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How To Differentiate Good From Bad Quality Marijuana Buds

Many think they can tell the difference between good and bad-quality bud just by giving it a once-over, but there are certain nuances people don’t consider. In this guide, we’ll walk you through each distinction, and offer some key tips on how to grow premium-quality cannabis buds.

How to tell the difference between good and bad cannabis buds.

Contents:

It probably didn’t take long after you started smoking weed to realise the differences between cannabis buds. Despite how everyone claims their weed is top-notch, you’ve probably noticed when the flower just isn’t up to par. In contrast, when you’re holding quality cannabis, you know it right then and there.

To ensure you only buy the best buds, learning the differences between top-shelf fire from rugged brick weed is vital. You don’t need to be a connoisseur either, as the differentiating traits can be seen and smelled with no assistance. Learning the differences will help you browse the shelves, sure, but it’ll especially help you judge the plants in your own garden. That, in turn, will help you make any necessary adjustments.

Types of Cannabis Buds

Cannabis flowers can be categorised into various quality spectrums. You could be talking about stickiness, terpene profile, taste, texture, or an assortment of other factors. To keep things simple, we’ve narrowed things down to three basic categories: low, medium, and premium-quality bud.

Low-Quality

Low-quality cannabis has a sorry look to it, mostly because it travels long distances after being stuffed into small packages. Known rightly as “brick weed”, these buds often arrive at their destination as dense cubes.

Rarely grown for quality or with much care at all, the producers associated with this level of cannabis are purely profit-driven. Often a black market product, low-quality cannabis typically stems from south of both the US border and the European continent.

Of course, some home growers with the intention to sell may also accidentally produce cannabis of similar quality. Novice growers will often mess up during the process and leave themselves with dry, unremarkable buds.

The key signs of low-quality cannabis include:

Medium-Quality

Domestic growers all over the world mostly produce buds that fall into this category. These flowers are set apart from poor-quality cannabis thanks to their improved colouration, heightened scents, and overt flavours.

Most growers manage to dial in their nutrients, watering schedule, and environmental variables enough to produce cannabis of this quality. The most important factor, though, is putting pride and effort into their work.

If you’re looking for medium-quality bud, or simply trying to dodge the bad stuff, look for these traits:

Premium-Quality

High-grade. Top-shelf. Fire.

Premium-quality bud goes by many names, yet they all describe its immense flavour and mind-shattering effects. These buds are hard to come by outside of big cities and weed-growing areas. Generally, they’re the products of skilled farmers and master breeders in hotspots like Northern California, Spain, and the Netherlands.

You’ll find these nugget-like buds encased in jars on the shelves of reputable dispensaries and highly-rated coffeeshops. If you’re looking for the best buds money can buy, keep an eye out for the following:

How to Differentiate Good Buds From the Bad: A Guide

We hope the above generalisations make it easier to distinguish the quality of a given bud, but it can get a bit more complicated. Below, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty and inspect cannabis flowers a little closer.

Aroma

As we discussed before, aromatic molecules known as terpenes are responsible for said signature scent. Despite the similar undertone, though, most strains feature unique smells thanks to different concentrations of terpenes.

You’re probably familiar with the small, shiny structures on the surface of cannabis buds and sugar leaves. These mushroom-shaped glands—trichomes—pump out terpenes during the flowering stage.

You’ll know you’re dealing with good-quality weed when the olfactory wave of terpenes hits straight after opening your stash. While a pleasing scent and cannabis quality aren’t unconditionally connected, the former is a likely indication of the latter. Hints of flowers, fuel, earth, spices, sugar, fruit, citrus, and berries are among the most common aromas.

The quality of a strain’s terpene profile depends on several variables:

  • Genetics: Some strains are genetically equipped to pump out more aromatic terpenes than others, mostly due to selective breeding practices.
  • Drying and curing: Genetics only achieve so much. Correctly drying, curing, and storing cannabis will preserve the terpene profile and make for better-tasting buds.
  • The right nutrients: During the flowering stage, cannabis plants have a higher demand for potassium and phosphorus and less of a need for nitrogen. Get this balance right, and you’ll produce some fantastic-smelling flowers.
  • Living soil: A strong microbial population will help plants access all of the nutrients they need to develop an optimal terpene profile.
  • Companion planting: Many growers claim planting basil in close proximity to cannabis helps improve its smell.

