Cannabis Terpenes 101
Most cannabis users are familiar with the traditional dispensary terms, like indica and sativa. It’s beneficial for us to know, for example, the influence the percentage of indica and sativa strains present in a particular hybrid can have on the effects achieved through consumption..
As cannabis education becomes more widespread with legalization, more and more cannabis users are getting familiar with terms like cannabinoids, trichomes, and decarboxylation, to name a few.
Terpene is one term that is getting more—well-deserved—attention than ever before. But what are cannabis terpenes? This is a question that more and more cannabis users are asking, and it’s certainly a question worth any cannabis enthusiast’s time. That’s because the terpenes within the cannabis plant can play a major role in how cannabis is enjoyed or used for therapeutic purposes. In fact, understanding terpenes can change the way you experience cannabis and help you choose which cannabis strain is right for you.
So, What Are Cannabis Terpenes?
In general, terpenes are a naturally occurring chemical compound found primarily in plants, but also in some animal components like yolks, scales and feathers. These aromatic compounds are found in highest concentrations in aromatic plant matter, especially herbs, spices, and citrus fruits.
In nature, aromatic terpenes are responsible for producing the distinctive smells and flavors in various plants, flowers, and fruits. They serve an evolutionary benefit to the plant as well, as terpenes can function to ward off pests, protect from harsh weather, or encourage pollination by insects. Aside from naturally occurring plant matter, you may also have encountered terpenes if you enjoy using essential oils. Many essential oils use terpenes as a primary compound, and they work with other hydrocarbons to create the mood-altering aromas common to essential oils.
In addition to herbs, terpenes are a primary, naturally occurring compound found within the cannabis plant. In fact, to date, around 150 terpenes have been identified in the cannabis plant. Due to their aromatic qualities, terpenes are what create that distinctive “weed” aroma, and also what makes certain strains smell or taste differently than others. In fact, no matter how you enjoy your cannabis—whether you prefer smoking, vaping, edibles, or concentrates—terpenes will play an important role in what you taste and smell, and even feel.
Cannabis terpenes not only influence the taste, smell, and overall experience you’ll have while using cannabis—they can also positively impact your health. Researchers are still making discoveries regarding the ways terpenes affect bodily systems and health concerns. Currently, that involves testing different terpene profiles to discover more about their potential medicinal benefits, including those to ease stress, depression, chronic pain, asthma, and even cancer.
Where Can Terpenes Be Found In The Cannabis Plant?
Terpenes are most abundant in the oils produced by flowers and other plant components. Many terpenes are secreted in a flower’s sticky, resinous glands. When it comes to the cannabis plant, terpenes are most often found in the trichomes of the female cannabis plant, those sticky, translucent, frosted glands that cover the surface of the flower.
The location of heavy terpene concentrations indicates why terpenes play such an important role in the cannabis plant’s growth and survival. Terpenes serve to help increase the plant’s aromatic attractiveness to pollinators while deterring predators that could cause harm.
You’ve likely heard cannabis enthusiasts rave about heavily-trichomed, “frosty,” or “hairy” strains of cannabis. These strains are highly sought because their abundance of trichomes indicates a healthy presence of critical chemical compounds that influence their effects. While THC and other cannabinoids as well as terpenes can be found in trichomes, it is important to understand that terpenes and cannabinoids are not the same. They are different types of molecules and have completely different chemical structures.
Cannabinoids are large molecules primarily produced by the cannabis plant, though other plants and even the human body can produce their own cannabinoids that interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is responsible for regulating many critical systems and functions within the human body. Cannabinoids work by binding to or interacting with the ECS receptors throughout the body and influencing how the body experiences pain, anxiety, sleep, appetite, and more.
Most cannabis users are aware of the most well-known cannabinoids of the cannabis plant, THC and CBD. THC is the cannabinoid most responsible for producing psychoactive effects, such as the euphoric high that is often associated with cannabis use. CBD is a cannabinoid that does not produce a high but can have other benefits, such as pain relief, anti-inflammation, and more.
