What’s That Smell?

A Handguide to Common Cannabis Terpenes

Byline: Cody Funderburk

Terpenes are volatile aromatic compounds found in millions of plants, especially cannabis, that create the unique smell profile of each flower. They’ve been the center of attention in cannabis research for the last several years, largely due to the “entourage effect” they produce with various cannabinoids. Terpenes offer strong potential to tailor the effects of a cannabis product to the needs of the consumer. This is because terpenes have their own pharmacological effects that influence the “personality” of a strain of cannabis and the effect it provides. The cannabis plant is known to produce more than 200 terpenes, although many of them appear only in trace amounts. Selecting strains based not only on cannabinoid profile, but also terpenoid content, gives the user more customization and control over the desired outcome.

Like cannabinoids, terpenoids are fat soluble and interact with a wide variety of receptors throughout the brain and body. In fact, cannabinoids may improve the ability of terpenes to cross the blood/brain barrier by increasing membrane permeability, furthering their synergistic potential, but more research is needed to confirm this theory. This article is intended as a handguide for navigating common terpenoids, their effects, and the most common strains they’re found in. However, it’s important to consider the entire terpenoid composition of a cannabis strain when making a selection, since some terpenes can overpower others…

Alpha and beta-pinene are two of the more common terpenes. You can recognize these terpenes by their classic christmas tree scent, sometimes carrying notes of rosemary. These terpenes are quite volatile, and can easily be destroyed by light, heat, poor growing methods, or poor storage methods. Cannabis strains high in pinene- notably Jack Herer, Kona Gold, Trainwreck, Dutch Treat, but also plenty of others- are known for being more clear-headed because pinene aids short-term memory by inhibiting enzyme activity in the brain. Strains that express higher levels of pinene are usually best for being creative and productive.

Myrcene is a classic “indica” terpene, and is known for promoting relaxation and the classic “couch lock” effect. This terpene is particularly interesting because B-myrcene is a precursor to other terpenes, and it has reached the highest concentration (30%) of any terpene found in the essential oil of a cannabis variety. If you choose a heavy indica strain myrcene is pretty hard to miss, but Kush varieties typically have higher concentrations of myrcene. Myrcene is also found in mangos, which perhaps explains the rumor that eating a mango before consuming cannabis will increase the effects.

Linalool. If you’ve ever had a strain that smelled floral, especially with notes of lavender, it likely had high levels of linalool. This terpene is mildly psychoactive, and is associated with calming effects. Often, this terpene is found in more indica strains, especially those with a purple tinge, like headband, but strains like Lavender OG have been bred to express higher concentrations of linalool. Linalool in lavender oil is frequently used in aromatherapy to promote tranquility, and nicely complements the relaxing effects of indica strains.

Caryophyllene, known as the “dietary cannabinoid,” is a compound found abundantly in black pepper. In 2008, scientist Jürg Gertsch documented the process in which beta-caryophyllene binds to the CB2 receptor, making it the only terpenoid known to directly activate a cannabinoid receptor. In fact, it’s rumored that chewing on two or three cloves of black pepper can help prevent anxiety associated with cannabis use, but this has yet to be verified. Beta-caryophyllene is the most common terpene in decarboxylated extracts, since it typically survives extraction temperatures that other terpenes cannot. Caryophyllene is hard to track down in any particular strain, but is reportedly found in strains like White Widow and Skywalker.

Limonene is a fairly well-known terpene, found in all citrus fruits, and commonly found in the vast variety of lemony strains like Lemon OG, Super Sour Lemon Haze, and Tangerine Dream. It’s rare for limonene to constitute more than 2% of the biomass of the bud, even in the most lemony strains. Limonene reputedly offers a stimulating antidepressant effect with a quick onset.

Borneol has been receiving more attention in the last several years as one of the rarer terpenes. It’s aroma has been compared to camphor, expressing a minty and cool, yet herbal scent. Borneol has demonstrated more potent numbing effects than lidocaine, by inhibiting the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, and can also be eaten for its analgesic effects. Additionally, borneol has been studied to improve permeability of the blood brain barrier, helping to deliver medicine to the central nervous system, making it a promising component in medical cannabis. Borneol is harder to track down, but strains with the word “haze” in the name are typically higher in borneol.

While our knowledge of cannabis terpenes has grown significantly in the last decade, there’s much left to be explored, especially with regard to their medical applications. The synergism between terpenes and cannabinoids has the potential to radically shape the customization of the cannabis experience, and adds yet another layer of versatility to the cannabis plant.

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