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Terpenes: What are They and Why do They Matter?

September 1, 2017

Everyone may experience the world in different ways, but our senses are the way we explore the world around us. And while most of us may not think about it every day, our sense of smell is more important than we think. When people think of cannabis, they usually consider 3 things:

  • The Consumption Method
  • The Effects Post-Consumption
  • The Smell

If you’ve just started to take a deeper look at the world of cannabis, there’s a chance you may have heard the terms ‘terpenes’ and ‘terpenoids’ being used. If you’ve never heard of them before, we’ll give you the simple introductory definition.

What are Terpenes?

Terpenes are the aromatic oils that give cannabis its unique scent. These oils are secreted by the flower, and are responsible for the smell that’s become a staple of the cannabis experience. That essential oil is then extracted from the plant either by vaporization or steam distillation. At the risk of oversimplifying things, the easiest way to think about it is that terpenes are what you’re smelling.

More to the point, it’s the reason why no two strains emit exactly the same odor. These oils are the reason that different cannabis varieties have distinct flavors.That’s why Black Sheep and Calyx Garden have their own distinct signature fragrance.

Sidenote: keep in mind that terpenes and terpenoids are not the same. While they might be used interchangeably, terpenes are hydrocarbons (which just means the only elements in them are carbon and hydrogen) while terpenoids have either been denatured via oxidation or chemically modified. If all that’s confusing, don’t worry: we’ll mostly be focusing on terpenes here.

Just to be clear, terpenes are found in more than just cannabis. They can actually be found in a variety of fruits, plants and herbs. Everything from lavender to basil has terpenes in it (Linalool and Caryophyllene, respectively).

Just like most plants, the reason that cannabis plants developed these terpenes was purely for survival. Terpenes existed to discourage predators and to attract pollinators. Of course, there are a variety of factors that will influence a plant’s development of terpenes. By manipulating these factors, you can change the smell and flavor of strains, leading to entirely new cannabis experiences. These factors include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Climate
  • Weather
  • Age
  • Soil Type
  • Maturation
  • Fertilizer

Why do Terpenes Matter?

Well, to a lot of people right now, it doesn’t. But the more you understand about terpenes, the more you’ll be able to appreciate the complexity of cannabis (whether you use cannabis medicinally or recreationally).

To understand why terpenes matter, you need to understand a bit more about how they work. For starters, terpenes are more than just simple fragrances. These essential oils often come with several medical benefits. To clarify exactly what those are, let’s take a look at some of the most common terpenes and see what makes them tick.


Easily the most common terpene produced by cannabis (with some strains carrying as much as 60% of this essential oil), this could be considered the unofficial ‘signature scent’ or cannabis. Its unmistakable fragrance has an earthy, musky scent. This particular terpene can be found in citrus fruits, eucalyptus and wild thyme.

When it comes to its effects, myrcene actually has quite a few. For starters, myrcene is responsible for the post-consumption effect commonly known as ‘couch-lock’. But beyond that, myrcene has been found to be an anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, analgesic and anti-mutagenic and other medical applications.

As it relates to cannabis, myrcene has been known to reduce the resistance across the blood to brain barrier. Translation? When it comes to cannabinoids like THC, myrcene allows the effects of that cannabinoid to kick in much faster. To top it all off, myrcene has actually been shown to increase the maximum saturation level of the CB1 receptor, thereby allowing for a greater maximum psychoactive effect (if that’s your cup of tea).


Typically noted as having distinct lavender and floral undertones, strains of cannabis with high concentrations of linalool tend to promote calmness and relaxation. In fact, this is hardly unique to the world of cannabis. Linalool has been used for centuries as something of a sleeping aid. Linalool also boosts the immune system and has even been seen as a tool in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease.

When it comes to its unique value to the cannabis community, linalool has been shown to lessen the anxiety that can be provoked by pure THC. Not only does this make it helpful when it comes to the treatment of psychosis and anxiety, there have even been studies that show it reducing lung inflammation caused by cigarette smoke. Apparently, linalool manages to block the carcinogenesis caused by the tar generated by the combustion of tobacco.


Officially known as Beta-caryophyllene, this terpene has some of the most interesting results when it comes to medical applications. With a peppery, woody scent, Caryophyllene has been shown to aid in everything from cancer treatment to chronic pain management and even arthritis.


Also known as alpha-humulene or alpha-caryophyllene, humulene is known for having a hoppy aroma (much like beer). We could go on for quite a while about the benefits of humulene, but we’ll keep this short and sweet.

Humulene is seen as an anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor essential oil. Fun fact: it’s actually been a staple of Chinese medicine for generations, as it can aid with inflammation and act as an appetite suppressant.


Pinene is an essential oil that smells like (you guessed it) pine. But more fascinating than its distinct aroma is the effect that Pinene can have. Aside from being an anti-inflammatory and local antiseptic, Pinene was considered to be an anti-cancer agent in Traditional Chinese Medicine (something that studies are showing was actually appropriate).

The list goes on and on. The point is this: terpenes are an important aspect of understanding the world of cannabis. While psychotropic cannabinoids like THC have been intensely studied, there are plenty of other cannabinoids and terpenes that have yet to be studied. Which is really a shame, considering the value and complexity of terpenes. The sooner we start studying terpenes in cannabis and how to best use them medically, the sooner the entire cannabis community will be able to benefit from these essential oils.