One of the most fun aspects of being a cannabis consumer or patient is the ability to smell the array of fragrances that the plant’s flowers produce. With scents ranging from fruity aromas to cheese-like smells, the cannabis plant can require the consumer to develop a level of familiarity and expertise with its unique makeup. So what exactly is behind these fragrances that trigger such connections? And what is it that makes them so unique?
You may have heard of terpenes or terpenoids, the chemical that gives cannabis its different types of scents. Terpenes are organic hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants. With the rise of the legal cannabis industry, the discussion around terpenes has recently heated up. We’re here to break down what these chemicals are, and exactly what they are doing to make your cannabis experience so unique.
First, the words terpenes and terpenoids are often used interchangeably, although the meanings do vary. Terpenes are the naturally occurring combination of carbon and hydrogen, whereas terpenoids are terpenes that have been modified through a drying and curing process (chemical modification), altering the oxygen content of the compound.
In cannabis, terpenes are made in the trichomes of the plant. Trichomes are the shiny, sticky, mushroom-shaped crystals that cover the leaves and buds. Trichomes on cannabis act as a defense mechanism in nature, protecting the plant from insects and animals through the production of fragrant terpenes that repel these dangers. As humans, we smell these terpenes and can make inferences about the strain and possible physiological effects that the strain may have.
Cannabis is an incredibly diverse plant regarding its biological makeup and potential benefits — and terpenes – are no exception. There are over 100 different identified terpenes in the cannabis plant, and while the differences can be subtle, much progress has been made in making classification of terpenes and their effects easy for patients and consumers to understand. Broadly, terpenes can be broken down into sweet, sour, spicy, or bitter — with each category further breaking down into more specific smells. These specific smells consist with certain strains, which in turn correlate to the effects of that plant. In fact, to help with this., many companies have produced terpene wheels to better help people understand this. More on that in a bit.
Here’s an example: A sour-smelling flower may have a strong lemon scent to it. Lemon scented strains are often correlated with strains like lemon skunk or lemon haze; these are zesty sativas that give the consumer a boost of energy and euphoria. With a better understanding of terpenes and how they relate to the scents that you are experiencing, you are able to come to certain conclusions about the plant in front of you by simply smelling it. This is powerful information for consumers, patients, and growers alike.
You may be more familiar with terpenes than you realize. Considering our lemon example above, do you know what terpene a lemon scent refers to? Limonene. Limonene is not only characteristic of citrus-smelling cannabis but it’s also the exact terpene found in lemons and other citrus fruit rinds, like oranges and limes, giving them that fruity smell. Among other products, limonene is commonly used as a fragrant additive in cosmetics and cleaning supplies.
Limonene is known for its powerful antifungal and antibacterial properties. It’s a natural insecticide on the cannabis plant and can even assist in treating toenail fungus in humans. Limonene is easily absorbed through inhalation and even improves absorption of other terpenes through the skin and body tissue, like mucous membranes and the digestive tract. Limonene is also known for its stress-relieving and mood-enhancing effects.
Can you guess where pinene is commonly found? That’s right — pine trees. Pinene actually comes in two types: alpha, which smells like pine needles and is the most commonly found terpene in nature, and beta, which smells like rosemary, basil, dill, or parsley. Pinene is also found in conifer trees, citrus peels, and turpentine. Pinene is a powerful bronchodilator, which helps improve airflow to lungs, making it a good option for those struggling with asthma. It’s also an anti-inflammatory and local antiseptic and has been used by cultures around the world for its healing properties for thousands of years. Pinene easily crosses the blood-brain barrier improving memory and alertness. It’s even said that pinene counters memory loss associated with THC.
Commonly found in mangoes, hops, thyme, and lemongrass, myrcene is said to be one of the most abundant terpenes in cannabis. Myrcene is important because its presence determines whether a strain is indica or sativa. According to Steep Hill Labs, if a plant has more than 0.5% myrcene, it will produce indica-like effects. Anything less than 0.5% myrcene produces sativa-like effects. Myrcene is also known for its antibiotic, analgesic, and anti-mutagenic properties.
