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.
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.
Terpenes may play a key role in differentiating the effects of various cannabis strains. Some terpenes might promote relaxation and stress-relief, while others potentially promote focus and acuity.
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.
Some terpenes might promote relaxation and stress-relief, while others potentially promote focus and acuity. Myrcene, for example, is found in many relaxing cannabis strains like Blue Venom and Granddaddy Purple. Terpinolene is commonly found in uplifting, active strains like Jack Herer and Ghost Train Haze.
The effect profile of any given terpene may change in the presence of other compounds in a phenomenon known as the entourage effect. More research is needed to understand each terpene’s effect when used in harmony with others.
Use Leafly’s Flower Finder to search strains by terpenes
Their differences can be subtle, but terpenes can add great depth to the horticultural art and connoisseurship of cannabis. They may also add therapeutic value to cannabis, based on their unique medicinal properties.
Many cannabis analysis labs now test terpene content, so you may have a better idea of what effects a strain might produce. With their unlimited combinations of potential synergistic effects, terpenes will certainly open up new scientific and medical terrains for cannabis research.
Exploring cannabis terpenes
Leafly’s Cannabis Guide provides a visual system for understanding terpenes in the context of each strain. Using data from lab partners, Leafly can help you determine the average terpene profile of many popular cannabis strains—and our list is ever-growing.
Common cannabis terpenes are represented by different colors, which you can explore in this guide. Some terpenes are more common than others, and some tend to appear in higher abundance on average. For example, most commercial cannabis strains are myrcene dominant, meaning the most abundant terpene in their chemical profile is myrcene. You may also find strains that are dominant in caryophyllene, limonene, terpinolene, and—in rare instances—pinene.
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.