Quick Growing Tip: Boosting terpenes will improve the overall smell and flavour of your plants. Select strains such as Lemon Shining Silver Haze and Haze Berry to start with a genetic advantage.

Colour

Although you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can definitely judge cannabis buds by their appearance. There are many factors that indicate quality to a trained eye, and colour is one of the most important.

Of course, cannabis flowers come in an array of different hues of purple, orange, green, and red. It isn’t so much the colour that gives away quality, but more so the vibrancy. See, healthy and well-grown cannabis flowers have a bright and shiny look to them.

Such vibrancy signals good genetics, solid growing techniques, and adequate curing and storage. In contrast, poor-quality cannabis appears matte, dull, and pallid. These buds are often dark green to brown, pale, and ultimately unappealing.

Quick Growing Tip: Flushing plants at the right moment will prevent excess nutrients from accumulating in flowers and eliminate nutrient burn.

Additional Tip: Play around with genetics and temperature to grow purple weed! Start with genetics like Purple Queen to increase your chances of success.

Orange/Brown Pistils

Upon looking closely at the surface of cannabis flowers, you’ll come across a miniature landscape—valleys, peaks, and all—made up of different glands, organs, and structures. Among the scenery, the pistils protrude the most.

These hair-like tendrils are the sex organ of the female cannabis flower, serving as the receiver of male pollen. Once this genetic dust makes contact, the flower becomes fertile and swiftly goes to seed.

Away from their biological role, pistils serve as useful progress markers. During the early flowering stage, these reproductive parts boast a brilliant whiteness. As the weeks go by, their appearance turns to a solid dark orange.

You should always look for deep orange pistils when eyeing up buds. Harvest should ideally take place when at least 70% of the hairs turn this colour. This indicates the buds are ripe, mature, and ready for snipping. Flowers with mostly white pistils signal immature cannabis. Left a while longer, these flowers will mature and unleash a complete cannabinoid and terpene profile.

Quick Growing Tip: Harvest at the right moment, ensuring pistils are the right colour at the right time. You’ll need to be patient when cultivating strains like Amnesia Haze, as they have a slightly longer flowering time.

Crystals/Resin

Trichomes are the most abundant feature on the surface of good-quality flowers. To the naked eye, they appear as a fine layer of crystals that shimmer under torchlight or the flame of a lighter.

These mushroom-shaped structures feature a bulbous head atop a narrow stalk. In this head, specialised cells tasked with resin production work tirelessly during the flowering phase. The resin exudes downward and gradually covers the majority of the surface of the flower. This resin—and its active phytochemicals—help guard buds against insect attacks and temperature extremes.

The substance contains a complex array of molecules. Those of interest to us include cannabinoids such as THC and CBD, along with terpenes like myrcene, pinene, and limonene. The more trichomes a flower possesses, the more resin it will produce. The more resin coating the surface of a bud, the more cannabinoids and terpenes sit ready to be combusted, vaporized, or chewed and swallowed.

You’ll be able to tell the trichome and resin content of a bud just by looking at it and holding it. Note how it glitters, the stickiness, and consider the resistance generated as you peel your fingertips from the flower.

Quick Growing Tip: Utilise environmental factors to boost trichome production. Strains such as ICE are genetically wired to develop high quantities of trichomes.

Dense/Fluffy

How buds feel in the hand says a lot about their quality. Every grower hopes for dense and heavy buds at the end of the growing season. These flowers simply hold more mass, look much healthier, and smoke smoother.

Grinding up dense cannabis flowers seems to almost double their size. Even a small chunk of a compact flower can grind down to fill a good-sized joint. In contrast, fluffy buds yield disappointment and less plant matter. These airy flowers are often the result of suboptimal growing conditions, a lack of light, or nutrient deficiency.

Fluffy buds don’t only look less appetising, but you’ll need to use more of your harvest every time you roll a blunt or hit a bowl. Dense buds will offer some resistance and spring back to their original shape. Airy buds will almost collapse in on themselves, and feel much more feeble to the touch.

Quick Tip: Sativa and indica flowers tend to look different; know what to look for when browsing.

