From skunky, to fruity, to floral, the bouquet of smells associated with cannabis can be highly diverse and varied from cultivar to cultivar. This diversity comes from the fragrant molecules found in cannabis called terpenes. There are over a hundred different terpenes found in cannabis, which have evolved with the cannabis plant as a defense mechanism against bacteria, fungi, insects, and other pests. They also serve as the building blocks for more complex molecules like the cannabinoids.
For many people the word “terpene” is a strange and unfamiliar term, but it won’t be for much longer. As science and technology carry us to better understandings of cannabis, we’re beginning to see that there’s a lot more to marijuana than its cannabinoid content. To get a hint of the other therapeutic compounds in your strain, just give it a sniff.
Terpenes are fragrant oils that give cannabis its aromatic diversity. They’re what give Blueberry its signature berry smell, Sour Diesel its funky fuel flavor, Lavender its sweet floral aroma, and Lemon Haze its citrus qualities. These oils are secreted in the flower’s sticky resin glands, the same ones that produce THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids. Terpenes are by no means unique to cannabis; they can be found in many other herbs, fruits, and plants as well.
Secreted in the same glands that produce cannabinoids like THC and CBD, terpenes are the pungent oils that color cannabis varieties with distinctive flavors like citrus, berry, mint, and pine. Medical research on cannabis has so avidly focused on cannabinoids that we don’t know much about these aromatic compounds yet. However, we know just enough to realize that terpenes are the next frontier in medical marijuana.
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.
The diverse palate of cannabis flavors is impressive enough, but arguably the most fascinating characteristic of terpenes is their ability to interact synergistically with other compounds in the plant, like cannabinoids. In the past few decades, most cannabis varieties have been bred to contain high levels of THC, and as a result, other cannabinoids like CBD, CBC, and CBN have fallen to just trace amounts. This has led growers to believe that terpenes help account for the unique effects induced by each cannabis strain.
This synergy has a scientific basis in our body’s endocannabinoid system. THC binds to receptors concentrated most heavily in the brain where psychoactive effects take place. Terpenes also bind to these receptor sites and affect their chemical output. They can also modify how much THC passes through the blood-brain barrier. Their hand of influence even reaches to neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin by altering their rate of production and destruction, their movement, and availability of receptors.
The effects these mechanisms produce vary from terpene to terpene; some are especially successful in relieving stress, while others promote focus and acuity. Myrcene, for example, induces sleep whereas limonene elevates mood. There are also effects that are imperceptible, like the gastroprotective properties of Caryophyllene.
Their differences may be subtle, but terpenes can add great depth to the horticultural art and connoisseurship of cannabis. Most importantly, terpenes may offer incredible medical value as they mediate our body’s interaction with therapeutic cannabinoids. Many cannabis analysis labs now test terpene content, so any consumer can have a better idea of what effects their strain might produce. With their unlimited combinations of synergistic effects, terpenes will likely open up new scientific and medical terrains for cannabis research.
A breakdown of common terpenes found in cannabis:
The following chart can also be used as a reference:
There is still so much to learn about terpenes. Researchers will continue to map out different strains and find new terpenes in cannabis. Once terpenes have been identified researchers can extract them and then run clinical tests. Just thinking about the possible medical benefits is incredibly exciting. Get ready, because you are going to hear a lot of buzz about terpenes – if you haven’t already!