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What are Cannabis terpenes?

Cannabis Terpenes and Terpenoids

There’s something about the aroma of cannabis that soothes the mind and body. Whether it’s the sweet fruity taste of Mango Kush or that skunky smell that bursts from a cracked bud of Cinderella 99, we know there’s something going on under their complex and flavourful bouquets.

Have you ever wondered why buds of even the same strain can have different tastes and smells? The answer is hidden in terpenes.

Terpenes are what you smell, and knowing what they are will deepen your appreciation of cannabis whether you’re a medical patient or recreational consumer.

For many people the word “terpene” is a strange and unfamiliar term, but it won’t be for much longer. As science and technology carry us to better understandings of cannabis, we’re beginning to see that there’s a lot more to marijuana than its cannabinoid content. To get a hint of the other therapeutic compounds in your strain, just give it a sniff.

Over the last couple of years, terpenes have been mentioned with much more frequency among cannabis consumers. If you asked a botanist, “what are terpenes” they would most likely tell you they are in the essential oils of plants. Furthermore, they are aromatic organic hydrocarbons. You can find them in a variety of plants and even some insects. Now, most people use the term when referring to cannabis terpenes.

The cannabis plant consists of a wide variety of chemicals and compounds. About 140 of these belong to a large class of aromatic organic hydrocarbons known as terpenes (pronounced tur-peens). You may have also heard people talk about terpenoids. The words terpene and terpenoid are increasingly used interchangeably, although these terms do have different meanings. The main difference between terpenes and terpenoids is that terpenes are hydrocarbons (meaning the only elements present are carbon and hydrogen); whereas, terpenoids have been denatured by oxidation (drying and curing the flowers) or chemically modified.

The Carlini et al study demonstrated that there may be potentiation (a form of synaptic plasticity that is known to be important for learning and memory) of the effects of THC by other substances present in cannabis. The double-blind study found that cannabis with equal or higher levels of CBD and CBN to THC induced effects two to four times greater than expected from THC content alone. The effects of smoking twice as much of a THC-only strain were no different than that of the placebo.

This suggestion was reinforced by a study done by Wilkinson et al to determine whether there is any advantage in using cannabis extracts compared with using isolated THC. A standardized cannabis extract of THC, CBD and CBN (SCE), another with pure THC, and also one with a THC-free extract (CBD) were tested on a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS) and a rat brain slice model of epilepsy.

Scientists found that SCE inhibited spasticity in the MS model to a comparable level of THC alone, and caused a more rapid onset of muscle relaxation and a reduction in the time to maximum effect than the THC alone. The CBD caused no inhibition of spasticity. However, in the epilepsy model, SCE was a much more potent and again more rapidly-acting anticonvulsant than isolated THC; however, in this model, the CBD also exhibited anticonvulsant activity. CBD did not inhibit seizures, nor did it modulate the activity of THC in this model. Therefore, as far as some actions of cannabis were concerned (e.g. anti-spasticity), THC was the active constituent, which might be modified by the presence of other components. However, for other effects (e.g. anticonvulsant properties) THC, although active, might not be necessary for the observed effect. Above all, these results demonstrated that not all of the therapeutic actions of cannabis is due to the THC content.

Dr. Ethan Russo further supports this theory with scientific evidence by demonstrating that non-cannabinoid plant components such as terpenes serve as inhibitors to THC’s intoxicating effects, thereby increasing THC’s therapeutic index. This “phytocannabinoid-terpenoid synergy,” as Russo calls it, increases the potential of cannabis-based medicinal extracts to treat pain, inflammation, fungal and bacterial infections, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy and even cancer.

Terpenes are believed to be involved in cannabinoid production, as these are made up of terpene blocks and phenol groups. In standard growing conditions, the terpene and the cannabinoid levels have been found to be correlated, which could be explained by the fact that both monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes are synthesized in the same glandular trichomes as cannabinoids.

Some terpenes have been found to have medicinal benefits. That means, there are non-psychoactive compounds that can be used to safely treat an array of medical conditions. There are a ton of different terpenes in cannabis, but here are 11 profiles you should know about.

1. Limonene

  • Flavour / Aroma – Citrus.
  • Medicinal Uses – Limonene can be used to help promote weight loss, prevent and treat cancer, and treat bronchitis. It can also be used to make ointments and medicinal creams that penetrate the skin better.
  • Strain – Perhaps you know Super Lemon Haze gets it’s name partially from the aroma, but did you know the smell is present because it contains Limonene?

2. Myrcene

  • Flavour / Aroma – Earthy and musky with a hint of fruity flavours.
  • Medicinal Uses –  Myrcene has been shown to be an effective anti inflammatory. It also works as a sedative and muscle relaxer. This could possible contribute to the tired/stoney feeling often attributed to indicas.
  • Strain – A Swiss study found that most of the strains they tested contains high levels of myrcene. One strain they tested, Lovrin 110, contained over 65% myrcene.

