What Are Terpenes?

Written by BlackbirdGo May 18, 2018
The Plant

Open up a bag or jar of your favorite cannabis strain and you can likely smell the pungent bud from across the room. You’ve probably noticed that certain strains carry their own unique aromas. Some of these are pretty obvious based on the strain you’re consuming - like how Super Lemon Haze smells heavily of citrus, or how a good batch of Blueberry smells just like its juicy namesake. But other smells and flavors may be more complex. Have you ever had weed that smelled or tasted like diesel? How about cheese? All of these strains carry a specific scent signature, and it all has to do with the cannabis plant’s internal chemistry.

What The Heck Is A Terpene?

Terpenes are aromatic compounds produced by plants. These pleasant-smelling compounds occur naturally in many plants, including fruits and flowers, but those same terpenes also exist in cannabis. Any given sample of weed may have a full range of terpenes with varying concentrations, and the combination of those terpenes is what gives each cannabis strain its unique smell and flavor.

Terpenes are also the basis for aromatherapy. Specific terpenes have been shown to offer soothing effects in humans. For example, the terpene Linalool is commonly found in lavender flowers, and essential oils made from lavender are often used by naturopaths to relax the body and reduce anxiety. Linalool is also naturally found in some strains of cannabis that are known to promote relaxation and stress relief, like Grape Ape and Kosher Kush.

What Do Terpenes Do?

Terpenes develop in the trichomes of cannabis plants. Trichomes are the fine, crystalline stalks that give weed its frosty appearance. While some familiar terpene scents like citrus may smell appealing to us, many insects and animals are actually repelled by terpenes. This effectively protects the plants from potential predators - a sort of warning sign or deterrent that assists in the plant’s survival. Other pollinators are attracted to terpenes the same way we are, which makes terpene production an important part of a plant’s reproductive cycle.

The terpenes found in cannabis and other plants are considered volatile compounds, meaning they evaporate easily - which is why even without lighting up, you can still detect airborne cannabis smells so easily just from an open container of weed.

Right, But What Do Terpenes Do To Me?

You may remember from our previous post that cannabinoids like THC, CBD, and CBN also develop in the trichomes. Studies suggest that aromatic terpenes and psychoactive cannabinoids may work together in a synergistic pairing called the entourage effect. We already know that aromatherapy involving terpenes from essential oils can help calm the symptoms of anxiety. Pairing terpenes with cannabinoids like THC is believed to increase the therapeutic value of both compounds.

Terpenes may interact with our bodies beyond just the entourage effect. These aromatic compounds can easily cross the blood-brain barrier, which is your body’s mechanism for filtering out what in your blood is allowed to travel through and interact with your brain. It’s possible that terpenes in cannabis may also increase the permeability of cannabinoids across the blood-brain barrier. In other words, terpenes could potentially make it easier for you to feel “high” from the THC in your weed. The same principle applies to other cannabinoids like CBD, which has shown promise in its ability to treat pain, anxiety, and certain seizure disorders.

Some terpenes are also capable of selectively binding directly with your body’s cannabinoid receptors - specifically the CB2 receptors found around your body’s immune system. This could have implications in future research on how cannabis terpenes can be used to treat specific medical conditions.

Which Terpenes Are In My Weed?

Terpene concentrations can vary tremendously from one batch of cannabis to another. Different seeds from different pot plants could yield disparate terpene profiles, even if all the seeds produce the same strain of cannabis. Those differences are partially from genetic variance between plants and partially from external factors like environmental/growing conditions.

The only way to definitively know the terpene concentrations in a specific batch of weed is to have it professionally analyzed by a lab. In the state of Nevada, cannabis growers are required to have their crops analyzed for potential dangers like pesticide residue, but they’re also required to conduct cannabinoid and terpene analyses to better educate patients and customers. When you buy weed from your local dispensary in Nevada, they’re required to attach a label that shows you the cannabinoid and terpene profiles from a randomly-selected sample in that batch of cannabis.

Even though specific terpene profiles will vary from one sample of weed to another, many strains are bred for their high concentrations in certain desirable terpenes. We’ve put together a list of some common terpenes, their potential medicinal uses, and the strains that typically offer relatively high concentrations of those terpenes.

  • Offers mood elevation, often used to treat the symptoms of depression or lethargy.
  • Commonly found in citrus plants.
  • Strains high in limonene: Lemon Skunk, Super Silver Haze, XJ-13, Amnesia Haze.
  • Delivers analgesic (pain-relieving) and sedative effects.
  • This terpene is frequently found in mangos and hops.
  • High-myrcene strains: Granddaddy Purple, OG Kush, Pure Kush, Afghan Kush, Trainwreck.
  • Serves up analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects.
  • Pepper, cloves, and cinnamon are all high in caryophyllene.
  • Smells and tastes spicy. Commonly found in the following strains: GG4, Cookies, UK Cheese, Blackberry Kush, DJ Short’s Blueberry.
  • Offers consumers sedation and relief from pain, anxiety, and depression.
  • Occurs naturally in lavender, which is often the aroma associated with high-linalool cannabis strains.
  • Strains with high concentrations of linalool: Lavender, Super Skunk, Platinum Kush.
  • Gives consumers a sharp, focused high that’s typically associated with sativas.
  • Pinene smells heavily of pine needles and sap, but it can also smell like edible herbs.
  • Cannabis strains high in pinene include: Jack Herer, Cheese, Chemdawg, Tahoe OG.
  • Relieves inflammation and pain.
  • Carries a musty, earthy smell. Commonly found in hops, tobacco, and pine needles.
  • Strains that contain humulene: Bubba Kush, Northern Lights, Space Queen, Sour Diesel, Black Jack, Harlequin, Charlotte’s Web.
  • Offers mild sedative properties, yet is commonly found in sativa-dominant strains.
  • Smells woodsy and herby. Also occurs in juniper, sage, rosemary, and allspice.
  • High-terpinolene strains: White Widow, Dutch Treat, Jack Herer, Amnesia Haze.
How Can I Use Terpenes To Help Me?

Because of aromatherapy research, the medicinal uses of these naturally-occuring compounds have been known for a long time. But thanks to cannabis analysis and labeling, it’s relatively easy to find strains that can best meet your needs. Talk to your budtender about the effects you want to feel and the terpenes you’d like to try, or search online to see which strains have higher concentrations of the terpenes you’re most interested