Growing Tip: Utilise powerful lights to grow dense and compact flowers.

Seeds

The presence of seeds is never a sign of quality flowers. The very word sinsemilla—a name given to weed of exceptional quality—refers to flowers devoid of seeds.

Remember those protruding pistils we covered earlier? When pollen from a male plant lands on the tendrils, it starts a process of changing the biochemical activity of the cannabis flower. The plant diverts its energy and efforts away from producing sticky resin and towards making seeds instead.

Flowers with seeds don’t reach peak potency and maturity because the resources are swallowed up by reproductive efforts instead. Cannabis seeds also make flowers heavier, meaning you end up paying more for less flower. If you buy one gram of weed and find 200mg of seeds nested within, you’ve wasted money. That might not seem like much, but consider that across 50–100 purchases, and that’s a lot of lost bud.

Unnoticed seeds can also ruin a smoke session. Seeds pop when the flame of the joint hits them, disturbing your zen and sending harsh smoke into your lungs.

Quick Growing Tip: Learn how to avoid pollination to keep seeds out of your weed.

Stems

Smoking stems either boils down to an accident or an act of desperation. Stems contain minuscule levels of cannabinoids and produce a harsh smoke. However, the presence of stems in your bag doesn’t necessarily indicate bad weed.

Rather, it shows a rushed preparation process. Plus, you paid for that extra weight! When browsing your local dispensary or coffeeshop, avoid buds with excess stems. Alternatively, simply ask the budtender to trim them off before you buy them.

Quick Tip: They’re not as valuable as buds, but you can use stems to make a variety of homemade products, from hash to topicals.

Well-Trimmed vs Leafy

Trimming weed refers to removing the sugar leaves—small leaves that grow out of and around cannabis flowers. The presence of sugar leaves doesn’t automatically render cannabis poor-quality, but it can make a big difference.

Firstly, well-manicured buds simply look great. Trimming gives the bud a nice nugget-like appearance, and the aesthetic is a near-universal trait of premium-quality flowers.

Secondly, excess sugar leaves will impact the weight of the flower. You want to be paying for buds, not leaves. Finally, the presence of sugar leaves can cause issues during the curing process. Small pockets of moisture can build up, creating a breeding ground for pathogens and impacting the taste of the weed.

Quick Growing Tip: You can trim your weed either before or after drying it.

Even between cannabis buds of the same strain, quality varies. Click to learn how to tell the difference between low, medium, and premium-quality buds.

Nitrogen Toxicity

Problem: Dark green leaves, shiny leaves, clawing, weak stems, and overall slow growth. Marijuana leaves that are nitrogen toxic often get “The Claw” or talon-like leaves that are bent at the ends. They also do an odd curving (or cupping) that is often mistaken for overwatering, but is unique to nitrogen toxicity. You can see a “clawing” leaf in the pictures below (click each picture for a close-up).

Leaves that turn into claws often start turning yellow and dying if the nitrogen toxicity is not treated, much like a nitrogen deficiency, only the leaves will continue to get more and more clawed. Leaves eventually turn yellow or brown and fall off. You can tell if yellowing is caused by too much nitrogen because the rest of the plant will be dark green, and the yellowing leaves will turn into claws first.

The majority of times that growers encounter problems with nitrogen, it’s from giving too much of it to their plants.

Many new growers accidentally give their plants give too much Nitrogen, especially in the flowering stage. This results in dark, shiny, clawing leaves.

Your plant needs a lot of nitrogen in the vegetative stage, and it’s generally hard to give too much as long as you’re not going completely overboard with nutrients. Nitrogen is a big part of what makes leaves green, and is incredibly important to the process of photosynthesis (making energy from light).

But cannabis plants need relatively low levels of Nitrogen in the second half of the flowering/budding stage. While your plants still need N (nitrogen) during flowering, too much N at this stage will prevent your plants from forming buds properly, resulting in lower yields, less potency and possibly inferior buds.

This is why it’s important to avoid any type of “time-release” nutrients or soil (for example, standard Miracle-Gro soil) as they will keep giving your plant a lot of N even after its started flowering.