3. Linalool

  • Flavour / Aroma  Floral with a hint of spice. In addition to cannabis, linalool can be found in an array of flowers, mint, cinnamon, and even some fungi.
  • Medicinal Uses – Can be used as an anti inflammatory. It also helps to modulate motor movements. Another study found that Linalool could be used to help treat liver cancer.
  • Strain – A lab tested sample of Amnesia Haze showed slightly over 1% linalool.

4. Alpha Bisabolol

  • Flavour / Aroma – Floral. Alpha bisabolol is also found in chamomile.
  • Medicinal Uses – Can be used to heal wounds, fights bacteria, and can be used a deodorizer. Research suggests alpha bisabolol has been effective in treating a variety of inflammations.
  • Strain – The Werc Shop analyzed a strain called ‘Oracle’ and found high levels of alpha bisabolol.

5. Delta 3 Carene

  • Flavour / Aroma – Piney / earthy.
  • Medicinal Uses – Studies have found Delta 3 Carene to be an effective anti inflammatory. It is also known to dry fluids like tears, running noses, and menstrual flows.
  • Strain – A research study examined 162 marijuana plants, which represented over 80 strains. They detected carene in many of the samples.

6. Borneol

  • Flavour / Aroma – Earthy and camphor.
  • Medicinal Uses – Borneol can be used as an analgesic, anti-insomnia, anti-septic, and bronchodilator.
  • Strain – Dr. Mariano García de Palau claims that haze strains such as K13 contain high amounts of borneol.

7. Alpha-Pinene / Beta-Pinene

  • Flavour / Aroma – Pine. This is, of course, partially where pine trees get their scent from.
  • Medicinal Uses – Pinene has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Strain – One study examined 16 marijuana plants and found all the strains contained notable amounts of alpha-pinene and beta-pinene.

8. Eucalyptol

  • Flavour / Aroma – Spicy. Eucalyptol is used as a cooking spice and fragrance.
  • Medicinal Uses – Eucalyptol is used in a variety of products including cough suppressants, mouthwash, and body powder.
  • Strain – Some cannabis strains contain eucalyptol, however, it is typically in very small amounts. An analysis of super silver haze showed .06% eucalyptol.

9. Terpineol

  • Flavour / Aroma – Pine, clove.
  • Medicinal Uses – Studies suggest cannabis-extracted terpineol contains antioxidant properties.
  • Strain – A marijuana testing lab claims terpineol is a unique terpene found in Jack Herer and Jack crossbreeds.

10. Caryophyllene

  • Flavour / Aroma – Hoppy. Cannabis and hops are basically cousins.
  • Medicinal Uses – Studies suggest that caryophyllene may help treat anxiety and depression.
  • Strain – Green House Seeds tested a hydroponic and a soil-grown specimen of Train Wreck. They found the soil grown cannabis contained .33% caryophyllene. The hydroponic only contained .07% caryophyllene.

11. Camphene

  • Flavour / Aroma – Herbal.
  • Medicinal Uses – Camphene has been shown to possess anti-inflammatory and antibiotic characteristics.
  • Strain – One study suggests camphene is significantly higher in concentration among ‘mostly indica’ strains.


  • Each cannabis strain produces terpenes at different levels, and this unique combination gives each one a distinct taste and smell.
  • The “entourage effect”: Terpenes also interact with cannabinoids and other compounds of the plants: their very presence can affect the way you will react to a certain strain.
  • Terpenes are fragile: preserving them requires delicate extraction and handling of the cannabis plant, and not every cannabis-based products contain them.

Many cannabis “concentrates” like RSO (Rick Simpson Oil) or FECO (Full Extract Cannabis Oil) actually do not contain high levels of terpenes and terpenoids. In fact, any extraction method that involves heating the plant matter will burn off many terpenes and terpenoids (which evaporate into the air at a lower temperature than THC). This is why many concentrates don’t have a strong or distinctive “cannabis” smell or flavour, even though they were derived directly from cannabis buds. It may also partially explain why different types of concentrates have different effects even if they are derived from the same buds.

Extraction methods which do not involve heating the plant will likely contain higher levels of terpenes and terpenoids, and therefore may display different therapeutic effects.

As more people become aware of terpenes and their effects, dispensaries are beginning to cater to customer’s curiosity. Again, terpenes and their effects can vary from harvest to harvest, so you cannot rely on old information when purchasing your cannabis. Next time you head to the dispensary, ask your budtender to discuss the terpenes found in their strains.


terpenes and terpenoids