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What Are Terpenes?

Cannabis is known, in part, for the distinct aromas and tastes that the plant can produce. The skunky smells and fruity flavors, that attract connoisseurs to specific strains and help consumers determine the quality of their buds, are the product of compounds called terpenes.

What Are Terpenes? 

If you’re a regular consumer of cannabis, you may have heard the word terpene being casually tossed around in your local dispensary, or read it on the label attached to your pre-roll tube or other wholesale dispensary supply. But what exactly is a terpene? 

Well, terpenes are aromatic compounds that are actually produced by all living plants. They’re what give flowers their unique fragrances. Next time you stop and smell the flowers, know that what you’re really smelling is terpenes. They’re also the base of most aroma therapies—essential oils being essentially just concentrated terpenes.

What Are Cannabis Terpenes?

So what are terpenes in the context of cannabis? In marijuana and hemp plants, the glands that are responsible for producing cannabinoids—the sometimes psychoactive compounds, like THC and CBD, that give cannabis its medicinal and recreational effects—are also responsible for producing terpenes. These glands are referred to as trichomes, and can often be seen by the naked eye, appearing as crystals on the outside of marijuana buds. 

Trichomes secrete cannabinoids and terpenes in the form of oils and resins. These are what extraction techs work to isolate when creating concentrate products. Up to 20% of cannabis resin is made up entirely of terpenes. 

When we think of cannabis, we think of the often musky and sweet aromas that freshly ground flower has. Just like with any other type of plant, what we’re really smelling are terpenes. There are actually over 200 unique terpenes that have been identified as being present in marijuana and hemp. Each one of these terpenes is responsible for producing a distinct smell and flavor. Take caryophyllene for example, a terpene commonly found in cannabis as well as household black pepper. Caryophyllene is known for producing a sort of funky spicy smell.   

The reason that every different strain of cannabis produces its own individual aromatics, is because the terpene profile of each strain is different. For example, strains with higher levels of limonene—a terpene that is also commonly found in citrus fruits—will have a more sour and fruity taste than strains without it. 

What Do Cannabis Terpenes Do? 

As scientists learn more about terpenes, and specifically about the terpenes found in marijuana and hemp, they are discovering that terpenes may actually do more than just smell good and taste delicious. Terpenes evolved from plant’s need to discourage insects and animals from eating them, but interestingly enough, these compounds that were designed to ward off would-be predators may actually have surprising health benefits for humans. 

Many terpenes are capable of producing unique medicinal effects. They can encourage stress reduction in humans, and often have antimicrobial and antiseptic properties. What’s even more surprising is that beyond their individual therapeutic qualities, terpenes can work together with cannabinoids to create what’s called the entourage effect.

The Entourage Effect 

Think about terpenes and cannabinoids as the ‘92 olympic basketball dream team. Every player on that roster was an immense talent on their own, but together they created something truly magical. Cannabinoids and terpenes work in the same way—together they form something even greater than the sum of its parts. 

The entourage effect is the name scientists have given the theory that various cannabis compounds work together to create synergy, and amplify their individual effects. This is why more and more consumers are favoring broad-spectrum and full-spectrum products over the heavily refined distillates that only contain THC or CBD. 

Terpenes Found In Cannabis 

As mentioned earlier, there are over 200 different kinds of terpenes that have been found to exist in cannabis. Here’s a list of some of the most common ones, and what they do.

  • Myrcene: This terpene produces the musky aroma found in the landrace strain Hindu Kush. Myrcene is known to produce sedative-like effects. According to Steep Hill Labs, high quantities of Myrcene distinguish Indica strains from Sativas. 
  • Linalool: This floral terpene is commonly associated with the smell of lavender. It’s said to have a relaxing effect, as well as anti-inflammatory properties.  
  • Caryophyllene: You’ll find this terpene all over your kitchen spice rack. In addition to being one of the most prevalent terps in cannabis, it’s also found in oregano, basil, and black pepper. Most drug sniffing dogs are actually trained to sniff out caryophyllene in marijuana.   
  • Limonene: If you’re a lover of fruity flavors in your cannabis, then limonene is a terpene you need to seek out. This sour terp is also found in citrus fruits, and may have antidepressant qualities. 
  • Pinene:  As you might be able to infer from the name, pinene invokes the smell of fresh pine trees. It’s uplifting and calming properties are evident in strains, like Jack Herer and Blue Dream, that have high percentages of pinene.
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