How Terpenes Shape Cannabis Flavor, Scent, and Experience
When you first think of cannabis, cannabinoids like Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) are likely what comes to mind. But your cannabis experience isn’t shaped by these two compounds alone. In addition to all the phytocannabinoids in cannabis, the plant has an abundance of terpenes as well.
These compounds bring their own properties to cannabis products, influencing taste, smell, and even how they make you feel. Terpenes influence whether you have an energetic, uplifting experience or a more relaxed and subdued one. This guide introduces you to terpenes, how they work, and why they’re important to your cannabis consumption experience.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are a diverse group of organic compounds found in many types of plants, including cannabis. There are thought to be about 20,000 terpenes found in nature, but only around 200 appear in cannabis. They shape the taste and smell of all types of plants beyond cannabis, including fruits, flowers, and other foliage. If you’ve ever noticed a lemony, floral, or piney scent while smelling or tasting cannabis, that’s due to the strain’s terpene profile.
In cannabis, the precise combination of terpenes varies from strain to strain. Some of these cannabis-based terpenes, like the cannabinoids they are found alongside, are found to influence the consumption experience. Research into terpenes’ potential for therapeutic uses is ongoing.
In cannabis plants, terpenes are primarily found in the cannabinoid-rich resin. This substance primarily forms on and around the flowers of mature cannabis plants, inside near-microscopic structures called trichomes.
Terpene production within the trichomes increases as the plant is exposed to light. However, terpenes are more volatile than cannabinoids1 and degrade or evaporate more quickly. This makes them especially challenging to preserve while processing cannabis flower.
How do terpenes influence your cannabis consumption experience?
Terpenes are a diverse group, and not every terpene results in a similar experience when consumed. Some terpenes like myrcene and linalool can be relaxing, while others like limonene can be uplifting and energetic. And while these are the typical effects associated with a terpene, it isn’t guaranteed each and every time you consume cannabis.
The effects of a terpene and whether they are felt when consumed in a cannabis product depend largely on the concentration of the terpene present. Linalool, for example, is very common, but not always in large concentrations. This means that even though it is present, it could be crowded out by other, more prominent compounds.
Further, researchers are still trying to determine the precise nature of how a process called the entourage effect relates to cannabis1. An entourage effect refers to two or more compounds working together to enhance their total effect. Some researchers believe that this applies to the many compounds in cannabis, including terpenes, major cannabinoids, and minor cannabinoids. While we don’t know for sure yet, we do know that cannabis products are less effective as they are further refined and lose minor cannabinoids, terpenes, and other substances, suggesting that the entourage effect may play a role here.
What are some of the most common terpenes?
- Aroma: Earthy, musky
- Effect: Myrcene tends to produce a relaxing experience
- Also found in: Hops, basil, mangoes
Myrcene is one of the most prominent terpenes in cannabis. It is commonly found in indica-dominant strains, which may be one of the reasons why indica strains are associated with relaxation. Researchers have focused on its relaxing properties; studies have uncovered evidence of the terpene’s impact on muscle relaxation. Myrcene is also being researched for its analgesic – or pain relieving — properties. Blackberry Kush and White Widow are strains that contain significant amounts of myrcene.
- Aroma: Sweet, floral, herbal
- Effect: Linalool tends to promote a relaxing experience
- Also found in: Lavender
Linalool might be closely associated with lavender, but it’s a frequent compound in stress-busting and mood-enhancing cannabis strains like Lavender Kush and Amnesia Haze. Linalool is being researched for its potential analgesic and anticonvulsant effects, too.
- Aroma: Pine
- Effect: Pinene tends to produce an alert, focused experience
- Also found in: Pine trees, rosemary, parsley
Pinene (both alpha-Pinene and beta-Pinene) is another terpene frequently found in cannabis, second only to myrcene. This earthy-smelling terpene is found in abundance in the strains Bubba Kush and Trainwreck. Researchers are studying its potential pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties2, among other effects. As a bonus, pinene is a celebrated natural insect repellent.
- Aroma: Citrus
- Effect: Limonene tends to promote an energetic experience
- Also found in: Oranges, lemons, grapefruits
When it comes to limonene, the scent is in the name: fragrant citrus notes are the hallmark of cannabis strains high in this terpene. Limonene may be the reason why strains like Jack Herer and Super Lemon Haze are energetic and uplifting. Researchers are examining this terpene’s potential as an antioxidant and analgesic compound. Limonene is also a common ingredient in perfumes and home fragrance products like candles and incense.
- Aroma: Spicy, peppery
- Effect: Beta caryophyllene tends to produce a euphoric experience
- Also found in: Pepper, cinnamon, oregano
Strains high in beta-caryophyllene like GSC and Sour Diesel are well-known for tackling pain and stress. That may be because Beta-caryophyllene is the first terpene known to behave similarly to cannabinoids. Famed cannabis researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam discovered in 1964 that this terpene activates your endocannabinoid system’s CB2 receptors, an effect which boosts your body’s production of the endocannabinoid anandamide4, also called the “bliss molecule.” The terpene is also being studied for its anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties.
- Aroma: Pungent
- Effect: Potential anti-tumor, analgesic, sedative effects
- Also found in: Hops, basil, cloves, sage
Humulene is commonly found in a wide range of popular cultivars (strains), from GSC to Super Lemon Haze to White Widow, but it’s rarely the dominant terpene. The scent and taste of humulene could be likened to a hoppy beer, such as an India Pale Ale (IPA) (1). Humulene produces a pungent aroma and crisp taste, which is evident in cannabis strains in which humulene is present in high amounts. When you catch a whiff of that characteristic cannabis smell, that’s due to the plant’s humulene content.
- Aroma: Pine, floral
- Effect: Calming, uplifting, antinociceptive (dampens pain sensation), analgesic
- Also found in: Cumin, parsnip, rosemary, sage
Terpinolene is one of the many terpenes in cannabis responsible for a strain’s floral notes. One of the uniting concepts of high terpinolene strains are consumer reports of relaxation and mood elevation.
Terpenes, cannabinoids, and cannabinoid medicine
While cannabinoids tend to take center stage when discussing cannabis, terpenes have much to add to the conversation. Cannabinoids and terpenes could work hand-in-hand in ways that scientists are uncovering all the time. Learning more about these compounds — and how they work together — gives us a better understanding of how cannabis can support an improved quality of life.