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What’s a Terpene?

"Terpenes are naturally occurring compounds that give flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables their unique flavors and smells."

March 12, 2024

Terpenes are trending! From candles to cocktails—these tiny molecules are popping up all over the place. Health and wellness experts discovered that terpenes are the key to unlocking the many benefits offered by plant-based medicines, including cannabis. So, what’s a terpene?

Terpenes are naturally occurring compounds that give flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables their unique flavors and smells. They also have therapeutic properties that go beyond the pleasantry of sweet aromas. Terpenes interact with the body’s cells and messenger systems to produce different physiological effects. For example, terpenes can reduce inflammation and diminish harmful bacteria in the body. Have you ever tried a detox juice with citrus, cinnamon, ginger or turmeric? Those botanicals are packed with revitalizing terpenes!

These compounds can be found in your favorite essential oils, kombucha and even craft beer.

Terpenes are also found in cannabis. Cannabis terpenes are an integral part of the therapeutic effects of cannabis.

The Role of Terpenes in Cannabis

There are over 700 recognized cannabis strains (unique variations of the plant). Think of them like different grape or apple varieties. Apples come in many varieties like red delicious, golden delicious, gala, Fuji, pink lady, and so on. Some apples are juicy and sweet like candy while others are crisp and tart. Similarly, cannabis can come in the form of a citrus-y, pungent Lemon Skunk or have the mellow, berry-like sweetness of Blue Dream.

It’s well known that the many strains of cannabis have unique effects on the human body. This has been largely attributed to a strain’s THC to CBD ratio as well as its Indica or Sativa classification. In reality, however, this is only part of the picture.

Within the cannabis family, each strain has a unique terpene profile. Each terpene profile can consist of many different kinds of terpenes.

Like all plants, cannabis uses terpenes as a natural protectant. Many cannabis plants have a terpene profile that accentuates lemongrass at the top of the plant to repel insects. Terpenes that produce a bitter flavor are often found towards the bottom of the plant to prevent small critters from munching on the leaves.

The soil, sun, air and all other aspects of the environment in which the plant is grown have an effect on the terpene profile—just like it does for wine grapes or coffee beans. Even the cultivation process after the flower is harvested has an impact. Have you ever noticed that the smell of the dried flower changes over time? That is a result of terpenes leaving the flower’s surface, the smell fades as the terpenes fade.

The Role of Terpenes in Cannabis Medicine

The cannabinoids in cannabis (like THC and CBD) have no scent or flavor. Terpenes help enhance the benefits and experience of cannabinoids. Through scent, they can even help us recognize the effect of a particular cannabis product.

Think of it like wine. Sommeliers spend years tasting different wines and studying the history of different grape vines to cultivate a deeper understanding of the plant and its delicious byproduct. Cannabis cultivators do the same.

Botanical medicine is complex. Effective medical cannabis isn’t just about finding the right dose, it’s also about selecting the right terpene profile and concentration. On top of that, there’s finding the right cannabinoid ratios. The ultimate goal is to establish the ideal synergy between the various elements in the cannabis plant so that they can work harmoniously to create the ideal effect in our bodies. Whether applied topically, ingested or inhaled, the right combination of THC, CBD and terpenes is different for everyone. It may take time to find the right product for you.

5 Common Terpenes

Now that we understand what terpenes are and the role they play, let’s explore 5 of the most common terpenes. The information provided below is primarily derived from a 2011 study done by Ethan B. Russo and published by the British Journal of Pharmacology.[1]


Has an earthy, musky and sometimes fruity flavor/scent profile. It’s found in lemongrass, mangos and cannabis. Myrcene’s medicinal properties may include anti-inflammation, pain relief, muscle relaxation, and sedation.


Has a strong citrusflavor and scent profile. It’s found in all citrus fruits and cannabis. It’s clean and bright lemony smell perfectly indicates limonene’s uplifting effects. The molecule boosts serotonin pathways to uplift and energize.[2]


Smells and tastes like it sounds – like pine. It’s found in rosemary, parsley, pine trees and cannabis. It’s a great anti-inflammatory and can even help ease congested airways. The terpene has also been shown to aid memory and mental clarity.[3]


Has a stimulating floral aroma. It’s found in lavender and cannabis. Linalool has a calming and relaxing effect that may help manage symptoms of anxiety.


Has woody, spicy scent. It’s found in basil, black pepper, and cannabis. B-Caryophyllene is an anti-inflammatory and may improve sleep.


[1]Russo, E. B. (2011, August). Taming THC: Potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3165946/

[2]Marco. (2019, February 18). Limonene: Benefits, Research and Best Strains (7 Studies). Retrieved from https://greencamp.com/limonene/

[3]Cho, K. S., Lim, Y., Lee, K., Lee, J., Lee, J. H., & Lee, I. (2017, April). Terpenes from Forests and Human Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5402865/

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