What are Terpenes?
While we don’t tend to give it much thought, cannabis is actually an extremely complex plant. Did you know, for example, that cannabis contains over 400 various chemical compounds?
By far the most familiar compounds found in cannabis are cannabinoids, the most famous being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabinoids are what offer many of the effects cannabis is associated with.
Another important cannabis compound you’ve likely heard of?
So far, over 100 various terpenes have been identified in cannabis. What are terpenes, though, and what role do they play?
If you’re at all familiar with cannabis’ distinct aroma, you’re already familiar with terpenes. Terpenes are the aromatic compounds found in cannabis that give different strains their uniquely distinctive smell and flavor profiles.
As it turns out, terpenes are believed to play an integral role in the health-promoting profile of cannabis as well. Terpenes in cannabis that are also found in other plant species have shown to be beneficial for wellbeing, and increased cannabis research in recent years suggests that terpenes could be responsible for lending to the suggested health benefits cannabis contains.
Here we’ll take a deeper look at terpenes to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the complex chemical makeup of the cannabis plant and the varied effects it contains.
What Are Terpenes?
At the most basic level, terpenes can be thought of as the aromatic and flavor molecules cannabis contains. Terpenes are commonly considered the essential oils of the cannabis plant.
If you’ve ever smelled cannabis, you know that not all strains smell the same. Some smell super fruity, others are more citrusy and some smell downright earthy and musky. The different odors of different cannabis strains are a result of their own individual and unique terpene profile.
Strains that smell citrusy, for example, typically contain higher concentrations of a terpene known as limonene, which happens to be naturally abundant in lemons. Pungent, earthy smelling cannabis strains are usually abundant in a terpene known as beta-caryophyllene, which is also found in black pepper and emits a somewhat spicy and earthy aroma and flavor profile.
While terpenes are known to lend to the aromatic and flavor profiles of various cannabis strains, it’s also been suggested that they may play a significant role in distinguishing the various effects of cannabis. Like much of the research on cannabis, however, more studies are needed to fully understand how terpenes may contribute to the varied effects that different cannabis strains provide.
How exactly might various terpenes lend to the beneficial effects of cannabis? Take limonene and terpinolene, for example, which are said to have an energizing, uplifting effect. Cannabis strains that contain higher levels of these terpenes could affect the way a certain strain makes you feel.
There are also terpenes that are known to lend to a more calming effect. A terpene that’s suggested to contain more of a sense of calm and relaxation is myrcene. Myrcene is also found in hops, which are known to be a powerful sedative.
There’s more to terpene profiles than a particular terpene being found in a particular strain. According to Amber Wise, scientific director at a Washington State cannabis testing lab, there are several variables that will affect the terpene profile of plants, including whether a plant has been grown indoors or outside. “You can end up with different terpene profiles at the end because temperature, growing medium, nutrients, sunlight, all kinds of things affect the terpene profile of plants,” says Wise.
Where exactly are terpenes produced in cannabis?
Great question, we’re glad you asked.
The Intimate Connection of Terpenes and Trichomes
Terpenes, made up of carbon and hydrogen, are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis plant. Trichomes are the mushroom-like crystals that cover the leaves and flowers of mature cannabis plants that give them a crystal, frosty appearance.
Trichomes resemble tiny little hairs and function as a defense from predators and other environmental hazards. They’re also where the cannabis magic happens. Within the tiny trichome resin glands are where cannabinoids are produced. Trichomes are also the production house for terpenes.
It’s because of terpenes that trichomes help to act as a defense mechanism to insects and animals. The tastes and smells terpenes emit can work to repel animals and insects that might otherwise be detrimental to a plant’s growth and survival.
5 of the Most Common Cannabis Terpenes
While we mentioned that over 100 terpenes have been identified in cannabis, there are a few that are found more abundantly than others. These are the well-known terpenes that are found not only in cannabis, but several other plant species as well.
Because terpenes may play a role in the effects certain cannabis strains offer, they have become something of significant interest in CBD, as well as medical and recreational cannabis. When consumers have a better understanding of terpenes, it could be easier to determine what effects a given cannabis strain might have simply by knowing its terpene profile.
