Cannabis plants contain a variety of chemicals and compounds that play a key role in differentiating different strains. These aromatic oils are responsible for more than just giving cannabis its distinct smell and flavor; they also play a vital role in determining different strains’ physical and mental effects.
Many commercial cannabis strains earn their name from their recognizable scents: Grapefruit, Cherry Pie, Clementine, Lavender, Juicy Fruit, Strawberry Cough, Mango Kush, Tangerine Dream.
Each of these cannabis strains contains a unique combination of terpenes, so understanding what these compounds are and how they impact your cannabis strain of choice will help better navigate— and appreciate— the growing number of commercial and medical marijuana strains on the market.
In this beginner’s guide to cannabis terpenes, we’ll teach cannabis consumers like you, everything you need to know about terpenes.
Regardless of your prior knowledge or experience with marijuana, by the end of this article, you’ll be able to identify the most common cannabis terpenes based on the smell, flavor, and effects of your favorite cannabis strains.
What are cannabis terpenes?
Simply put, cannabis terpenes are the organic compounds found in cannabis plants that create the unique plant smell and flavor.
Terpenes are aromatic components that can be naturally found in many plants and foods, where they also have the same effect. Regardless of whether you’re smoking cannabis flowers, dab concentrate, or using a vape, terpene molecules are still responsible for the way it smells and tastes.
Scientific speaking, terpenes are a class of hydrocarbon aromatic compounds that provide a basic skeletal molecular structure that interacts with other enzymes and molecules.
This skeletal structure allows “enzymes to add functionality and altered oxidation” that creates various effects in different cannabis strains.
In addition to offering users various effects, each terpenes found in cannabis plants offers different therapeutic value and medicinal properties.
Researchers are currently testing different terpene profiles with potentially synergistic effects that could provide breakthroughs in treating cancer, asthma, stress relief, depression, chronic pain, and other health benefits on the human body.
Archaeologists and historians have uncovered a growing amount of evidence that proves that humans around the globe have been using terpenes for thousands of years. In fact, The word terpene is derived from the Greek name for the terebinth tree, which contained terpene-rich resin that was used throughout the Middle East for centuries to treat a variety of ailments.
Interesting enough, Terpenes is a primary component of essential oils. It is usually combined with other hydrocarbons to create aromatic mood changing aromas.
The difference between terpenes and terpenoids
Whether you’re a self-proclaimed stoner or brand new to the world of weed, it’s easy to confuse terpenes and terpenoids. Despite having different meanings, the words are often used interchangeably.
Terpenes are hydrocarbons— meaning they’re a compound made of only hydrogen and carbon. When the cannabis plant is dried and cured or chemically modified, the terpene atoms oxidize and become terpenoids.
How are terpenes different from cannabinoids?
Despite being made in the same glands responsible for active cannabinoids like THC and CBD, cannabinoids and terpenes are not the same compounds. Cannabinoids and terpenes are two compounds found in the cannabis plant that, when used together, help produce a synergistic effect.
In fact, thanks to an increasing amount of marijuana research, scientists are beginning to discover there’s a whole lot more involved in the cannabis plant’s pharmacological and psychoactive effects.
It appears that CBD and THC are just the tips of the iceberg, as scientists have already discovered several additional phytocannabinoids that contribute to a strain’s unique properties— including CBG, CBN, THCV, and THCA.
How do terpenes affect the body?
In addition to providing a cannabis strain with its unique aroma and taste, different terpenes profiles also affect how different cannabis strains make you feel. Some support stress-relief and relaxation, while others lift your mood and help you focus.
For example, terpinolene is commonly found in energizing strains like Jack Herer, while the relaxing terpenes myrcene is found in calming strains like Blue Dream.
Some terpenes even contain anti-inflammatory properties. For example, Myrcene contains anti-inflammatory properties and has a pain-relieving effect.
Additionally, terpenes interact with cannabinoids like THC and CBD to produce a variety of desired effects, ranging from relaxation to pain relief. Certain cannabinoids and terpenes can suppress or intensify each other’s effects, depending on the combination found in the given strain. This phenomenon is known as the ensemble effect or the entourage effect.
The entourage effect is the cumulative physiological impact of all of the particular cannabinoids consumed via a specific strain.
There is still much research to be done regarding the interaction of terpenes with other cannabis compounds and different terpene profiles.
Still, they may offer therapeutic value and health benefits to users looking for a specific medicinal property or potential effect.
With the growing popularity of vaping and dabbing, it’s important to note that vaporizing terpenes at high temperatures may produce toxic chemicals.
A 2017 study by Portland State University found that heating terpenes to the temperature required for dabbing may produce methacrolein and benzene— two toxicants that have been linked to certain types of cancer.
If you plan to enjoy your cannabis using a dab rig, e-rig, or vaporizer pen, try to heat the cannabis concentrate at the lowest temperature possible to avoid heating the terpenes to the point of toxicity.
