For old-school cannabis fans, all the discussion of terpenes may seem like a trend that just came out of nowhere, but you’ll almost certainly hear about them more and more in the next few years. Wrapping your head around the idea of terpenes is the best way to make sure you can get the right cannabis strain for your needs. As reliable lab testing becomes more widespread, knowing your terpenes will become even more fundamental to understanding cannabis options. Terpene content could even come to eclipse the indica/sativa dichotomy for explaining the various effects of cannabis strains.
Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in cannabis, as well as in other herbs, fruits, plants, and commercial products. They lend their scent to everything from bananas to pine trees, and to cannabis strains from Banana OG to Redwood Kush. When your cannabis smells like lemon or other citrus, chances are you can thank limonene, a terpene with the hallmark sour lemon aroma. That pungent, tangy mango smell shared by many indica strains most often comes from the terpene myrcene. And yes, these terpenes are literally the same compounds found in lemons and mangos themselves. When you’re amazed at how much your Lemon Kush actually smells like lemons, it is because it actually shares chemical components with lemons.
But that’s not all. The reason terpenes have been the focus for so much attention in recent years goes far beyond just taste and aroma, in what’s been called the “entourage effect,” a recently discovered phenomenon. The idea is that these hundreds of compounds work together, and with cannabinoids like THC and CBD, to magnify and even alter certain medicinal benefits. For some context, terpenes are also the foundation for aromatherapy practices.
Many of these compounds have offered adaptive benefits for cannabis plants, such as anti-fungal and insect repellant properties. Often, they can offer the same benefits to human cannabis users. In total, more than 200 terpenes have been found in cannabis, but a handful appear in significant enough quantities to have a real bearing on the aroma.
Pinene with its sharp, piney odor is also found, as the name suggests, in pine needles, conifer trees, and sage. It can alter the effect of cannabis to mitigate short-term memory loss and leads to a more alert effect. It is more commonly found in high quantities in sativa strains, and offers benefits for patients with asthma or inflammation problems.
Limonene, found in citrus fruits, can enhance the mood-lifting and stress relieving properties of cannabis strains. It offers anti-fungal, anti-depressant, and anti-anxiety properties, and can help relieve gastrointestinal stress.
Myrcene brings with it a musky, herbal, vaguely citrus aroma. It is also found in mangos, thyme, citrus, lemongrass, and bay leaves. It boosts the overall psychoactive properties of THC and brings additional sedative and relaxation properties to cannabis, as well as antiseptic, antifungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory medical benefits.
Linalool is a floral terpene also present in lavender, birch, and rosewood. In cannabis, it has a sedating and mellowing effect. It can help to treat insomnia, anxiety, pain, and depression, and also offers anti-convulsant properties. This is just a small sampling of terpenes worth knowing about. It’s worth exploring the dozens of other terpenes that can be found in cannabis.
The concept of the entourage effect also underscores the need for whole plant medicine. Studies in labs that extract single compounds like THC or CBD are missing out on the more nuanced effects of other compounds. Mainstream science may wish to isolate what they see as useful compounds, removing them from the flower that carries prohibition-era associations with illicit drug use. But getting past those notions, which were fabricated by propaganda to begin with, maybe the only way modern science will begin to understand the true potential of whole cannabis medicine.
You might be wondering how to incorporate this knowledge into your cannabis choices. It’s worth remembering that you probably already have without knowing – if you tend to prefer indicas, keep an eye out for linalool and myrcene. If you prefer sativas, you might enjoy limonene and pinene heavy strains (although there are exceptions to these rules). Once you’ve familiarized yourself with some terpenes and their effects, pick a few that seem right for you.
Also, remember that certain processes such as CO2 oil extraction destroy, or at least limit, the terpene content of the final product. If you want the benefits of the entourage effect, pre-filled cartridges and CO2 hash oil may not be the way to go. Some cartridge makers reinject terpenes into the final product, but even then, it usually only includes one or two (sometimes artificial) terpenes, instead of the evolution-tested benefits of whole plant medicine.
Good dispensaries and shops may offer lab testing on the exact terpene and cannabinoid content of a specific batch – this is the ideal way to explore terpenes. These stores will also have budtenders who can talk to you in terms of terpene content. This is certainly where the future is headed, but not all stores are there yet. Failing that, look for online resources on the terpene content of various strains.
In a matter of years or decades, these terpenes may become the primary way strains are marketed, bred by growers, and sought by customers, based on their specific terpene and cannabinoid content. This is already becoming a reality. Get ahead of the curve by understanding what terpenes are right for you.