You might have noticed that not all strains smell the same. Pine, berry, mint… There’s more than a few distinctive fragrances in cannabis.
Cannabis has a unique smell. Some people find it unpleasant and overwhelming, while most weed enthusiasts find it very calming and enjoyable. Just like any other plant, pot has components that are responsible for its unique aroma and flavor.
These components are terpenes, aromatic molecule secreted inside the tiny resin glands of cannabis flowers.
Terpenes produce a citrusy aroma in some strains, fruity and sweet notes in others and, while some may smell and taste like lavender, others can be more earthy and pungent. Certain strains even smell like cheese. But, it’s not all about the smell.
Terpenes also produce a wide range of medical effects and that is exactly what’s so captivating about them in the first place. There are at least 80-100 terpenes unique to cannabis and the combination of terpenes and cannabinoids is actually responsible for the entire success of medical cannabis that we all appreciate today.
What are terpenes and what is their use?
Terpenes are organic chemicals produced by most plants, and even some animals like swallowtail butterflies and termites. The word “terpene” is also often used to refer to terpenoids, oxygenated derivatives of terpenes.
The easiest way to understand terpenes is to think of them as volatile aromatic molecules.
What’s so special about these chemicals is that they give the plants their unique aroma.
Chemistry tells us that terpenes are derived from the basic molecule of isoprene, which replicates to make terpenes.
These substances have two very important roles in every plant’s life: to protect the flowers from predators and to produce resin.
They are a major part of resin and are heavily used in the production of essential oils, so they are a good fit for medical and beauty products. That is why terpenes made their way into the fragrance industry, as well as conventional and alternative medicine. They are most commonly used in aromatherapy, but they’re also synthetically made as flavors and aromas and as food additives.
There are a few more fun facts about terpenes: natural rubber is made of terpenes, as are many steroids. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to know that an organic and completely natural maple syrup contains about 300 terpenes, which is why it’s so yummy in the first place.
But what about cannabis?
Terpenes basically give each strain its unique smell and taste. Not only that but they also enhance the health effects of cannabis by influencing how we process cannabinoids.
Let’s explore this in more detail.
How terpenes work with cannabinoids?
What we usually consume from cannabis are the flowers.
And just like all other flowers, cannabis flowers have their own recognizable scent.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, there are about 120 terpenes in cannabis. They coexist there with cannabinoids like THC and CBD (sometimes even working with them to better our experience), but it’s important to know that terpenes are not psychoactive (like THC is).
Some of these terpenes can be found in other plants, while others are exclusive to cannabis.
But, it’s not all about the smell, as terpenes also have many therapeutic properties:
They interact with our endocannabinoid system and assist cannabinoids in entering the bloodstream through a process called the entourage effect.
Myrcene, for instance, increases cell permeability and allows cannabinoids to be absorbed faster than they would get on their own.
Limonene is responsible for increasing serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter in charge of our mood. This explains why different strains may have different effects on our mood. The whole cannabis experience is suddenly starting to make sense, right?
Terpenes and the “Entourage Effect” explained
The “Entourage Effect” is a term coined by S. Ben-Shabat and Raphael Mechoulam back in 1998, to represent the biological synergy of cannabinoids and other compounds like flavonoids and terpenes. (1)
Simply put, when terpenes work with cannabinoids (a likely scenario when consuming a whole plant product), they form a synergy that creates stronger and better effects than both would achieve on their own.
This symbiosis between cannabinoids and terpenes is what gives cannabis its special powers, as it improves the absorption of cannabinoids, overcomes bacterial defense mechanisms and minimizes side effects.
Research behind the medical properties of terpenes
Some terpenes are very effective in relieving stress, others are great when you need to relax, and some are awesome for boosting focus. Many options here, as you’ll have a chance to see in the next few minutes.
Take myrcene, one of the most abundant terpenes in cannabis, which is responsible for inducing sleep. Or limonene, the citrusy messenger in charge for making us feel uplifted after smoking a joint.
In recent years, cannabis terpenes have become an important subject of related scientific research.
It was Jürg Gertsch who first noticed the ability of beta-caryophyllene to bind to CB2 receptors, calling it “a dietary cannabinoid”. (2)
He also concluded that all green vegetables that contain this terpene are extremely beneficial for human use.
Shortly after that, Dr. Ethan Russo published an article in 2011, in the British Journal of Pharmacology, and pointed out to all therapeutic properties of terpenes in cannabis, especially those missing in cannabis products that only contain a single molecule (CBD oil as a primary example). (3)
Dr. Russo also described the cannabinoid-terpene interaction as a “synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections”.
Further research discovered that terpenes, terpenoids, and cannabinoids all have the ability to kill respiratory pathogens, for instance, the MRSA virus.
However, that’s not even half of the story. Terpenes have a lot more health effects which we’ll go into next.
15 terpenes in cannabis explained
Since there are around 120 terpenes in cannabis, it would take us a while to go over each of them in great detail. Instead, here are some of the most abundant terpenes in common medical cannabis products.
