Cannabis Basics

What Are Terpenes? Cannabis Terpenes and How They Work

Found in many plants, fruits and flowers, terpenes give cannabis cultivars their unique aromas and flavours. Dig into the science behind terpenes and find out how they can help you choose cannabis products. 

Terpenes

    Terpenes are fragrant oils found in many types of plants, especially coniferous or evergreen varieties. The chemical compounds they secrete give fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs — including cannabis plants — their signature scents. Think of the unique smell of rosemary or the tang of a lemon.

    Thousands of plant terpenes have been identified, about 150 of which are unique to cannabis. Although cannabis is generally associated with a certain musky aroma, each cultivar, or strain, has its own individual smell, depending on the amount and types of terpenes present.

    Let’s dig in to the science behind how terpenes work and how they can help you find the right cannabis products for you.

    Where are terpenes found?

    Terpenes are found in the fruits, stems and other parts of many plants, as well as in some insects and other animals. In cannabis, you’ll find these naturally occurring compounds in the trichomes of female cannabis plants. Trichomes are mushroom-shaped glands that cover the plant’s leaves, stems and calyxes. They secrete terpenes as well as cannabinoids, including THC and CBD.

    What do terpenes do?

    Terpenes are responsible for the smell, taste and colour of plants. They’re also one of the largest groups of plant-released volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Plants use VOCs to get information about their surroundings and interact with other organisms — warding off unwanted insects and attracting those that are beneficial, for example.


    Learn more about the anatomy of a cannabis plant.


    How do terpenes affect the body?

    While terpenes can deter predators or help plants adapt to their environment, their effect in the human body is not clear. Many terpenes are associated with various types of plants and herbs used in naturopathic remedies, so some theorize that terpenes play a role in the effect of cannabis. For instance, linalool, a common terpene found in lavender, may be associated with relaxation. Some also believe in the theory of “the entourage effect,” referring to the possibility that cannabinoids and terpenes work together in the overall effect of cannabis.

    Research is looking into how terpenes may have certain antiviral and antimicrobial properties and how they may be used therapeutically. However, the impact of terpenes beyond flavour and aroma has yet to be definitively scientifically proven.  

    How are terpenes different from cannabinoids, like THC and CBD?

    Both terpenes and cannabinoids are found in the trichomes of the cannabis, but they differ in their chemical structure and the effects they have on the body.

    Cannabinoids are a class of around 100 known chemical compounds found mainly in the cannabis plant. The two most well-known cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD. The primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, THC is responsible for the “high” associated with cannabis use, whereas CBD is thought to be non-psychoactive. Research is ongoing into CBD’s potential therapeutic benefits.

    Terpenes, on the other hand, exist in a variety of plants (and some animals) and are primarily responsible for the unique aromas of different cannabis strains.

    What are the most common terpenes in cannabis?

    Among the 150 or so known cannabis terpenes, there are five you’ll commonly find in the cannabis plant and cannabis products. Here’s a look at their associated aromas and reported effects. Note that while there isn’t enough research to link the terpenes in a strain to any specific effects, you can use a strain’s terpene profile to choose your favourite aroma or taste.

    Myrcene
    Synthesized myrcene is commonly used as a food additive; also used in air fresheners.
    Found in: mangoes, hops, thyme, lemongrass, cloves and almost all cannabis strains
    Aromas: earthy, fruity, musky
    Learn more about myrcene.

    Pinene
    Acts as an insect repellant in plants. Added to a wide range of commercial products, from bug spray to confections and beverages.
    Found in: coniferous trees such as fir, pine and spruce
    Aromas: strong pine, rosemary
    Learn more about pinene.

    Limonene
    Second-most common terpene found in nature; repels insects from plants. Adds a lemony flavour to foods, and lemony scent to perfumes and cleaning products.
    Found in: citrus fruits (including oranges, lemons, mandarins, limes and grapefruits), juniper
    Aromas: lemon, lime
    Learn more about limonene.

    Linalool
    Regularly added to food, beverages, perfumes, cosmetics and soaps. Used as a natural insect repellent.
    Found in: Mint, cinnamon and as the dominant component of lavender
    Aromas: floral, spicy, woody
    Learn more about linalool.

    Beta-caryophyllene
    One of the first cannabis-derived compounds that isn’t a cannabinoid (like THC or CBD) that was shown to work directly with the endocannabinoid system. Adds fragrance and flavour to foods, perfumes and skin care products
    Found in: black pepper, cloves, balsam
    Aromas: peppery spice, woody
    Learn more about beta-caryophyllene

    What do terpenes smell like?

    Terpene scents range from earthy, woodsy, herbal and spicy to gassy or cheesy, and all the way to citrusy or sweet. Making this equation even more complex, each terpene can have multiple aroma profiles. Also, terpene levels can vary from crop to crop, which can lead to inconsistencies in the scents within the same strain.

    Choose your favourite cannabis scent and explore the various terpenes that could contribute to the overall aroma of a cultivar.

