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What Are Terpenes?

Steven Cargyle
Finest Labs
September 30, 2020 | Blog

Terpenes is a term that not many of us have heard before, but probably all of us are familiar with, in one way or another.

In essence, terpenes are the aromatic compounds that give plants their aroma.

In addition to plants, certain insects (such as the maize weevil) also produce them, to either attract mates or fight off attackers.

If you’ve ever smelled a flower or enjoyed a long walk in the forest just to take in the fresh, aromatic air, then you enjoyed the boosting properties of terpenes first-hand.

So, what exactly are they and why do people associate them with cannabis so often?

In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about terpenes and why they matter.

Which Plants Contain Terpenes?

close up image of cannabis flower's trichomes

Oftentimes, when they hear the words terpenes or terpenoids, people immediately think about cannabis. But that’s not the only plant with a high concentration of it — conifers and all the other sweet-smelling flowers contain them.

The role they play is much bigger than appeasing humans and making the aromatic plant your next bouquet addition. Just like with insects, plants use terpenes to attract pollinators or to repel certain predators. Some plants might even use them actively, in the healing process or to fight off germs.

Keep in mind that plants can contain more than one terpene. Cannabis is a great example of this, as it is known to contain over 100 terpenes. Depending on the variation, the terpenes present in the plant can even go up to 200.

As for terpenoids, they are not exactly the same as terpenes. Terpenoids are the oxidized version of the compound, which results when a plant dries, while terpenes are naturally found in live plants. Terpenoids are a byproduct of cannabis processing, after the drying and crystallization process of the plant.

Where Do the Terpenes Form on Cannabis?

Have you ever wondered where the terpenes form on a cannabis plant? If the answer is yes, take a seat because what you’re about to learn is going to blow your mind.

You may be familiar with the crystal-like formations that appear on the cannabis plant. Those are the trichomes, and they contain resin glands that are responsible for producing terpenes and cannabinoids. In nature, trichomes are found all over the plant’s surface and form the plant’s defensive mechanism. For cannabis users, they are the best part of the plant.

Types of Terpenes

Scientists have categorized terpenes according to their molecular formation. In other words, each of these categories got its name from the number of terpene units required to form a molecule.

  • Hemiterpenes (prenol, isovaleric acid)
  • Monoterpenes (geraniol, terpineol, limonene, myrcene, linalool, pinene, iridoid)
  • Sesquiterpenes (humulene, farnesene, farnesol)
  • Diterpenes (cafestol, kahweol)
  • Sesterterpenes (geranylfarnesol)
  • Triterpenes (squalene)
  • Sesquiterpenes (ferrugicadiol)
  • Tetraterpenes (lycopene, beta-Carotene)
  • Polyterpenes (natural rubber)
  • Norisoprenoids

Although many of these terms seem nonsense at first glance, you are probably familiar with the majority of them. You might just know them under a different name. For instance, cafestol is the terpene found in coffee, and limonene is found in citrus fruit peels. Pinene is what gives pines their refreshing aroma, and humulene is responsible for the very distinct smell of cannabis.

Depending on the type of terpene, there can be a number of bioactive properties that come along with it. The best part is that we can use those bioactive properties to enhance our lives in a natural way.

The specific smells of citrus fruits are caused by limonene, and it is great for its energizing properties.

The Use of Terpenes in Everyday Life

Image of terpenes bottle and marijuana flowers

In your day-to-day life, you can come across isolated terpenes in many items. Did you know that perfumes, body lotions, deodorants, and even certain foods can contain terpenes? Everything that has a specific scent or flavor could contain a specific terpene, derived from fruits or plants.

The most common use would be in essential oils. If you are familiar with them, you should know that terpenes are the main source of their therapeutic properties. Since they are extracted from plants, you can benefit from the bioactive effects of terpenes first-hand when doing aromatherapy.

If you want to better understand the wide world of terpenes, you could begin by using essential oils regularly. You will start to notice various effects, depending on what oils you use. That is a fine example of how you can notice the bioactive effects of terpenes.

Terpenes & Cannabis

The cannabis plant has a very high content of terpenes, with over 200 different types present in it. Every strain of cannabis has a unique ratio of terpenes, which is what gives them their unique aroma. Some cannabis smell skunky, others have more of a citrus or fruity aroma.

Terpenes act as supporting agents to the cannabinoids in terms of physiological effects. They might work to boost the effects of cannabinoids directly (by enhancing absorption, slowing breakdown, or interacting with how they bind to receptor sites), or they may offer their own set of benefits.

Do All Cannabis Extracts Contain Terpenes?

No, not all cannabis products contain terpenes. Many of the products derived from cannabis and hemp contain terpenes, as they occur naturally in the plant.

If you want a CBD oil that has terpenes, for example, you should look for full-spectrum products. Full-spectrum products refer to extracts that maintain all the active ingredients from the plant — including terpenes. An isolate is different in that they contain only one active ingredient, such as pure CBD or pure THC (no terpenes).

The main reason some prefer terpenes in their CBD oil, for example, is because of the entourage effect which, according to a study, shows that terpenes enhance the effect of cannabinoids.

Final Thoughts: What Are Terpenes?

Terpenes are everywhere in nature — they are the part that gives plants their specific aromas. Although most people only associate them with cannabis, lavender and hops are just a few of the many other plants rich in terpenes. Almost every plant surrounding us has them, and they are essential to our daily lives.

Their bioactive properties help us in many ways, vastly increasing our quality of life. Terpenes are a great alternative to traditional medicine.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of terpenes after reading this article, and you can see their benefits.