When it comes to nitrogen, this is what your plant needs:

Vegetative Stage – higher levels of Nitrogen (pretty much any plant food will do)

Most complete plant foods that you get at a gardening store contain high levels of nitrogen (N). These nutrient systems tend to work well in the vegetative stage.

Some examples of cannabis-friendly one-part Vegetative nutrient systems…

Pretty much any complete plant food

Flowering Stage – lower levels of Nitrogen (use “Bloom” or Cactus nutrients)

It’s extra important to find a nutrient system with lower levels of nitrogen for the last part of your plant’s life. Many “Bloom” or “Flowering” style base nutrients are just the ticket.

Some examples of good one-part Flowering nutrient systems…

If you can’t order online and can’t find a good one-part base Bloom formula locally, you do have other choices. Though not an ideal choice, most Cactus plant foods will contain good nutrient ratios for growing cannabis during the budding stage. So in a pinch, you can use the cactus nutrients that can be found at most gardening stores.

Different strains react differently to nitrogen toxicity. Some plants get dark green leaves with no clawing. Some strains will get leaves that do the weird 90 degree bend at the tips, while other strains or individual plants start curling like claws and then turn yellow / brown and fall off like a deficiency. Yet these are all signs of too much nitrogen.

Signs of Nitrogen Toxicity

  • Dark green leaves and foliage
  • Leaf tips may turn down, without signs of overwatering.
  • You may notice yellowing on the affected leaves or other signs of nutrient deficiencies as time goes on
  • Nitrogen toxicity is often but not always accompanied by nutrient burn
  • The Claw often seems random, affecting leaves here and there
  • Heat and pH problems will make the clawing worse, as they stress out the plant and lower her defenses, and cause her to drink more water (and uptake more N)
  • As time goes on, the claw leaves will eventually start turning yellow, getting spots, and dying

This cannabis seedling is dark because it was underwatered in a “hot” soil mix (too much Nitrogen), but after watering the plant as normal for a week or two, the plant started growing vigorously

Solution: Reduce the Nitrogen your plant is getting!

Reduce the amount of nitrogen that is being fed to the plants. If you are feeding extra nutrients, cut down that amount. If you are in the flowering / budding stage, make sure you’re using a formula that’s specifically meant for flowering, or else it could have too much nitrogen.

If you are not feeding extra nutrients, you may have “hot” soil that has been giving your plants extra nutrients. In that case, flush your plants with filtered, pH’ed water to help clear out the extra nitrogen.

Effected leaves likely won’t recover, but you should see the problem halt with no new leaves being affected.

Wait! I’m not sure if it’s Nitrogen toxicity!

Ok, you ruled out overwatering, now what?

When I first got started growing, everyone kept telling me that this particular kind of leaf clawing was caused by under or overwatering my plants, pH problems, or heat problems.

Yet in my case, I knew that it wasn’t over or under watering (I was growing in hydro, where roots grow directly in water and air stones are constantly adding oxygen). I knew it wasn’t pH (my reservoir water had the right pH) and I knew it wasn’t heat since the grow area was slightly cooler than room temperature.

So then what was really causing my claw leaves?

It’s understandable that other growers were mistaken. It is true that many stresses will make any other problem worse.

Plus overwatering can cause a similar kind of leaf clawing (learn more below). And if you do have nitrogen toxicity, than heat or pH problems will make the problem much worse.

Now, you may or may not know that marijuana (or any plant) needs an element known as “Nitrogen” to grow.

In fact, nitrogen is one of the 3 nutrients that are included in almost every kind of plant food.

When looking at plant nutrients, you’ll almost always see 3 numbers listed, like 3-12-6 or 5-10-5. These numbers represent the ratio of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K) contained in the bottle. Just about all plant life on Earth needs these 3 elements to grow.

The very first number, “3” in the case of the picture to the right, always displays the proportion of nitrogen in this nutrient bottle compared to the other 2 nutrients (Phosphorus and Potassium respectively).

The reason nitrogen is in all plant nutrient formulations is because it’s vital to plant processes.

For marijuana plants, when they don’t get enough nitrogen, the bottom leaves start turning yellow and dying. Left unchecked, a nitrogen deficiency can cause the whole plant to eventually die.

However, this time we’re the dealing with the opposite problem: nitrogen toxicity, or too much nitrogen.