All told, researchers have identified over 100 different cannabinoids in the cannabis plant.
Compared to cannabinoids, terpenes are tiny molecules that are produced in thousands of different plant species. They require low heat to evaporate and can easily be picked up by our sense of smell. Unlike cannabinoids, terpenes are primarily associated with the way the cannabis plant tastes and smells, though there are indications that terpenes can play a role in the way cannabis affects users.
The mechanism by which terpenes work can vary depending on how the cannabis product in question is used, whether topically, orally, or via inhalation. Terpenes that are experienced topically, orally, or via inhalation seem to directly affect GABA receptors in the brain, which are then able to inhibit the activity of neurons responsible for pain, anxiety, and stress. When inhaled, terpenes can also affect receptors located within the olfactory structures.
Since terpenes don’t bind to CB1 receptors in the brain like THC, they do not have the same psychoactive abilities. They can, however, affect how cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system and shift the balance of neurotransmitters that influence mood.
How Do Terpenes Work Within The Entourage Effect?
The “entourage effect” is a term used by the cannabis community to describe the way all the different compounds of the cannabis plant work synergistically to create positive effects on the user. The entourage effect includes the many different cannabinoids in cannabis, as well as terpenes and another plant compound known as flavonoids. In short, you can think of the entourage effect as the way the many mysterious components of cannabis magically come together to create your ideal cannabis experience.
While it is possible to isolate these compounds, they would have a very different effect than that of a full-spectrum cannabis product. In fact, it’s nothing short of amazing just how much is happening within a cannabis plant on the molecular level. Numerous cannabinoids exist alongside a variety of terpenes, along with many other compounds.
It is exciting for cannabis enthusiasts, growers, and scientists to start uncovering the different ways the entourage effect works. The more we learn, the better we will be able to understand and control the effects provided by each unique strain of cannabis. It’s clear that terpenes play a much larger role in how we experience cannabis beyond just the flavor and aroma.
How Do Terpenes Differ Between Cannabis Strains?
Each strain of cannabis can be identified by its own unique terpene profile. When you are selecting a cannabis strain, you’ll be able to notice the differences attributed to these terpene profiles by simply viewing and smelling the flower of the plant. For that reason, the first way cannabis enthusiasts experience the unique terpene profile of a specific strain is often by assessing its smell and taste. Many times, the differences in aroma alone are remarkable with the presence or absence of a few terpene compounds.
Many terpenes are associated with very distinctive aromas associated with them, but most can be described as floral, earthy, skunky, or citrus. When you consider these dominant aromas, it’s no surprise that many cannabis strains on the market have names that indicate their flavor or aroma profile, including Runtz, Sour Tangie, and Sour Diesel.
Perhaps even more important than the aromatics are the particular effects each terpene helps produce. Learning about these characteristics can help you to make more informed decisions while selecting your next cannabis experience. We’ve assembled some information about the most common terpenes, but when you visit a professional dispensary, you should receive more detailed information concerning your unique strain.
There are more than 150 different terpenes that can be found within a cannabis plant. Some of these terpenes are present in concentrations that are simply too low to be detected, while others have a more significant presence across many different strains. Some of the most well-known and abundant terpenes in cannabis are Myrcene, Limonene, Pinene, Caryophyllene, Linalool, and Humulene.
Let’s take a closer look at these abundant terpenes:
This is one of the most common terpenes found in cannabis plants. It is often associated with strains that provide body-heavy, relaxing effects. This terpene is also commonly found in the plant hops that are used to make beer and lemongrass products.
When it comes to smell, myrcene is often referred to as having an earthy, musky, clove-like scent. This terpene can produce a mildly sweet flavor profile in cannabis. Myrcene is a unique terpenes as well, in that it is passed through the blood-brain barrier and allows for higher absorption of cannabinoids. It has been shown to deliver anti-inflammatory effects and provide pain relief, antioxidant effects, and muscle relaxation.
