What are cannabis terpenes and what do they do?

There’s something about the aroma of cannabis that soothes the mind and body. Whether it’s the sweet fruity taste of Pineapple Trainwreck or that skunky smell that bursts from a cracked bud of Sour Diesel, we know there’s something going on under their complex and flavorful bouquets.

Terpenes are what you smell, and knowing what they are will deepen your appreciation of cannabis.


What are cannabis terpenes?

Secreted in the same glands that produce cannabinoids like THC and CBD, terpenes are aromatic oils that color cannabis varieties with distinctive flavors like citrus, berry, mint, and pine.

Not unlike other strong-smelling plants and flowers, the development of terpenes in cannabis began for adaptive purposes: to repel predators and lure pollinators. There are many factors that influence a plant’s development of terpenes, including climate, weather, age and maturation, fertilizers, soil type, and even the time of day.

Over 100 different terpenes have been identified in the cannabis plant, and every strain tends toward a unique terpene type and composition. In other words, a strain like Cheese and its descendants will likely have a discernible cheese-like smell, and Blueberry offspring often inherit the smell of berries.

Terpenes may also play a key role in differentiating the effects of various cannabis strains – challenging standard beliefs held about indica vs sativa strains. However, more studies are needed to understand how and to what extent.

Terpenes Definition:

Organic compounds that provide aroma and flavor in cannabis and a variety of other organisms, including plants. Terpenes are responsible for the aroma and flavors of cannabis, and influence its effects by interacting with cannabinoids. Terpenes are formed inside cannabis trichomes, and their relative presence is directly affected by both the spectrum and intensity of light exposure.

Scientifically speaking, terpenes are defined as “a large class of hydrocarbon compounds constructed from five-carbon isoprene units that are combined to produce a great variety of skeletons.” These basic molecular “skeletons” are “then acted upon by various enzymes to add functionality and altered oxidation,” processes that ultimately lead to the wide variety of effects produced by terpenes.

“You should start dabbing sauce if you like terpene flavors.”

“I prefer terpenes that smell lemony or piney.” 

More About Terpenes

Terpenes are aromatic molecules responsible for the unique aroma of each cannabis cultivar. The appealing aromas and flavors we experience when we consume cannabis are all thanks to terpenes. Each cannabis cultivar has its own unique aroma because it has its own distinct terpene content. Whether you smoke cannabis flower, dab concentrates, or vaporize either, these molecules are hard at work delivering tasty citrus, diesel, woody, pine, skunky, coffee, spicey, herbal, or tropical flavors to your palate.

‘The Nose Knows’

Scent has long been an accepted central indicator for the quality of cannabis flower. Cannabis cultivated and cured to the highest standards typically exhibits a pungent yet pleasant aroma. Flowers emitting a strong fragrance are commonly referred to as having a “dank” or “loud” odor, indicating the overall quality of the flower.

Aroma and flavor are subjective, and different aromas will appeal to different palates. There are a variety of terms for the types of aromas high-quality cannabis emits, including “skunky,” “diesely,” and “piney.”  The term “grassy” is often used to describe a smell that indicates low-quality flower, but a grassy aroma doesn’t necessarily denote poor quality. A distinct, pungent, and unmistakable aroma — regardless of its particular flavor — is evidence of terpenes hard at work within the cannabis plant.

So what does this mean for cannabis users? Basically, it gives merit to the idea that “the nose knows.” Our bodies and brains subconsciously have a preference for a particular terpene profile. 

Some people like fuel smells in their cannabis. Others prefer a fruity scent. In any case, shopping for cannabis based on scent may effectively lead the user to cultivars that best suit their needs. 

Other Terpene Sources and How They Compare to Cannabis

Terpenes are the primary components of essential oils — aromatics responsible for a plant’s regeneration, oxygenation, and immunity defense. Essential oils have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, and extracted from a variety of plants and foods. 

There’s no recognizable difference, for example, between isolated caryophyllene from hops or from cannabis. However, there is a difference between the other compounds at play in cannabis compared with other plants. Further research is needed to know exactly how the remedial effects of cannabis terpenes compare with terpenes from other sources. What we have discovered is that cannabis terpenes support other cannabis molecules in producing desired effects.

Where Are Terpenes Found on the Cannabis Plant?

You’ve probably noticed the tiny glandular hairs that cover the surface cannabis plant, giving it a crystal-like sheen and sticky feel. They’re called trichomes, and they’re responsible for terpene production in cannabis. Trichomes contain resin glands that make terpenes and cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), which turn into tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), respectively, when decarboxylated. In other words, almost everything a user wants from cannabis, including terpenes, are found in trichomes all over the plant’s surface.

Terpenes vs. Terpenoids

As the popularity of these aromatic molecules has skyrocketed in the cannabis market, the terms terpene and terpenoid have become interchangeable. But there is a notable difference between the two. 

Terpenes are hydrocarbons — compounds made of hydrogen and carbon. When cannabis is dried and cured, terpene atoms are oxidized, and terpenes then become terpenoids.


Why Does the Plant Produce Terpenes?

Terpenes are created by plants to protect against herbivores, insects, and other environmental dangers. They’re also responsible for a plant’s regeneration and oxygenation. In light of these functions, it makes sense that some serve as potential immunity boosters in humans. It appears that terpenes are providing immunity defenses in both the people who consume these aromatic compounds and the plants that produce them.

More than 200 terpenes have been discovered in the cannabis plant, but most of them are only present in such extremely low quantities that testing labs aren’t even able to detect them. So why does the cannabis plant produce them all?

Current research indicates several factors that contribute to terpene diversity. Terpene synthases (TPSs) — enzymes responsible for creating the terpene structure — may either produce multiple terpenes from the same basic structure, or provide pathways for the production of whole new terpenes. 

It’s also possible that terpenes continue to diversify as part of an escalating defense against natural enemies that will evolve and diversify their counter-defenses in the future. Terpene diversity may also be a result of human intervention. Or, more accurately, the chemical differences we see in cannabis may be driven by extensive cultivation and breeding for a variety of desired traits.

2 thoughts on “What are cannabis terpenes and what do they do?”

  1. Here in Canada we have been testing our strains for terpenes for years and when we concentrate our cannabis, maintaining high terpene profiles are the goal. So much to learn about this amazing plant and how it effects people differently! I predict the market will eventually turn to terpene profiles vs just THC numbers as a major deciding factor into which bud to buy and enjoy.

    1. Glad someone out there “gets it” where terps are concerned. Terpenes can make all the difference in the way the cannibinoids bind to the receptors in the brain. THC is not the be all end all and if that becomes the only thing producers care about then we are going to end up with cannabis following the path of tomatoes, radishes, and melons to become tasteless and lacking nutritional and medicinal value. When someone recognizes that a “20% THC” strain was way more potent than that “39%” that is because he or she is experiencing the way the terpenes helped the cannibinoids.

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