Why You Should Treat And Prevent Nitrogen Toxicity

  • Marijuana plants that get too much Nitrogen in the vegetative stage don’t grow as vigorously.
  • Too much nitrogen is especially harmful in the flowering stage, because this will cause your plant to produce much smaller buds.
  • If you react quickly and reduce your nitrogen levels at the first sign of toxicity, your plant will quickly recover.

Note: Some strains with the word “Claw” in the name tend to do The Claw more easily than others.

Problems with excess nitrogen are not common in the wild; it’s a lot more common to see nitrogen toxicity on indoor plants, especially when overzealous growers go overboard with nutrients.

Occasionally you’ll come across a strain or particular plant that likes lower levels of nutrients, and when this happens, it’s important to realize the plant is showing signs of toxicity, even if all the other plants in your garden seem fine.

One of the most common signs off too-many-nutrients is “nutrient burn,” or when the tips of your leaf appear brown or burned. Yet there are specific signals your plant will display when she’s getting too much nitrogen…

Recap: How You Know You Have a Nitrogen Toxicity

  • Dark green leaves and foliage
  • Leaf tips turn down, without signs of overwatering.
  • You may notice yellowing on the affected leaves or other signs of nutrient deficiencies as time goes on
  • Nitrogen toxicity is often but not always accompanied by nutrient burn
  • The Claw often seems random, affecting leaves here and there
  • Heat and pH problems will make the clawing worse, as they stress out the plant and lower her defenses, and cause her to drink more water (and uptake more N)
  • As time goes on, the claw leaves will eventually start turning yellow, getting spots, and dying

Light and “The Claw”

  • The distance between the leaves to the lights or irregular light patterns from reflectors often seem to affect the condition, which is why many growers believe that light is somehow causing the problem.
  • You may notice this clawing first appears on dark green leaves that aren’t getting enough light (they aren’t able to use up all their nitrogen and become nitrogen toxic).

The Claw in the Flowering Stage

  • If you use vegetative plant nutrients during the flowering stage, then they’ll deliver too much nitrogen. This is why you need to get special nutrients meant for the blooming / flowering stage. You’ll notice that flowering nutrients always contain a smaller percentage of nitrogen (the first number) compared to nutrients for the vegetative stage. Learn more about marijuana nutrients here.
  • Many growers mistakenly keep raising nutrient levels or adding additional nitrogen when they see yellow leaves in the flowering stage, not realizing that it’s natural for plant leaves to start yellowing as harvest approaches. Adding too much nitrogen in the flowering stage can cause nitrogen toxicity even when you can see yellow lower leaves. Nitrogen toxicity in flowering results in smaller yields and airy cannabis buds, so make sure to watch out!

Note: During the last few weeks before harvest, marijuana plants starts pulling all the remaining nitrogen from her leaves as part of the bud-making process. This causes yellowing leaves starting towards the bottom of the plant. This is part of the natural flowering process and you don’t need to fight it. You may notice that marijuana leaves are yellowing in almost all pictures of marijuana plants with big buds that are close to harvest. You tend to get smaller yields at harvest from nitrogen-toxic plants with dark green leaves.

It’s Normal For Marijuana Leaves To Start Turning Yellow As Harvest Time Approaches, Don’t Keep Adding More Nitrogen!

I know a lot of marijuana plant problems can look similar, but now that you’re armed with the right information, you’ll know exactly what to do if you see Nitrogen Toxicity affecting your marijuana plants.

Plant Symptoms

  • Bronze or brown patches
  • Brown or slimy roots
  • Brown or yellow leaf tips/edges
  • Buds dying
  • Buds look odd
  • Bugs are visible
  • Curling or clawing leaves
  • Dark leaves
  • Drooping plant
  • Holes in leaves
  • Mold or powder
  • Pink or purple on leaves
  • Red stems
  • Shiny or smooth leaves
  • Spots or markings
  • Twisted growth
  • Webbing
  • Wilting leaves
  • Yellow between leaf veins
  • Yellow leaves

This page is part of our Plant Doctor series. You can use our tool to filter by symptom and help diagnose your plant.

Does your plant have "the claw?" The talon-like leaves that are bent at the ends are a sign that your plant may have nitrogen toxicity. Learn how to fix it.