Myrcene is the most abundant terpene in cannabis, which is where it’s mostly found in nature. In fact, one study showed that myrcene makes up as much as 65% of total terpene profile in some strains. (4)
Myrcene’s smell often reminds us of earthy, musky notes, similar to cloves. It also has a fruity, red grape-like aroma.
Strains that contain 0.5% of this terpene are usually indicas, packed full of sedative effects. Myrcene is also supposedly useful in reducing inflammation and chronic pain, which is why it’s usually recommended as a supplement during cancer treatments.
Strains that are rich in myrcene are Skunk XL, White Widow, and Special Kush.
Bonus tip: If you want to experience a stronger buzz from marijuana, eat a manog about 45 minutes before smoking. Mango contains a significant amount of myrcene, so eating it before consuming cannabis will strengthen the effects of THC and increase the absorption rate of other cannabinoids.
Limonene is the second most abundant terpene in cannabis, but not all strains necessarily have it.
As the name itself says, limonene produces a citrusy smell that resembles lemons, which is no surprise as all citrus fruits contain large amounts of this compound. Limonene is used in cosmetics and also in cleaning products.
When it comes its therapeutic purposes, limonene is a mood-booster and a stress-crusher. Researchers also found it to have anti-fungal and antibacterial properties, with one research even announcing that limonene may play a role in reducing tumor size. (5)
Getting a hold of this terpene is easy — strains that have “lemon” or “sour” in their name are usually rich in limonene.
Some good examples of these are O.G. Kush, Sour Diesel, Super Lemon Haze, Durban Poison, Jack Herer, and Jack the Ripper.
If you’ve ever wondered what makes cannabis smell the way it does, myrcene and linalool are to blame. With its spicy and floral notes, this terpene is one of the most abundant ones in the majority of strains out there and, together with myrcene produces that pungent and spicy scent.
Linalool can also be found in lavender, mint, cinnamon, and coriander. What’s interesting is that just like those aromatic herbs, linalool also produces sedation and relaxation.
Patients suffering from arthritis, depression, seizures, insomnia and even cancer, have all found relief with this amazing terpene.
Some well-known linalool strains are Amnesia Haze, Special Kush, Lavender, LA Confidential, and OG Shark.
Best known for its spicy and peppery note, caryophyllene is also found in black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and spices like oregano, basil, and rosemary.
Beta-caryophyllene binds to CB2 receptors, which makes it an ingredient in anti-inflammatory topicals and creams. Caryophyllene is the only terpene that binds to cannabinoid receptors.
Besides its analgesic and anxiolytic properties, some studies have found that caryophyllene has a very promising role in alcohol rehabilitation.
A group of scientists performed research on mice and found that this terpene reduces the voluntary intake of alcohol. They even recommended caryophyllene for treating alcohol withdrawal symptoms. (6)
Strains like Super Silver Haze, Skywalker and Rock Star are all rich in caryophyllene.
Alpha-pinene and Beta-pinene
These twin terpenes smell like pine trees which is also where they can be found in large amounts. Other plants rich in pinene include rosemary, orange peels, basil, parsley and cannabis, of course.
Like many other, pinene terpenes have an anti-inflammatory effect on humans.
They also help improve the airflow and respiratory functions, while also helping reduce memory loss related to excessive THC consumption. I know that this can sound weird because we’re talking about cannabis, but if the strain is rich in alpha and beta pinene, it can actually help with asthma.
Pinene is also beneficial for patients suffering from arthritis, Crohn’s Disease, and even cancer.
Strains that are great sources of pinene are Jack Herer, Strawberry Cough, Blue Dream, Island Sweet Skunk, Dutch Treat, and Romulan.
Alpha-bisabolol (also known as levomenol and bisabolol) has a pleasant floral aroma and is also present in chamomile flower and candeia tree.
This terpene found its use primarily in the cosmetics industry, but lately it has caught the attention of researchers for its supposed medical benefits.
Alpha-bisabolol proved to be effective in treating bacterial infections and wounds and is a great antioxidant with anti-irritation and analgesic properties.
It can be found in strains like Harle-Tsu, Pink Kush, Headband, OG Shark, and ACDC.
Also known as cineole, eucalyptol is the primary terpene of the eucalyptus tree. It produces minty tones but most cannabis strains only have it in traces. On average, it makes up around 0.06% of the complete cannabis terpene profile.
Eucalyptol is extensively used in cosmetics as well as medicine. When it comes to its medical value, eucalyptol relieves pain but also slows down the growth of bacteria and fungus.
Although it is still in the early stages of research, this terpene has shown some promising effects on Alzheimer’s as well.
You can get your daily dose of eucalyptol with strains like Super Silver Haze and Headband.
This one is a secondary terpene, found mostly in flowers like jasmine, lemongrass, and tea tree oil. Its smell is a mixture of rose, lemon and apple tones, and can be described in general as both woody and citrusy.
Trans-nerolidol is best known for its antiparasitic, antioxidant, antifungal, anticancer and antimicrobial properties.
Strains like Jack Herer, Sweet Skunk, and Skywalker OG are all rich in nerolidol.
