What are Terpenes: Everything You Need to Know

As you continue your exploration of cannabis and all its beguiling and delightful flavors and effects, one buzzword you may continually encounter is “terpenes”. But what exactly is a terpene, and what do they do? Well, in scientific terms, the terpene is a chemical compound produced by a living organism that is composed of hydrogen and carbon molecules. An unsaturated hydrocarbon most frequently produced by plants, terpenes are the primary components of many plants’ essential oils. Confused yet? Yeah, we don’t blame you. A  simpler way to think about terpenes is that they are largely responsible for a plant’s aroma and flavor, two vitally important details to consider when identifying what strain of cannabis you might want to purchase.  

Here at Chalice, we find that some people are perhaps overly concerned with the potency of their cannabis and overlook a critical factor in the enjoyment of marijuana, which is a strain’s deliciousness. “Deliciousness?” You might be asking. “I’ve never considered the possibility  that cannabis might be delicious.” Well, allow us to open your eyes to the wonders of cannabis flavor profiles which can range from garden herbaceous to tropical fruit, and from coniferous pine to zesty citrus. Let’s take a closer look at terpenes and the marvelous effects they have…  

The Basics: Terpenes 

Something you might consider when diving into the complex abyss of terpenes is why exactly they exist in the first place. Why do some plants smell and taste a certain way, while others have a completely different or even opposite aroma? These differences all have to do with the way a plant has evolved over time in order to best set itself up to reproduce successfully.  Everything’s always about sex, huh? Well, technically, a lot of the time, yes, even terpenes!  You see, when a plant or its fruit smells or tastes a certain way, this is in order to attract the right kind of insects and animals to interact with the plant, and to repel those predatory insects and animals that might inhibit the plant’s reproduction. Take, for example, citrus fruit like a lemon.  The sour smell and taste of a lemon is the lemon tree’s way of attracting only those insects and animals that will be beneficial to the tree’s reproduction, for example, those animals that will eat a lemon’s seeds and deposit them elsewhere for more lemon trees to grow, while a lemon’s sourness and astringency will ward off those insects and animals that would only do damage to the lemon tree. This is an example of terpenes at work, as they are what gave that lemon its sour smell and flavor in order to best perform its biological functions. 

So, just as terpenes affect the flavor of a lemon, so too do they affect the flavor and smell of different varieties of cannabis, giving each its own unique flavor profile and aroma. In the case of cannabis, they exist to attract pollinators such as bees or butterflies and to repel invasive insects, but a wonderful byproduct is that we get to consume marijuana in a wide variety of delicious flavors.  

History of Terpenes 

As far as we know, terpenes have been in existence on this planet since flora and fauna first emerged from the primordial soup that allowed life to form, and perhaps even before then. For all we know, terpenes were the salty umami flavoring that gave that primordial soup its delicious depth of soupiness. Kidding! Kinda… obviously no one’s really old enough to confirm or deny this theory, so what’s the harm in it, right? 

Speaking of old people, let’s briefly discuss August Kekulé the “inventor” of terpenes. We put  “inventor” in quotes, as obviously no one really invented a naturally occurring chemical compound, but instead, Kekulé, a German chemist, is credited with discovering and naming terpenes in 1866. The word “terpene” is a derivative of turpentine, the fluid distilled from the sap of pine trees, which is itself composed of terpenes, primarily the aptly named “pinene”.  

Terpenes versus Cannabinoids 

This Sunday! Who will emerge victorious? Terpene vs. Cannabinoid. An instant classic. While we like to imagine two molecular pugilists duking it out for cannabis supremacy, the reality is that the two do not have an antagonistic relationship, and instead work in a harmonious manner to deliver that delicious high that Chalice products provide. The two cannabinoids that dominate the cannabis plant are THC and CBD, which in conjunction with terpenes, give cannabis its intoxicating psychoactive effect, as well as its medicinal value as a pain and stress reliever. 

Effects of Terpenes 

Research into terpenes, beyond their impact on aroma and flavor, is still in its infancy, so the underlying effects of terpenes on humans are not known. However, in recent years it has been speculated that terpenes may have a greater influence on how a person reacts to a particular strain of cannabis than previously thought. It has often been wondered why one strain of cannabis might make someone sleepy, while another might stimulate creative thoughts when both strains have the same THC and CBD content. A possible answer is that terpenes are responsible for these differing effects.  

Well Known Terpenes 

Limonene 

A terpene found in the rinds of citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges, limonene not coincidentally is responsible for the citrusy aroma and taste of certain strains of cannabis. The popular strain Wedding Cake is an example of a strain high in limonene, which is thought to have calming anti-anxiety effects and provide stress relief. 

Pinene

As previously discussed, pinene is the terpene responsible for the piney smell of pine trees and needles, as well as the smell of potent herbs like rosemary and basil. It is the most common terpene in the natural world, and in cannabis strains like Big Smooth, it is thought to provide pain relief and also work as an anti-inflammatory. 

Myrcene 

The most common terpene in modern strains of cannabis, myrcene gives strains like the ever-popular Blue Dream its herbaceous notes and sweet flavor. Myrcene is also found in hops,  thyme, and mango and is thought to have calming effects on the user.