Understanding Terpenes: The Smells & Aromas of the Plant World
In this follow-up to our “Understanding Cannabinoids” series we cover terpenes and dive in a bit deeper to smells and aromas of the plant world.
Author – Jon Russell
Edited by Noah Persin
Our journey along the cannabinoid map discussed several of the major and minor cannabinoids contained in the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids aren’t the only compounds, however, and our final article in the series discussed terpenes on a basic level. Read the excerpt from that article below and then we’ll get more in depth on how the terpenes work with the Entourage Effect.
Excerpt from “CBL, Δ8-THC & Terpenes”
Roughly 140 of the compounds found in the cannabis plant are what are known as terpenes or terpenoids. These words are used interchangeably, however a terpene is natural where terpenoids only occur after oxidation. These compounds are where the flower and its extracts derive their flavor and aroma from. Terpenes are not unique to the cannabis plant. In the world of plants terpenes are used as a means of defense and attraction simultaneously; terpenes attract bees and other beneficial organisms that assist in reproduction while also repeling predators like aphids and mosquitoes.
Like cannabinoids, terpenes have their own medicinal and therapeutic benefits. Terpenes also interact with cannabinoids, giving them a boost . Researchers found that the terpenes and cannabinoids are synergistic and can increase their effects. Lower THC concentrations can still feel strong and the effect of some medicinal compounds like CBD are more efficacious on the human body. This is known as the Entourage Effect. We’ll cover the Entourage Effect in our next article.
The most recognized terpenes are: humulene, pinene, linalool, caryophyllene, myrcene & limonene. Let’s briefly cover each one:
Humulene: Earthy, woody aroma. Also found in hops & coriander. Known to suppress appetite and have anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial & pain relieving qualities. Vaporizes at 388 degrees fahrenheit.
Pinene: Sharp, sweet & piney aroma. Also found in pine needles, conifers & sage. Known to increase memory retention & alertness as well as treat asthma and inflammation. Vaporizes at 311 degrees fahrenheit.
Linalool: Floral, citrus & spicy aroma. Also found in pepper, cloves, hops, basil & oregano. Known to have a sedated and/or calming effect and treats insomnia, depression, stress, anxiety, pain & convulsions. Vaporizes at 388 degrees fahrenheit.
Caryophyllene: Peppery, woody & spicy aroma. Also found in hops & coriander. Can be used to treat muscle spasms, pain & insomnia. Vaporizes at 320 degrees fahrenheit.
Myrcene: Musk, clove, herbal & citrus aroma. Also found in mango, thyme, citrus, lemongrass & bay leaves. Known to have a sedating, calming & relaxing effect and can be used as an antiseptic, antifungal & antibacterial. This is the popular terpene known to increase the psychoactive effect of THC. Vaporizes at 388 degrees fahrenheit.
Limonene: Citrus, lemon & orange aroma. Also found in Citrus rind, juniper & peppermint. Known for stress relief and can elevate moods. Can be used for treating anxiety, depression & gastrointestinal issues. Vaporizes at 349 degrees fahrenheit.
That excerpt was a great primer on the topic of terpenes, but now it’s time to learn a bit more about what they actually are.
What’s That Smell?
Terpenes are a viscous, oily substance that can be extracted from cannabis it is sometimes seen seeping from the flower like sap. However, terpenes are not exclusive to cannabis. In fact, most plants have a terpene profile. A plants terpene profile can serve as a means to provide protection from predators and/ or entice a suitable pollinator or cultivator. How does this work though?
Terpenes emit a powerful aroma in response to stress and other stimuli. From the citrus smell of an orange to the peppery scent of peppercorns, terpenes are an integral mechanism in the plant-insect interaction cycle. The aroma is powerful enough to bring pollinators around for miles; that power also means that terpenes make a strong, natural insecticide. Some terpenes are acidic enough to be a solvent and these can be used to create aphid and mosquito repellents.
In cannabis, terpenes are what provide some of the uniqueness to the different strains. Even the flower of the same phenotype (the genetic and environmental influences that come together to create an organism’s physical appearance) can have a different terpene profile from each other. This means your Grape Ape grown in Colorado could be different from my Grape Ape grown in Oregon. Terpene profiles are like fingerprints, you won’t find the same profile between individual plants unless you’re looking at a set of clones grown in nearly identical or identical conditions.
Use the interactive terpene chart below to find even more information about cannabis terpenes!
Aromatherapy As Medicine
Science is now discovering the use of terpenes in medical treatments. Aromatherapy isn’t new; treating illnesses with essential oils has been around for centuries. Essential oils are extractions that separate the terpenes from plant material, creating a powerful, concentrated oil. These oils can be placed on cotton balls for direct inhalation or placed on a warming plate for the heat to release the terpenes into the air in a gaseous form. These oils are then used as fragrances (for perfumes, etc.) or flavor additives to food, among other things.
Inhaling these terpenes provides a host of medicinal benefits. Humulene (found in hops & coriander) is known to induce relaxation and limonene is known to elevate your mood. These are just a few of the benefits terpenes can provide.
They don’t just work alone either. Terpenes are affected by the Entourage Effect and will increase the efficacy of the other cannabinoids and flavonoids in the cannabis plant. Terpenes will also increase each other’s strength as well! Sniffing black pepper before ingesting turmeric will increase your uptake of the curcumin in the turmeric by up to 2000%, yes 2000% (that’s no typo!).
This happens because many terpenes bind to the CB1 and CB2 receptors, much like the other cannabinoids. These receptors are responsible for the physiological responses we have to the cannabis compounds. CB1 receptors are where THC and many terpenes bind, that’s where the high comes from.
What About Taste?
Terpenes don’t just affect smell, they are part of how we taste the foods we eat as well. Limonene provides a lemon or lime zest flavor, myrcene is what gives us that sweet mango taste, and caryophyllene is where the spicy flavor of pepper comes from. These are just a few of the flavor combinations out there, and we can mix & match them to create the multitude of flavors we taste in our cannabis extractions. Extract artists are now reintroducing terpenes to finished extracts such as CO2 oil or butane hash oil (BHO) to create a higher quality dabbing experience.
The food industry uses terpenes as natural flavor additives. Distilled essential oils can be added to bases in lieu of lab derived flavor compounds. Terpene distillations are concentrated enough that only a couple of drops are more than enough to impart flavors.
A Riot of Perfumes
Terpenes are responsible for the myriad scents and flavors in the plant world. They offer “a riot of perfumes” as poet Arthur Rimbaud once said about cannabis. Without terpenes bees would cease to pollinate plants; insect predators would ravage unchecked among our crops and the plant world as a whole.
Their medicinal benefits are just being explored and while there is much research performed on the structure of terpenes, there is very little known about their effects. Like everything else that has to do with cannabis, more research is needed.