as psychoactive as bud. They do, however, contain more than enough THC to create potent concentrates or to be used to make edibles.
Why the Weed Buds You Buy Look Different Compared To the Flowers on Plants
Even though the weed you get from a dealer or at a dispensary is essentially the flower that grows on cannabis plants, it won’t look the same. It may appear somewhat darker, drier, and smaller.
There’s a very good reason why. When marijuana is harvested, it contains an enormous amount of moisture; that moisture hurts the potency, flavor, and aroma of the weed, and encourages mold growth. The plants also contain lots of chlorophyll and other plant byproducts that make the flowerless enjoyable to smoke.
Before the flower can be packaged and sold, it must be trimmed, dried, and “cured” to solve those problems.
Drying and curing are processes that age and properly dry the harvested plant in climate-controlled conditions. They remove much of the plant’s moisture, force the degradation of unwanted plant material — and preserve the potency and other characteristics of the weed. When done the right way, drying and curing can take weeks.
Why does that change the way the weed looks? Trimming the flower may remove some of its natural colors, and curing removes much of its green chlorophyll. Removing moisture forces the buds to shrink into a more compact shape as it dries.
So the weed you buy will have the same general appearance as the flower on a gorgeous cannabis plant just before harvest, but it will look somewhat different.
What’s more important is the fact that — if the plant has been cultivated, harvested, trimmed, dried, and cured properly — the weed you buy will be at peak potency and flavor.
What Does Weed Look Like FAQ
Q: Why do most weeds look green, but some look purple, blue, or orange?
A: It’s all dependent on the weed’s strain. All cannabis contains molecules called flavonoids, which help boost THC’s effectiveness and contribute health benefits. But they’re also largely responsible for the color of the flower. Different flavonoids take on different colors, based on the plant’s strain, the temperature it was grown at, and its acidity level. Contrary to popular belief, though, the color of the weed has nothing to do with how potent it is.
Q: Can you tell the quality of weed before you buy it, just from the way it looks?
A: Somewhat. Top-shelf weed is likely to be vibrantly colored, with lots of frosty, sparkling trichomes. Schwag will be much darker and duller in color, there will be few trichomes and they won’t look attractive, and there may be stems or seeds mixed in with the flower. If the weed is brown or you see powder on its surface — don’t buy it. Brown usually means poor quality, and the powder is mold or mildew.
- Tanney, C. A., Backer, R., Geitmann, A., & Smith, D. L. (2021). Cannabis Glandular Trichomes: A Cellular Metabolite Factory. Frontiers in Plant Science, 1923.
- Stavenga, D. G., Leertouwer, H. L., Dudek, B., & Van der Kooi, C. J. (2021). The coloration of flowers by flavonoids and consequences of pH-dependent absorption. Frontiers in Plant Science, 2148.