This is the second-most commonly found terpene and is present in several different strains of cannabis plants as well as in the rinds of citrus fruits and ginger. It is also commonly added to household cleaners due to its pleasant, bright, citrusy scent. Limonene’s aroma is considered a mood elevator.
Within the body, limonene has been shown to provide uplifting qualities that can help reduce anxiety and depression. It can also be used as a digestive aid. Research has indicated that it has the capability to alter the way certain immune cells behave, which could help protect the body against a range of different disorders.
This terpene is best known for giving pine needles their distinctive scent. As a result, the fragrance is described as earthy, reminding users of the great outdoors. Pinene can also be found in rosemary, dill, and parsley.
Pinene has a long history as traditional herbal medicine. It has been shown to provide various therapeutic benefits. These include anti-inflammatory, pain relieving, anti-bacterial, and mind-alerting properties.
Caryophyllene is the only known terpene that can bind to the CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system. It is commonly found in plants such as cloves, oregano, rosemary, and black pepper. This terpene is known to provide a spicy, peppery taste to multiple different cannabis strains. It shows potential for easing a number of symptoms experienced by those with conditions like diabetes, colitis, anxiety, and depression.
Linalool is known to produce a floral or woody aroma and can be found in high concentrations in lavender. It can also be found in rosewood, cinnamon, and coriander. This terpene is a common ingredient in essential oils that provide a relaxing effect.
Linalool has a long history of being used as a sedative in a wide variety of medicinal and therapeutic practices. It can also provide other therapeutic benefits, such as pain relief, muscle relaxation, and relief from symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.
Humulene is largely responsible for giving beers with a high hop level their distinctive aroma. This is most obvious in IPA beers. This terpene is known for its musky, earthy aroma with notes of ginger and sage.
Humulene has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. Today, it is well received for providing anti-inflammatory benefits. It also contains appetite-suppressing qualities.
The Power of Terpenes
As you continue to expand your understanding of cannabis, terpenes are a highly important cannabis element you'll want to keep your eyes on. Terpenes play a major role in how we perceive and enjoy cannabis. However, they are capable of much more than just adding to the flavor and fragrance of the cannabis plant-they also play an important role in the entourage effect that creates the full cannabis experience.
Terpenes also factor into how each strain of cannabis works to create a different psychoactive effect and treat a different set of symptoms. As research continues, we will gain a better understanding of how terpenes impact many different aspects of cannabis use.
- Goldstein Ferber S, et al. (2020). The “entourage effect”: Terpenes coupled with cannabinoids for the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety disorders. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7324885/
- Hanuš, L. O., & Hod, Y. (2020). Terpenes/Terpenoids in Cannabis: Are They Important?. Medical cannabis and cannabinoids, 3(1), 25–60. https://doi.org/10.1159/000509733
- Sommano, S. R., Chittasupho, C., Ruksiriwanich, W., & Jantrawut, P. (2020). The Cannabis Terpenes. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 25(24), 5792. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25245792
Digital Content Manager for MÜV Florida and Zen Leaf Dispensaries. A cannabis connoisseur with a passion for explaining the miraculous possibility of the plant, Swan began her journey with cannabis as a recreational user and quickly realized its positive impact on her depression and severe anxiety. She joined the cannabis industry as Receptionist and MedTender and witnessed first-hand the immense potential of the plant for a wide variety of ailments, deepening her passion for alternative medicine. Swan is dedicated to self-education on the plant and sharing its potential with all. She holds a Journalism degree from the University of Iowa.
Medical marijuana is legal in Pennsylvania, which means visiting a dispensary requires a medical card. Check out our guide to visiting Pennsylvania dispensaries.
What exactly is live cannabis and how can it bolster your routine? Learn more about this potent harvest method, extraction processes, & more.