What are Terpenes and Why Should You Care?


woman smelling bud

by Joseph Arnold

Cannabinoids like THC and CBD are the most valuable compounds derived from cannabis. They provide users with psychoactive effects and deliver numerous health benefits. However, while cannabinoids are undoubtedly why cannabis is one of the most valuable cash crops, they aren’t the only essential compounds.

As we learn more about the cannabis plant, it becomes apparent that terpenes play a significant role both aromatically and influencing the effects of different strains. A few years ago, the average cannabis consumer probably hadn’t heard of terpenes, but today they are a significant driving factor in the purchasing decision.

What are Terpenes?

Terpenes are aromatic oils that all plants naturally produce. Some terpenes attract pollinators, and others protect the plant from harmful predators and microorganisms. The unique smell of a plant is thanks to its terpene profile.

The cannabis plant is particularly abundant in terpenes, creating scents that are distinctive to specific strains.

The Role of Terpenes in Cannabis

Cannabis terpenes not only influence the smell of the plant, but they also have a significant effect on the user’s high. We once thought that what made a strain sativa or indica was physical characteristics, but thanks to pioneers like neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher Dr. Ethan Russo, M.D., our understanding has shifted.

Dr. Russo is passionate about providing the public with terpene profiles. In an interview with the scientific journal, Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, he states, ‘one cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology. The degree of interbreeding/hybridization is such that only a biochemical assay tells a potential consumer or scientist what is really in the plant. It is essential that future commerce allows complete and accurate cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles to be available.’

Cannabinoid testing has become the industry standard to determine THC or CBD potency levels, but few dispensaries offer terpene profiles to give customers further insight into the chemical composition of their products. A complete terpene profile gives consumers additional information further than the cannabinoid potency and a ‘sativa,’ ‘indica,’ or ‘hybrid’ label.

Common Cannabis Terpenes


The most abundant terpene in cannabis is myrcene; it’s known for its earthy, clove-like aroma and sedative effects. Myrcene is found in high concentrations in cannabis but is also the active sedating factor in hops and lemongrass.

Heavily sedative strains such as OG Kush have high concentrations of myrcene. Most strains that are myrcene-dominant are usually considered indica or indica-forward hybrids. The aroma associated with strains like OG Kush is described as musty and even reminiscent of fuel or gas.

Mangoes also contain significant amounts of myrcene, and it’s commonly suggested that eating a mango before getting high will increase the effects of THC.


Limonene is another abundant cannabis terpene. Lemon and orange rinds are also high in limonene. As you may have guessed, limonene has a distinct lemony smell.

White Fire OG or ‘WIFI’ contains significant amounts of limonene and is likely helping drive the anti-depressant and creative properties. Additionally, retail cannabis businesses can use limonene as an indicating factor to help customers looking for uplifting strains for social situations.


Linalool is the terpene responsible for the calming scent of lavender. Mint, cinnamon, and coriander also possess significant levels of linalool. The signature spicy, floral scent of linalool influences some of the most recognizable cannabis strains as well.

A popular strain featuring linalool is Amnesia Haze. The strain has a sharp, earthy aroma comparable to other plants with high concentrations of linalool.


Of all the common cannabis terpenes, caryophyllene may be the most interesting on a biochemical level. Beta-caryophyllene can bind with cannabinoid receptor CB2, opening the potential for anti-inflammatory and pain-releveling properties.

Caryophyllene is known for its intense spicy smell and is present in many spices such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, oregano, basil, and rosemary. Many of the strains in the Cookies family, such as Girl Scout Cookies, Cookies and Cream, and Platinum GSC, have high levels of caryophyllene. GSC is known for its pungent, desert-like smell that has captivated the cannabis community in recent years.


The unique properties of pinene are on full display if you walk into a densely populated forest of evergreen trees. Pine needles, unsurprisingly, contain high levels of pinene. The terpene is responsible for the fresh, earthy smell and acts as a natural bronchodilator, which helps open up your airways.

Pinene is the most common terpene on earth and is also commonly found in cannabis. Big Smooth is one of the most popular pinene-dominant strains. Its pinene-dominant terpene profile has a distinct, crisp smell reminiscent of a forest full of pine trees.

Another exciting aspect of pinene is its ability to combat short-term memory loss related to THC. Cannabis researchers believe that pinene is a possible acetylcholinesterase inhibitor.

girl holding fresh marijuanaHow to Maintain Terpene Levels

The importance of cannabis terpenes is evident. Whether you are convinced they are the driving factor for what determines the uplifting or sedating properties, or you recognize they could add additional benefits to cannabinoids, they are an essential part of the cannabis experience.

Preserving these incredible plant compounds by keeping your cannabis fresh can be achieved by taking some simple steps:

  • Always store cannabis in a cool, dry place
  • Avoid sunlight
  • Keep products completely sealed and free from oxygen
  • Avoid cheap plastic baggies at all costs.
  • Use glass or food storage containers to seal in freshness.
  • Sell products while they are fresh. Terpenes are the first compounds to degrade after harvest.

Both terpene preservation and communicating the unique terpene profiles will be an industry standard. As the community learns more about cannabis and its many properties, the importance of transparency and education becomes essential to operating a successful business and keeping your customers happy.

Terpenes are the Future

We expect terpenes to play a significant role in the future of cannabis. We already see the public’s interest move beyond solely high THC strains and extracts. As the industry grows and eventually consolidates, expect the marketplace to evolve closer to what we see if we shop for beer. Large, brands like Budweiser mass-produce product that is good enough for the average shopper, but within that same marketplace is a massive number of craft beer brands to tailor to every possible flavor palette. Cannabis will be the same way. Large companies will slowly dominate the market, while brands that define themselves for quality and flavor will stand apart and cater to more discerning customers.

Identifying each stain’s terpene profile and educating staff on their differences will help retailers determine what strains will satisfy the needs of all cannabis consumers.

Buying Terpenes? Be Aware

If you’re planning on purchasing terpenes specifically to add to infused products or vape pens, be aware that you’re getting more than the flavor compounds.

These products are bottled with a cutting agent or carrier oil to make a terpene fluid. Although these fluids are normally designed to be harmless, things can change when heated to 600 degrees in a vaporizer. These cutting agents can turn into formaldehyde or other harmful compounds at high heat.

If you’re purchasing terpenes from a supplier for use in a vaporizer, be sure you know exactly what’s in them and what effect they will have.