Humulene is the first terpene found in hops and its aroma is made up of earthy, woody and spicy notes.
Besides cannabis, it can be also found in clove, sage, and black pepper.
It has many medical properties. Early research has shown humulene to be anti-proliferative, meaning it prevents cancer cells from growing. Also, it proved to be effective in suppressing appetite, which could make it a potential weight loss tool.
Furthermore, like many other terpenes mentioned above, humulene also reduces inflammation, relieves pain and fights bacterial infections.
You can find humulene in strains like White Widow, Headband, Girl Scout Cookies, Sour Diesel, Pink Kush and Skywalker OG.
Delta 3 Carene
This terpene is found in a number of plants, like rosemary, basil, bell peppers, cedar and pine. Its aroma is sweet and resembles the smell of cypress.
When it comes to its medical properties, Delta 3 carene seems to be beneficial in healing broken bones, which is a beacon of hope for patients suffering from osteoporosis, arthritis and even fibromyalgia.
Interestingly enough, Delta 3 carene stimulates our memory and helps with memory retention. This is a major point in finding a cure for the Alzheimer’s Disease.
The best way to describe the smell of camphene is fir needles, musky earth, and damp woodlands. Camphene’s aroma is often mistaken with myrcene, which is that trademark marijuana smell as most of us know it.
Camphene has great potential in medicine. When mixed with vitamin C, it becomes a powerful antioxidant and it is widely used in conventional medicine as a topical for skin issues like eczema and psoriasis.
Its greatest potential, however, lies in its ability to lower the levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which are connected to many cardiovascular diseases.
Camphene is present in Ghost OG, Strawberry Banana and Mendocino Purps.
Borneol, with its herbal minty scent, can be found in herbs like rosemary, mint, and camphor.
This terpene is a good natural insect repellent, which makes it great for preventing diseases like the West Nile virus, which is passed by ticks, fleas, mosquitoes etc.
One study found that borneol kills breast cancer cells. (7) It’s also widely used in Chinese traditional medicine, in acupuncture to be precise.
Strains high in borneol are Amnesia Haze, Golden Haze, K13 Haze.
The aroma of terpineol can be described as floral-like, reminiscent of lilacs, apple blossom, and a hint of lemon. Terpineol tastes like anise and mint.
Terpineol has a pleasant scent, similar to lilac, and is a common ingredient in perfumes, cosmetics, and food.
It is a well-known relaxant and is usually the one responsible for the notorious couch-lock effect, often connected with indica strains. Medical benefits of terpineol also include antibiotic and antioxidant properties.
It can be found Girl Scout Cookies, Jack Herer, and OG Kush.
This terpene got its name from sweet Valencia oranges — where it’s present in large amounts. With its sweet citrusy aroma and flavor, it’s also used as an insect repellant.
Even though we don’t know much about this it, we do know that it can be found in strains like Tangie and Agent Orange.
Besides cannabis, geraniol can be found in lemons and tobacco. Its smell resembles a mixture of rose grass, peaches, and plums.
It’s usually used in aromatic bath products and body lotions.
Geraniol has shown a lot of potential as a neuroprotectant and antioxidant.
It’s present in strains like Amnesia Haze, Great White Shark, Afghani, Headband, Island Sweet Skunk, OG Shark and Master Kush.
- Ben-Shabat S, Fride E, Sheskin T, Tamiri T, Rhee MH, Vogel Z, Bisogno T, De Petrocellis L, Di Marzo V, Mechoulam R, An entourage effect: inactive endogenous fatty acid glycerol esters enhance 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol cannabinoid activity, European Journal of Pharmacology, July 1998, 353(1):23-31.
- Gertsch J, Leonti M, Raduner S, Racz I, Chen JZ, Xie XQ, Altmann KH, Karsak M, Zimmer A, Beta-caryophyllene is a dietary cannabinoid.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, July 2008, 105(26):9099-104.
- Ethan B Russo, Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Br J Pharmacol. 2011 Aug; 163(7): 1344–1364.
- Mediavilla, Vito, Simon Steinemann, Essential oil of Cannabis sativa L. strains. Journal of the International Hemp Association, 1997, 4(2):80-82.
- Miller JA, Lang JE, Ley M, Nagle R, Hsu CH, Thompson PA, Cordova C, Waer A, Chow HH, Human breast tissue disposition and bioactivity of limonene in women with early-stage breast cancer, Cancer Prevention Research, Jun 2013, 6(6):577-84.
- Al Mansouri S, Ojha S, Al Maamari E, Al Ameri M, Nurulain SM, Bahi A. The cannabinoid receptor 2 agonist, β-caryophyllene, reduced voluntary alcohol intake and attenuated ethanol-induced place preference and sensitivity in mice, Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, September 2014, 124:260-8.
- Chuan-bin Yang, Wei-jing Pei, Jia Zhao, Yuan-yuan Cheng, Xiao-hui Zheng & Jian-hui Rong, Bornyl caffeate induces apoptosis in human breast cancer MCF-7 cells via the ROS- and JNK-mediated pathways, Acta Pharmacologica Sinica, 2014, 35:113–123.