Terps 101: Your Unofficial Guide to Terpenes
By Vincent Mann
Terpenes are a hot topic in canna-culture today, with plenty of buzz surrounding their potential benefits, but many people lack a deeper understanding of what they actually are or do.
Thankfully, terpenes are far more commonplace in your day-to-day life than you might think, and it doesn’t take heady textbook definitions to understand them.
In the simplest terms, terpenes are chemical compounds found in plants and animals.
In plants, terpenes are responsible for the characteristic smells, flavors, colors, and practical applications. For example, terpenes are what give most household herbs a strong, identifiable scent.
You probably recognize the names of some commonplace terpenes — menthol, for instance -- whether or not you knew to call them terpenes. If you keep essential oils around, you basically own little jars of terpenes.
Small amounts of familiar terpenes like menthol do exist in various strains of cannabis, but there are a number of more significant terpenes found in weed that play a role in the quality of your high.
Understanding how the terpenes in cannabis work may help you understand how you arrived at your favorite strain, or help you find an even better one.
The Terpy World of Plants
Yes, every plant contains terpenes, and terpenes are even found in the genetic structure of some animals.
Terpenes help protect plants from predators while attracting pollinators, and it’s even theorized that plants use terpenes to communicate with one another.
The various terpenes found in each strain of cannabis are basically what make each unique strain different from others.
For example, certain strains of weed get their citric aromas from limonene, a terpene also found in citrus fruits, and some get their piney aromas from the terpene pinene, which is common in conifer trees.
Terpenes such as these often have effects on the brain and body as well, like relieving anxiety or easing muscle tension.
Scientifically extracted, or even synthesized terpenes are sometimes added to products ranging from skincare to vape cartridges to enhance scent, flavor, and efficacy.
At the moment, many terpenes found in cannabis are even being studied for their potential to combat cancer, though the research is still inconclusive.
What’s the Difference Between Cannabinoids and Terpenes?
Talking about weed, it’s important not to confuse cannabinoids, the most talked about group of chemical compounds found in cannabis, with terpenes.
Though terpenes and cannabinoids are distinctly different, terpenes do affect the way cannabinoids are absorbed by the brain and body, and the two groups of compounds work together to get you high — scientifically, this is referred to as the ‘entourage effect.’
Thanks to the entourage effect, full-spectrum cannabis products are a particularly prized and well-rounded option for cannabis consumption, especially when used for medicinal purposes.
It is believed that these various chemical components of the marijuana plant work together for maximum enjoyment and efficacy.
What about Indica and Sativa?
While the terms Indica and Sativa don’t refer directly to terpenes, the recognizable difference between indicas and sativas are heavily influenced by their terpene profile.
There can be variation in each strain’s THC:CBD ratios, but terpenes affect how those compounds impact the mind and body. Moreover, the terpenes found in each strain are the ones responsible for how your weed smells and tastes.
Terpenes in Indica-Dominant Strains
As most of our readers know, indica strains have a sleepier, relaxing effect and tend to lean towards the earthier end of the aroma spectrum. On the other hand, sativas tend to be sweeter-smelling and energizing.
Indica strains generally have a high concentration of terpenes with potentially sedative properties.
One major player is myrcene, one of the most prominent terpenes found in cannabis, which works with other terpenes and cannabinoids to create a sleepy effect.
Terpenes in Sativa-Dominant Strains
Sativa strains contain myrcene as well, but alongside some less sleepy terpenes.
Pinene, one of the most common terpenes found in nature and notable for - you guessed it - giving pine trees their signature scent, is commonly found in sativa-dominant strains.
Pinene is also known to increase alertness and provoke feelings of euphoria, resulting in sativa strains' trademark high.
Limonene is another terpene commonly found in sativa, responsible for citrus-like aromatics and purported to elevate mood and alleviate stress.
Over 400 or so terpenes can be found in cannabis, but science has only pinpointed the specific effects of a handful of these, and we’ve barely scratched the surface in this article.