Linalool is commonly found in lavender and its aroma is light and floral. Widely known for the ability to reduce stress, linalool is used as an anti-anxiety, antidepressant, and sedative. Linalool is also used to relieve seizure symptoms and provide relief to those suffering from psychosis.
Custom Terpene Profiles
Research and information about terpenes are becoming increasingly available as interest in cannabis continues to grow. However, the average cannabis shopper can still be unaware of the effects that terpenes have on their cannabis experience. Furthermore, testing profiles showing cannabinoid and terpene content are not widely available to consumers. Companies are stepping in to remediate this by rebranding how we talk about terpenes.
Recently, there has been an uptick in companies who discuss their products based on feelings. Some brands advertise solely based on their intended effects. You can now buy a vape pen labeled “relax” or “energy.” This is a game changer for a few reasons. Two customers may walk into a dispensary asking for something sativa. The first customer may ask for a sativa seeking to focus, while the other may ask for a sativa seeking higher levels of energy. Because varied terpene content within sativa strains will make certain products better for certain effects, the use of mood-based branding provides solutions for different types of customers.
Custom terpene profiles can also be beneficial to patients seeking relief. Medical cannabis patients often suffer from several ailments at the same time, for example, nausea, pain, and stress. The severity and sensitivity of conditions vary among patients making individual, customized treatment essential. As more brands hit the market with custom terpene and cannabinoid profiles, patients are provided with increased treatment options, and in ways that we have not seen before. Because growing conditions and plant genetics determine terpene quality and content, growers are now able to make adjustments to the “how” and “what” they grow, in order to meet patient demand. This is a much faster and transparent process than waiting for a new pharmaceutical drug to hit the market.
Terpenes and Vaporizing
Because terpenes have different molecular structures, their boiling points vary. The temperature at which you vaporize becomes important for understanding what produces your desired effects. Some compounds require higher boiling points to turn into vapor, while others are ineffective at high temperatures. The same goes for cannabinoids.
The differences can also be quite wide. For example, THC’s boiling point is 315 F and Linalool’s boiling point is 388 F. There is a multitude of vaporizers on the market and temperature customization is becoming increasingly popular. Many devices now let you change the temperature directly on the device or through a smartphone app, providing cannabis consumers with options to consume at different temperatures.
Smoking anything isn’t ideal for your body — combustion creates smoke which contains by-products that are harsh on your lungs. Vaporizing is more gentle on the body, and more of the vapor content is made of the cannabinoids and terpenes that you seek. Cannabinoids begin to vaporize at 285 F and combustion begins at 392 F. Playing with different temperatures will help you find your sweet spot.
Non-Cannabis Terpenes and Concentrates
Another trend gaining popularity is the rise in products combining non-cannabis, isolated terpenes, and concentrates. A recent Brazilian study found that rats exposed to this combination were more likely to develop kidney problems than rats exposed to either substance on their own. Their research found that cannabis smoke degraded isolated beta-caryophyllene (another common terpene) into toxic chemicals known for consumption. The authors of the study went so far as to advise against mixing these compounds for humans.
More scientific research is necessary in order to better understand how terpenes affect the human body. Cannabis Science is still a relatively new field and there is so much more to be discovered. Until then, you can learn more by educating yourself on what research has been validated in order to better inform your consumption and purchasing decisions.
Your Most Important Takeaways about Terpenes
From what we know, the potential benefits from terpenes are promising. These organic, naturally occurring compounds not only enhance and inform your cannabis experience but also offer great medicinal benefits to patients. Terpenes have been used for thousands of years by cultures around the world for their healing properties and as cannabis science expands, the possibilities to help more people becomes increasingly exciting.
Terpene-based products are pushing the conversation about these compounds into the mainstream. Consumers are beginning to understand the correlation between terpenes and cannabinoids and their cannabis-consumption experience. The more sophisticated the consumer becomes, the more evolved the products on the shelves (and their marketing) will become.
As cannabis legalization marches forward, the market for products geared towards patients and consumers will rapidly expand. New companies and brands will jump in developing products to meet demand. Simultaneously, research will continue to move forward and more information regarding the benefits of the cannabis plant will come to light.
It’s up to consumers to better understand what they are looking for from their cannabis experience and from their products. By having open conversations with budtenders and asking brands for what they want, they open to door to new possibilities.