For fine tuning your temperature and for exceptional flavor we often recommend PAX vaporizers as they were some of the first brands to emphasis temperature control and optimizing flavor over just strength of vapor.
Today there are a wide variety of flower-capable vaporizers. When shopping, outside of brand reputation and user reviews, make sure the oven can easily be filled/emptied because if you are a terpene lover you will be using it quite a lot!
How are cannabis terpenes formed?
How a cannabis plant is grown, harvested, and cured significantly affects how prominent terpenes are in the final product. Everything from the growing temperature to the amount of water used for the soil’s nutrients impacts the plant’s final chemical makeup.
Even drying the buds at specific temperatures (between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit) can help to minimize the amount of terpene that evaporates.
To create the constantly terpene-heavy cultivars that consumers seek, cannabis plant growers often raise their plants indoors. These indoor growing systems give farmers greater control over the environmental factors— like temperature and light exposure— that affect the plant terpenes amounts and expression.
Growers who want a rich terpene profile out of their plants will also have to harvest at the right time. As any cannabis connoisseur will tell you, there’s truly an art to it.
Where are terpenes found in cannabis plants?
If you look closely at a cannabis plant, you’ll notice the tiny hairs that cover the surface. These hairs, known as trichomes, are what give your bud it’s crystally sheen and sticky texture.
The resin glands inside trichomes are responsible for producing terpenes and cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
Unfertilized female cannabis flowers prior to senescence (deterioration that occurs as the plant ages) have the highest concentration of terpenes.
Why do plants produce terpenes?
Plants produce terpenes as a form of protection against insects, herbivores, bacteria, fungus, and other environmental stresses. Terpenes can also help attract beneficial organisms like pollinators to the plant by releasing essential oils with attractive aromatic compounds.
Terpenes are found in almost all plants. Most of the scents we associate with plants, herbs, and spices are thanks to the terpenes and flavonoids they contain.
Common Cannabis Terpenes
Every strain possesses its own unique combination of terpenes and cannabinoids. Though cannabis researchers have identified over one hundred different terpenes, there are a handful of terpenes that appear in most commercial and medical strains on the market today.
Understanding different terpenes and what terpenes are present in a strain can help you better navigate the growing number of strains on the market.
For example, suppose you’ve had a negative experience with terpinolene-dominant strains (a terpene known to increase anxiety among some cannabis users) like Super Lemon Haze and Pineapple Kush, you can know to avoid similar strains in the future.
Herby and relaxing
Myrcene is the most commonly found terpene in commercial cannabis. The prevalent terpene has an earthy, musky scent that helps give cannabis its signature herbal aroma. It can also be found in citrus fruit, thyme, mango, eucalyptus, and lemongrass.
Myrcene is known for its relaxing, pain-relieving, and anti-inflammatory properties. Myrcene-dominant cannabis strains— like OG Kush, Granddaddy Purple, Blue Dream, and Grape Ape— have a calming effect that makes them a popular choice among cannabis users.
Indica cultivars with high myrcene levels (around .05% or higher) often leave users feeling couch-locked— a common side effect of Indica strains.
Peppery and stress-relieving
Caryophyllene— the second most common cannabis terpenes— is the only terpene that also acts as a cannabinoid. Strains containing caryophyllene terpenes— like Girl Scout Cookies, Chemdawg, and Original Glue— have a spice, peppery aroma. It can also be found in spices like black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon.
Strains that are caryophyllene-dominant are known for being particularly stress-relieving and are often used to combat anxiety and depression. A growing number of studies have found that caryophyllene may also be a promising compound for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and anti-cancer chemotherapy drugs’ side effects.
Uplifting and citrusy
As the name suggests, limonene has a distinct citrus fruit aroma reminiscent of oranges, lemons, and limes. The fruity-tasting terpene is also found in rosemary, peppermint, juniper, and fruit rinds. It absorbs well through inhalation and rapidly appears in the bloodstream. Limonene has also been shown to assist the body’s absorption of other terpenes.
Limonene-dominant strains like Wedding Cake and Do-Si-Do are known for relieving stress and elevating your mood. It has an uplifting and anxiety-reducing effect that makes it a popular terpene for medical marijuana patients and recreational users alike. Limonene is currently being tested in clinical trials as a possible treatment for breast cancer and has even been shown to support weight-loss.
Fruity and energizing
About one in ten cannabis strains is terpinolene-dominant, as the terpene usually presents itself in small amounts. Terpinolene adds a piney, citrusy aroma and slightly floral flavor to strains like Ghost Train Haze and Jack Herer.
Strains containing terpinolene have a euphoric, uplifting effect. The terpene is also naturally found in nutmeg, apples, and cumin.
Piney and therapeutic
Pinene is the most commonly-occurring terpene in nature and can also be found in pine trees, pine needles, rosemary, basil, and parsley. Pinene, as the name suggests, it has a woody pine tree, piney aroma, and slightly herbal taste.
