Talking Terpenes

Understanding the chemical compounds that give cannabis strains—as well as fruits, flowers, and spices—their flavors and aromas.

As cannabis continues to become more accepted throughout the media and mainstream society, more scientific stoner terms previously only used by hardcore heads are beginning to make their way into the popular zeitgeist. (While most people have been familiar with the term THC for decades, until recently few may have known to refer to it as a cannabinoid, or were aware of its many chemical cousins such as CBD or CBN). Well, another such term that’s popping up more and more on the average consumer’s radar is terpenes. Odds are, if you’ve attended a cannabis event in the past several years, or follow any industry newsfeeds or social media profiles, you’ve probably seen/heard it tossed around as frequently as a Frisbee on a Colorado campus. So what exactly are terpenes and why do us stoners seem to care so much about them?


WHAT ARE TERPENES?

Technically speaking, terpenoids or terpenes (or “terps” for short) are a class of organic hydrocarbon compounds produced by various plants whose function is to serve as a natural defense mechanism against insects by making them less appealing to their predators and more appealing to their pollinators and their predator's predators. Produced and stored in the resin glands of the plant’s trichomes (alongside their cannabinoid cousins), terpenes comprise the majority of a plant’s essential oils and are mainly responsible for giving it its aroma and/or flavor.


TERPENES AND TASTE

Regardless of whether you burn it, dab it, or vape it, when it comes to differentiating good weed from not-so-good weed, there are really two major factors to consider: a strain’s cannabinoid profile, which determines its potency, and its terpene profile, which determines its taste and smell. For example: if you take a hit of Strawberry Banana and it genuinely tastes like strawberries and bananas, that's likely because it contains some of the same terpenes that are found in those fruits. In other words, it’s each strain’s particular combination of terps that gives it it's own distinctive fragrance, flavor, and feeling. In fact, a large part of what defines the difference between the sativa and indica species of cannabis is their differing terpene profiles. Sativa flowers tend to be more uplifting and motivating, stimulating the immune system and digestion, thanks to higher levels of the terpene limonene, which generally make them citrusier. Indica flowers, on the other hand, tend to have lower limonene content, but a higher amount of the terpene myrcene (more on these two terps below).


TERPENES AND EFFECT

But terpenes don’t just make cannabis more appetizing—they also add to its overall effects. Just as individual cannabinoids are less effective when isolated than when they're combined, so too are cannabinoids, in general, less effective when isolated from the terpenes they were created alongside. When combined with cannabinoids, terpenes become part of what’s known as the Ensemble Effect or Entourage Effect, helping to fine-tune the parameters of our physiological systems—not only by complementing cannabinoids’ effects, but also supplementing them by determining the amount of THC that’s absorbed by the body. For example: since mangos contain large amounts of a terpene called myrcene, and myrcene is known to increase the absorption rate of THC, eating a mango just before firing up that joint will get you higher than just smoking would alone. But cannabis and cannabinoids aside, terpenes also carry effects and benefits of their own: If you or someone you know uses essential oils for aromatherapy purposes, it’s the terpenes in those oils that are responsible for their soothing, healing effects.


TYPES OF TERPENES

There are over 200 different known terpenes, but only around 36 or so are typically found in cannabis. The following is a baker’s dozen of the most common terps you’ll be tasting when you fire up your favorite flower or extract, listed alphabetically:


Borneol

Description: natural insect repellent

Strains: Hazes (e.g. Super Silver Haze, Amnesia Haze)

Also found in: rosemary, mint, camphor

Smell / Taste: minty, camphoric

Effects: calming, psychedelic

Health Benefits: anti-stress, anti-cancer

Camphene

Description: used for food flavorings and fragrances

Strains: Ghost OG, Strawberry Banana

Also found in: nutmeg, rosemary, fir needles, sage, ginger

Smell / Taste: pungent, woodsy, musky

Effects: sedative

Health Benefits: lowers cholesterol, anti-oxidant, topical treatment of skin conditions


Caryophyllene

Description: one of cannabis’ most abundant terps, but the only one known to bond with the body’s CB2 receptors

Strains: OG Kush family (e.g. Chemdog, Skywalker OG, Bubba Kush)