All right, all right, so what terpenes should you be looking for in your weed?
Here’s the rundown on the major players of the terpene game.
Breakdown: The Headiest Terps Today
Myrcene has an intensely earthy, spiced aroma when in high concentrations, resulting in the trademark aromatics of indica strains.
This is also why certain hoppier beers and some types of basil have a tantalizingly cannabis-like aroma.
In cannabis, myrcene helps cannabinoids pass the blood-brain barrier, delivering the calming effects indica strains are known for.
In smaller concentrations, myrcene can help you achieve an energizing high instead of one that weighs you down.
Presently, myrcene is also being studied for its possible anti-inflammatory properties.
Linalool is the terpene most famously found in lavender, but it is also found in other plants such as birch, coriander, mints, lilacs, and citrus fruits. It emits a floral, woody, and mildly spicy scent.
One of the world’s oldest known sedatives, linalool activates many of marijuana’s calming properties.
So far, research indicates that linanol can reduce stress and anxiety, ease muscle tension, and alleviate symptoms of depression.
Science is even exploring its potential to fight cancer. And we know one thing for certain: it smells good!
While limonene is commonly found in many strains of weed, this terpene occurs in other recognizable plants such as mint, rosemary, fennel, and juniper.
The most prominent source of limonene, however, is the common citrus—oranges, lemons, limes—as you may have expected from the name.
Currently, limonene is being researched for its abilities to combat mood disorders, as it is known to relieve anxiety by interacting with serotonin in the brain as well as ease physical pain.
Pinene is the natural world’s most common terpene, and has an instantly recognizable pine scent, as its name implies.
While you likely recognize its aroma from pine trees and certain strains of weed, it’s also found in everything from turpentine to orange peels, and herbs like dill and rosemary.
Earlier in this article we emphasized the crucial distinction between terpenes and cannabinoids.
Ironically, caryophyllene is a rare exception to this rule, as it is a terpene that also functions as a cannabinoid, activating the endocannabinoid system and prompting anti-inflammatory effects.
You might recognize notes of its scent from black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. Caryophyllene adds an earthy, funky depth to your weed.
Because of its potent anti-inflammatory abilities, caryophyllene is a particularly prized terpene and is being researched for its ability to treat anxiety and depression, reduce alcohol intake, and even treat inflammatory bowel disease.
While the path to hard-and-fast scientific conclusions is a long one, it’s safe to say that caryophyllene-rich strains of weed are a great choice for a deeply relaxing high.
One Last Thing: Terps and Vapes
Essential oils are all basically terpenes, and this, in part, is why terpene extraction has become such a popular way to craft high-quality vape products and edibles.
While research is inconclusive on the health impact of terpenes that have been extracted from cannabis and other plants, some indicate there may be adverse effects in the conversion process of liquid terpenes into vapor.
That being said, vaping does not to appear to be any more harmful than the incidental side effects of burning and inhaling flower, or the burning papers you used to roll a joint.
The major thing to look out for when vaping is synthetic terpenes, which are engineered in labs out of chemicals using terpenes’ natural chemical compositions as a reference point for construction.
Plant-derived terpenes, on the other hand, are extracted through solventless methods like steam distillation and hydrodistillation, as well as solvent-based methods using gasses such as butane, CO2, ethanol, and nitrogen.
While synthetic terpenes tend to have a stronger smell and flavor, science knows far less about their overall health impact than those extracted from plants.
Thankfully, Caliva doesn’t carry synthetic terpene products, so you’re in the clear when shopping with us.
You Are Now A Terpene Pro
Congratulations, you made it to the end! While the terminology may seem cold and scientific, you now know how the chemistry of terpenes already plays a big role in the pleasures of your day-to-day life.
Not only should your high school science teacher be proud, but your newfound familiarity with the terminology and effects of specific terpenes will help you navigate the world of cannabis more articulately with the success of a pro.
Vincent Mann is a writer, artist, and musician based in the Tri-State with a lifelong appreciation for herbs and herb.