Terpenes are the aromatic essential oils and alcohols that, when combined with cannabinoids, contribute to the kind of high you experience when you consume decarboxylated cannabis. This synergistic merging of cannabinoids and terpenes, along with THC, is commonly referred to as the entourage effect, or ensemble effect, which produces the desired outcome of the cannabis that each element can’t accomplish by itself.
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 are also responsible for the flavors that make cannabis so pleasurable, but they are so much more than that. Terpenes carry myriad medicinal healing properties that many people with chronic conditions, both physical and mental, could benefit from.
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 Dream and Granddaddy Purple. Terpinolene is commonly found in uplifting, active strains like Jack Herer and Ghost Train Haze.
A Way To Classify Cannabis
Sativa, indica and hybrid are outdated modes of classifying cannabis strains. The original definition of sativa is “cultivated,” while the classification of indica indicates strains that were grown in India, so it’s sort of silly to continue to describe strains by these labels if we’re using old-school definitions.
A way to define the characteristics of a strain of cannabis is by its terpene profile and by educating patients about the effects of each terpene. The latest technology in cannabis testing makes it faster and more affordable than ever to provide this service to patients and customers. And for budtenders, being well-versed on terpenes will equal higher customer satisfaction and more dollars in the tip jar.
Most Common Cannabis Terpenes
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.
- Aroma: Cardamom, cloves, musky, earthy, herbal
- Potential effects: Sedating, relaxing
- Potential therapeutic value: Antioxidant; treatment of insomnia, pain, and inflammation
- Also found in: Mango, lemongrass, thyme, hops
- Aroma: Citrus
- Potential effects: Elevated mood, stress relief
- Potential therapeutic value: Treatment of anxiety, depression, inflammation, pain, and cancer
- Also found in: Fruit rinds, rosemary, juniper, peppermint
- Aroma: Pepper, spicy, woody, cloves
- Potential effects: Stress relief
- Potential therapeutic value: Treatment of pain, anxiety/depression, ulcers
- Also found in: Black pepper, cloves, cinnamon
- Aroma: Piney, floral, and herbal
- Potential effects: Uplifting
- Potential therapeutic value: Antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-cancer
- Also found in: Nutmeg, tea tree, conifers, apples, cumin, and lilacs
- Aroma: Pine
- Potential effects: Alertness, memory retention, counteracts some THC effects
- Potential therapeutic value: Treatment of asthma, pain, inflammation, ulcers, anxiety, cancer
- Also found in: Pine needles, rosemary, basil, parsley, dill
- Aroma: Hops, woody, earthy
- Potential therapeutic value: Anti-inflammatory
- Also found in: Hops, coriander, cloves, basil
- Aroma: Floral
- Potential effects: Mood enhancement, sedation
- Potential therapeutic value: Treatment of anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, inflammation, and neurodegenerative disease
- Also found in: Lavender
Rare Terpenes And Where To Find Them
Cannabis strains tend to be dominant in terpenes like myrcene, pinene, limonene, or caryophyllene. As such, we tend to find similar aromas and experiences time and time again with limited variation. But anomalies exist, and they’re worth seeking out—if not for the special flavors, then for the unique effects.
The Future of Terpenes
The medical community is beginning to acknowledge that aromatherapy and essential oils might have more to offer the world than just good smells and flavoring agents. Terpenes are the particles that drive these essential oils, so the door to cannabis integration appears to be more ajar.
Terpenes can completely change the effects of cannabis, but we only know why and how to a certain degree. For example, we know that getting terpenes like myrcene in higher numbers can increase the sleepiness and sedation of some strains; others, like limonene, can make the consumer feel more alert. Learning that terpenes do even more than just drive the effects and aroma of cannabis is a big deal, so expect more studies published in the near future.
We have barely begun to understand the therapeutic potential of cannabis,” says Ethan Russo, a neurologist and director of R&D at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, based in the Czech Republic. “We haven’t taken the steps that are required to really harness the abilities of some of these minor cannabinoids, particularly in conjunction with optimized terpenoid profiles.”
This expanding area of scientific analysis could impact how the medical community approaches cannabis-based medicine, and could also altogether change how we use cannabis. Cultivators, researchers and the brands that produce these terpenes are working hard to demystify this process, though standardization could still be far off.
In the meantime, how is a consumer of flower, concentrates and edibles to get the most therapeutic benefit out of their terpene experience?
Our knowledge of terpenes remains limited, considering how prevalent they are in our environment. Indeed, terpenes are present in many of Earth’s living things — and they might even change the plastics and fuel industries as expanding innovation begins to unlock and explore these aromatic organic compounds.
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