Also found in: black pepper, clove, cinnamon, oregano, basil, rosemary

Smell / Taste: spicy, peppery

Effects: Pain relief, anxiety relief

Health Benefits: anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, analgesic


Delta 3 Carene

Description: used in cosmetics and aromatherapy

Strains: Hazes (e.g. Super Silver Haze, Super Lemon Haze)

Also found in: rosemary, basil, bell pepper, cedar, pine

Smell / Taste: cypress, sweet, earthy

Effects: dry mouth, red eyes

Health Benefits: assists with bone healing, fibromyalgia, improves memory retention


Eucalyptol

Description: appears in only small traces

Strains: Super Silver Haze, Headband

Also found in: eucalyptus trees, respiratory aids & medicines

Smell / Taste: minty, menthol

Effects: improved concentration and balance, energizing

Health Benefits: pain relief, anti-fungal, pain relief


Geraniol

Description: often found with linalool; used in bath products

Strains: Amnesia Haze, Afghani, Headband, Sweet Island Skunk, Master Kush

Also found in: geraniums, tobacco, lemons, beehives

Smell / Taste: roses, peaches, plums

Effects: N/A

Health Benefits: neuroprotectant, antioxidant, mosquito repellant


Humulene

Description: N/A

Strains: White Widow, Headband, Girl Scout Cookies, Sour Diesel

Also found in: hops, cloves, sage, black pepper

Smell / Taste: spicy, earthy, woodsy

Effects: appetite suppressant

Health Benefits: anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, pain relief


Limonene

Description: The second most prevalent terp in cannabis; serves as a natural insect repellent

Strains: Sativa dominant (e.g. Lemon Skunk, Sour Diesel, OG Kush, Jack Herer)

Also found in: lemons, cleaning products

Smell / Taste: lemony, citrusy

Effects: bolsters attention, focus, libido, appetite

Health Benefits: anti-tumor, anti-anxiety/depression, anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogen


Linalool

Description: along with myrcene, one of the most abundant in cannabis

Also found in: lavender, mint, cinnamon, coriander

Smell / Taste: floral, spicy, pungent

Strains: Amnesia Haze, LA Confidential

Effects: anti-anxiety / sedative, anti-motivation

Health Benefits: anti-cancer, analgesic and anti-epileptic

Myrcene

Description: By far the most prevalent terpene found in cannabis, and the one that most determines the plant’s species (strains higher in myrcene tend to be indicas, while those lower in myrcene are typically sativas).

Strains: Skunk, White Widow, Kush

Also found in: mangoes, hops, thyme, lemongrass, citrus

Smell / Taste: earthy, musky, wine

Effects: calming, sedative; bolsters THC’s psychoactive effects

Health Benefits: analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic


Pinene

Description: comes in two versions: alpha-pinene & beta-pinene; the smell most often associated with cannabis; used in turpentine

Strains: Skunk, Jack Herer, Strawberry Cough, Blue Dream

Also found in: pine trees, rosemary, sage, rosemary, orange peel, basil, parsley

Smell / Taste: piney, woodsy

Effects: inhibits THC effects; improves concentration, respiration, memory, energy

Health Benefits: expectorant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, anti-asthma


Terpineol

Description: often found in conjunction with pinene, used in perfumes, lotions, and soaps

Strains: Indica dominant strains (e.g. Girl Scout Cookies, Jack Herer, OG Kush)

Also found in: apples, cumin, lilacs, lime blossom, eucalyptus

Smell / Taste: lilac, citrus, anise

Effects: sedative, reduced mobility (“couch lock”), relaxation

Health Benefits: antioxidant, antibiotic


Valencene

Description: Got its name from Valencia oranges, used as an insect repellant

Strains: Tangie, Agent Orange, Sour Diesel

Also found in: citrus fruits (e.g. Valencia oranges, tangerines)

Smell / Taste: sweet, citrusy

Effects: N/A

Health Benefits: anti-inflammatory



BEING AN EDUCATED CONSUMER

Thanks to the opportunities provided by legalization and the wonders of chemistry, most cannabis labs today are able to map a specific strain’s terpene profile and make that information available to savvy consumers. That means that by determining which terps are dominant in your favorite strains and then seeking out strains with similar terp profiles, you can easily identify other strains that might best suit your individual tastes and wellness needs.


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