Here we’ll cover the most common terpenes found in cannabis (and other plants) to gain a deeper understanding of the power these tiny little compounds truly contain.
Limonene is one of the most common terpenes that exists, and as its name suggests contains a distinct citrusy aroma. Limonene isn’t just found in cannabis, it’s a huge part of the chemical makeup of citrus fruits like lemons, limes and oranges. The terpene limonene is often added to cleaning supplies to create an invigorating and inviting aroma.
Limonene contains powerful antibacterial and antifungal properties that acts as a potent insecticide on cannabis plants. It is known to help the body better absorb other terpenes. Limonene is widely revered for its ability to uplift the mood and relieve stress.
Myrcene is the most abundant terpene found in cannabis and contains an earthy, musky aroma. Aside from cannabis, myrcene is also found in mangoes, lemongrass, thyme and hops and is well-known for its analgesic and antibiotic properties. It’s suggested that the potential effects contained in myrcene are relaxation and sedative-like qualities.
Pinene is another common terpene with an aroma to match its name. Pinene is found abundantly in conifer trees, citrus peels and turpentine, and actually comes in two different forms:
- Alpha Pinene: The most common terpene found in nature that smells like pine trees.
- Beta Pinene: Contains the aroma of dill, basil, parsley or rosemary.
Pinene has been used for centuries as a natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory and is also known to be a powerful bronchodilator, helping to improve airflow to the lungs. It’s said that pinene may help increase alertness and could counteract some of the memory loss associated with THC.
Caryophyllene is a terpene with a woody, spicy aroma that is also found in black pepper, cinnamon and cloves. It’s a bit different from other terpenes, in that it is the only known terpene that also acts like a cannabinoid by activating the endocannabinoid system.
It’s suggested that caryophyllene can be beneficial for stress support. It is also known to contain anti-inflammatory properties and may help alleviate anxiety and depression.
Aside from being a fun word to say, linalool is a terpene present in cannabis that is also abundant in lavender plants. It contains a lovely, floral scent. The mood enhancing properties of linalool are widely documented, and it’s been widely used for centuries to alleviate stress and relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Linalool may also provide a sedative-like effect.
Terpenes And The Entourage Effect
The entourage effect is a term used widely in the cannabis world, and we’re sure you’ve heard it mentioned before. The entourage effect is the term used to describe the way cannabinoids and terpenes work in harmony together to create the most beneficial effects.
The premise behind the entourage effect is that by using the whole cannabis plant instead of an isolated aspect of the plant the benefits of cannabinoids are enhanced. If you’ve ever heard the term “whole plant medicine,” it means that the whole plant is used rather than isolated individual compounds. The potential effects of CBD, for example, are believed to be enhanced by the presence of terpenes and other cannabis compounds.
The complexity of cannabis is fascinating and something scientists are just beginning to understand. It seems, however, that the way the plant was designed by nature makes for an extremely beneficial combination of various chemical profiles that work synergistically together to offer its various effects.
Because the entourage effect wouldn’t be possible without terpenes, combined with the role they are believed to play in the wellness benefits of CBD and other cannabis extracts, extremely special care is typically taken during the extraction process to ensure terpenes are preserved.
While we’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the way terpenes interact with other cannabis compounds, they’ve become one of the biggest buzzwords in the industry. Forbes recently referred to terpenes as having “mass market appeal,” with different terpenes now mixed into everything from products trying to imitate the natural terpene flavors found in cannabis to upscale cannabis cocktails at trendy bars.
So, while there’s definitely much more to be learned about terpenes, research suggests they play an important role in the potential beneficial effects of cannabis. Will the continued widespread attention they’re receiving eventually make terpenes become just as popular as cannabinoids like CBD and THC? Considering the traction they’re gaining, they just might.
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Hannah Smith is Joy Organics Director of Communications. She is driven by her passion for providing clear and accessible wellness and CBD education. In 2015, she received her BA in Media, Culture and the Arts from The King’s College in New York City and before Joy Organics, worked as writer and photographer in the Middle East and North Africa. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Vice, Vox, Denver Post, and the Coloradoan.