What Are Terpenes?
By Mat Lee
Terpenes, terps, terpsauce, are all references you might have heard lately in regards to how much flavor a particular cannabis strain or extract has. But what the hell are they? Let’s go through a little terpene primer for those of you who might not yet be in the know.
First, a terpene as defined by Wikipedia, the end-all in human knowledge when it comes to defining things, states a terpene is a large and diverse class of organic compounds, produced by a variety of plants, particularly conifers. Wiki also says that some insects can emit terpenes. Let’s not confuse these with terpenoids, which contain other functional groups. Terpenes are hydrocarbons.
Terpenoids are isoprenoids, which, according to Cyberlipid.org, represent the oldest group of small molecular products synthesized by plants, and are probably the most widespread group of natural products. More than 50,000 terpenoids have been isolated from both terrestrial and marine plants, and fungi.
If you want to get real nerdy with me, check this out:
“The first study of bacterial terpenes grew out of an investigation of the characteristic odor of freshly ploughed soil reported in 1891 by the famous French chemist M. Berthelot (Berthelot M, et al., C R Acad Sci 1891, 112, 598). They noted that a volatile substance apparently responsible for the typical earthy odor of soil could be extracted from soil by steam distillation but they could not assign a structure to the odor constituent.”
Now that you hopefully have more of an idea what these smelly little molecules are, let’s discuss why they are so important in regards to cannabis. According to Cannaroma.com, a leading producer of terpene-infused extracts in states that are lucky enough to allow such amazing goodness, “Terpenes and terpenoids are small molecules found ubiquitously in nature and are the primary constituents of botanical essential oils. Many terpenes native to the cannabis plant are found in other plants. For example, lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, rosemary, pine needles, hops, lavender, and chamomile all contain terpenes that have also been found in cannabis.”
Along with the realization that these terpenes are found everywhere in nature, there has been a lot of talk about something called the Entourage Effect. Basically, when cannabinoids like THC and CBD are consumed in flower form, or in these terpene infused extracts, the terpenes work together with the cannabinoids to further potentiate and possibly unlock new, helpful effects.
The Entourage Effect is most likely why pharmaceuticals like marinol and sativex didn’t work as well as the companies who produced them expected. They were isolating or synthesizing individual cannabinoids, which still might have had an effect on you, depending on your endocannabinoid system. But the effects were nothing compared to what users who smoke flower or extracts expected. They were missing the Entourage Effect brought on by terpenes and cannabinoids working together to get your mind, body, and soul right.
According to a High Times article from 2013 entitled Talking Terpenes, “David Watson, the master crafter of the foundational hybrid Skunk #1, was among the first to emphasize the importance of aromatic terpenes for their modifying impact on THC.”
“Terpenes, or terpenoids, are the compounds in cannabis that give the plant its unique smell. THC and the other cannabinoids have no odor, so marijuana’s compelling fragrance depends on which terpenes predominate. It’s the combination of terpenoids and THC that endows each strain with a specific psychoactive flavor.”
So what are some of the major terpenes we find in cannabis? What are their effects? There’s a great graphic floating around the Internet that shows five of the main terpenes, and what they are known for. As I said earlier, there are thousands upon thousands of these molecules floating around out there, waiting to get up your nose and blow up your olfactory senses.
Around 200 or so have been found in cannabis and work together with the cannabinoids and your endocannabinoid system to give you the fantastic effects we’ve all come to know and love from our favorite plant.
In cannabis we see a lot of Pinene, Myrcene, Limonene, Linalool, and Caryophyllene, along with Bisabolol, Humulene, and Terpinolene. All of these will produce different effects depending on the levels they are found in, the levels of the cannabinoids they are found with, and the levels of other terpenes they are found with. It’s definitely a confusing concept to process, especially considering how little we actually know about terpenes, cannabinoids, the endocannabinoid systems, and the Entourage Effect.
Rest assured, that in states where it is legal to do this sort of research, the research is getting done, and it’s all exceptionally cool stuff. The more we can learn about how all these different constituents come together to produce all of the effects we love from our cannabis, the better we’ll be able to tailor strains and doses to our needs.