Big Smooth, Snoop’s Dream, and Critical Mass are all pinene-dominant strains. Interestingly enough, thanks to the entourage effect, pinene actually counteracts some of the effects of the THC cannabinoids in these strains. Pinene has a high therapeutic value for treating ulcers, anxiety, asthma, and chronic pain. It’s also been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries as an anti-cancer treatment.
Calming and floral
Linalool has a distinctly floral scent with spicy flavors. It can also be found in lavender, coriander, cinnamon, and rosewood. The calming scent is a common ingredient of relaxing essential oils.
In cannabis, it’s best known for being relaxing and sedating. Strains containing linalool (such as Zkittlez, Do-Si-Do, and Lavender Kush) are often used as sleeping aids and anti-anxiety treatments.
Spicy and pain-relieving
Humulene’s unique musky, earthy smell has notes of sage and ginger. It’s also found in hops and is what gives beer its uniquely hoppy smell.
While the terpene has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries, it’s only recently been proven to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits and contains appetite-suppressing properties.
Notably, high levels of humulene can be found in strains like Girl Scout Cookies, Headband, Sour Diesel, and Super Lemon Haze.
Musky and energizing
Camphene has a pungent scent noticeable in strains like Ghost OG and Thunderstruck. The essential oil’s aroma is musky and earthy, similar to the myrcene.
In addition to cannabis, camphene can be found in common tea trees, spices nutmeg, ginger, dill, rosemary, and fennel. Studies have shown that camphene could help reduce cholesterol and triglycerides— two major contributors to heart disease.
Earthy and cough-inducing
The sweet, earthy scent of ocimene is often compared to the smell of basil. It’s considered a natural pesticide and air purifier and contains anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal properties.
Strawberry Cough, Space Queen, and Sour Diesel typically have high levels of ocimene. Some cannabis consumers may find that strains containing higher ocimene concentrations cause them to cough more, giving the terpene an unintentional decongestant property.
Floral and perfumey
Geraniol lends cannabis buds a complex sweet, fruity, and floral aroma that makes it a popular ingredient for perfumes and beauty products. The sweet-scented terpene can also be found in rose oil, blueberries, peaches, and grapefruit.
Strains containing Gernional— such as Agent Orange, Black Cherry Soda, and Dutch Hawaiian— are a great choice to consume in the summer, as Geraniol is a natural mosquito repellant.
Common Terpene Questions Answered
In case you are looking for a quick TL;DR or we missed any of your specific questions in the above article please check below for answers to some of the most common questions regarding terps.
How do terpenes affect the body?
They can impact the body both psychologically and pharmacologically, meaning, they interact with chemical receptors directly as well as indirectly impacting mood via expectations, smell, taste, and familiarity.
What are the health benefits of terpenes?
Health benefits range from anxiety reduction to increased focused to increased mood and pain relief depending on the unique combination of terpenes and the users unique individual physiology.
Do terpenes get you high?
In isolation terpenes do not get you high per say, that is primarily caused by THC and CBD. Terpenes can however elicit different psychological moods.
How do terpenes make you feel?
The effect terpenes have will depend in what group and volume they are consumed as well as the individual users unique physiology. Terpenes work differently in concert (or in their entourage effect) depending on ratios.
What terpenes are good for sleep?
Terpenes that users frequently claim improve sleep include caryophyllene, myrcene, terpinolene, and linalool.
Why are terpenes so important?
Terpenes are the spices and seasoning to the complex THC/CBD containing recipe that is a cannabis flower. They impart unique scents, colors, textures and sensations when consumed.
What are terpenes in CBD?
CBD isolates do not contain terpenes as they have been stripped of most organic plant material. Full-spectrum raw CBD oil however can contain terpenes unique to the strain from which they were derived.
What terpenes are good for anxiety?
Terpenes commonly associated with reducing anxiety include limonene, caryophyllene, myrcene, linalool, and alpha-pinene.
Are terpenes safe?
Naturally occurring organic terpenes are recognized by the FDA as “generally safe”. Be wary of synthetic terpenes or terpenes from unknown origins as they could contain dangerous chemicals.
Are terpenes psychoactive?
Terpenes are psychoactive to varying degrees depending on the quantity, blend/ratio, and who is consuming them.
Are terpenes addictive?
Technically anything can be considered addictive for some people but no, there is no documented evidence to suggest terpenes are addictive.
Are terpenes legal?
Since they exist in thousands of naturally occurring plants, fruits and vegetables yes, they are completely legal.
Herb CEO Summary
The world of terpenes is a vast one, and in addition to other under-studied and lesser-researched cannabinoids present the potential for exponential growth within the cannabis industry in terms of accessing various cannabinoid combination to present better medical solutions for patients and more tasty variety for recreational users.
While much of the mainstream is still fixated solely on THC content and more recently CBD content we expect terpenes to take an ever increasingly dominant role as a cannabis world “star child” going forward.