     

    Earthy Terpene

    Earthy

    TERPENE
    AROMAS
    ALSO FOUND IN
    myrcene musk, earth, ripe fruit mangoes, lemongrass, hops, thyme
    humulene wood, earth hops, coriander
    terpinolene smoke, wood, pine apples, cumin, lilacs, tea tree oil, conifers
    borneol menthol, camphor, rich earth wormwood, cinnamon
    nerolidol wood, bark, flowers, apple citronella, ginger, orange peel
    cedrene cedar, amber, sandalwood, patchouli cedars
    carene earth, pine, forest scents, citrus bell peppers, pines, citrus fruits
    alpha-pinene pine, rosemary pines, conifers, rosemary, sage

    Spicy Terpene

    Spicy

    TERPENE
    AROMAS
    ALSO FOUND IN
    beta-caryophyllene peppery spice, wood black pepper, cloves, balsam
    sabinene wood, pepper, spices oaks, tea tree oil, black pepper, carrot seeds
    terpineol flowers, lilac, lime, cardamom, clove cypress, juniper berries, cardamom, marjoram, thyme
    borneol menthol, camphor, rich earth wormwood, cinnamon

    Sweet Terpene

    Sweet

    TERPENE
    AROMAS
    ALSO FOUND IN
    myrcene musk, earth, ripe fruit mangoes, lemongrass, hops, thyme
    geraniol geranium, rose, citronella, stone fruits geraniums, tobacco, lemons
    terpineol flowers, lilac, lime, cardamom, clove cypress, juniper berries, cardamom, marjoram, thyme
    nerol bitter, citrus, rose cumin, lilacs, apples, conifers
    citronellol flowers, sweet citrus, rose roses, geraniums, lemongrass

    Floral Terpene

    Floral

    TERPENE
    AROMAS
    ALSO FOUND IN
    terpineol flowers, lilac, lime, cardamom, clove cypress, juniper berries, cardamom, marjoram, thyme
    ocimene flowers, fruit, herbs mint, parsley, black pepper, basil, mangoes, orchids
    linalool sweet flowers, citrus lavender and many other flowers, mint, cinnamon
    bisabolol fresh flowers chamomile

    Fruity Terpene

    Fruity

    TERPENE
    AROMAS
    ALSO FOUND IN
    geraniol geranium, rose, citronella, stone fruits geraniums, tobacco, lemons
    ocimene flowers, fruit, herbs mint, parsley, black pepper, basil, mangoes, orchids
    linalool sweet flowers, citrus lavender and many other flowers, mint, cinnamon
    nerolidol wood, bark, flowers, apple citronella, ginger, orange peel
    citronellol flowers, sweet citrus, rose roses, geraniums, lemongrass

    Citrus Terpene

    Citrus

    TERPENE
    AROMAS
    ALSO FOUND IN
    limonene lemon, lime citrus fruits, juniper
    valencene orange, tangerine, grapefruit citrus fruits, Valencia oranges
    phellandrene citrus, mint, herbs, pepper eucalyptus, pines, parsley, dill, mint, lavender
    cymene tangy orange, carrot, musk cumin, thyme
    carene earth, pine, forest, citrus bell peppers, pines, citrus fruits

    Herbal Terpene

    Herbal

    TERPENE
    AROMAS
    ALSO FOUND IN
    alpha-pinene pine, rosemary pines, conifers, rosemary, sage
    beta-pinene dill, parsley, basil pines, conifers, rosemary, sage
    eucalyptol eucalyptus, mint, spice eucalyptus
    ocimene flowers, fruit, herbs mint, parsley, black pepper, basil, mangoes, orchids
    fenchol camphor, pine, lemon basil
    menthol cooling mint various mints
    phytol green tea, light flowers, jasmine, balsam green tea
    isopulegol sweet mint, eucalyptus eucalyptus, lemongrass, geraniums
    phellandrene citrus, mint, herbs, pepper eucalyptus, pines, parsley, dill, mint, lavender
    pulegone mint, camphor peppermint, catnip, pennyroyal

    Skunky Terpene

    Skunky

    TERPENE
    AROMAS
    ALSO FOUND IN
    myrcene musk, earth, ripe fruit mangoes, lemongrass, hops, thyme
    alpha-pinene pine, rosemary pines, conifers, rosemary, sage
    beta-pinene dill, parsley, basil pines, conifers, rosemary, sage
    beta-caryophyllene peppery spice, wood black pepper, cloves, balsam
    limonene lemon, lime citrus fruits, juniper
    linalool sweet flowers, citrus lavender and many other flowers, mint, cinnamon

    Cheesy Terpene

    Cheesy

    TERPENE
    AROMAS
    ALSO FOUND IN
    alpha-pinene pine, rosemary pines, conifers, rosemary, sage
    beta-pinene dill, parsley, basil pines, conifers, rosemary, sage
    beta-caryophyllene peppery spice, wood black pepper, cloves, balsamjuniper
    limonene lemon, lime citrus fruits, juniper
    linalool sweet flowers, citrus lavender and many other flowers, mint, cinnamon
    humulene wood, earth hops, coriander
    nerolidol wood, bark, flowers, apple citronella, ginger, orange peel

    How can I use terpenes to choose cannabis products?

    Consumers often choose cannabis products by considering THC and CBD potency, as well as the species (indica, sativa or hybrid). Terpene content is another factor to consider: We all have individual preferences for smells and tastes, so knowing the dominant terpenes in a product — often referred to as its terpene profile — can help you choose one with a scent and flavour you’d most likely prefer.


    Terpenes are one of many factors to consider when shopping for the right cannabis product for you. Read more about how to choose products.

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