What are Terpenes and why should I care?

A woman smelling the dried flower of the cannabis plant

Learn why terpenes are the most important compounds in cannabis

By Herbert M. Green

‘Terpenes’. You’ve probably heard about them and may even already have an inkling of what they are. But, do you truly understand what terpenes do? Or why they are so important for you as a cannabis enthusiast? Whether you’re a seasoned vaper or just getting started, knowing your ‘terps’ is essential knowledge that will become even more important in the near future. There’s a high probability that in the coming years you won’t be buying your bud by strain name, but by terpene profile. Might as well get a head start and get educated on the subject now, so you won’t have to play catch up when the time comes. 

What are terpenes? A textbook definition. 

terpene noun

ter·​pene | \ ˈtər-ˌpēn  \

Definition of terpene

: any of various isomeric hydrocarbons C10H16 found present in essential oils (as from plants) and used especially as solvents and in organic synthesis
broadly: any of numerous hydrocarbons (C5H8)n found especially in essential oils and or resins.

This is how most dictionaries define the word. Granted, it doesn’t tell you much about what they are or do, but it does set the stage. We’re talking about chemical compounds

Chemical plant compounds to be exact, at least for the purpose of this article, because humans and animals release terpenes too, but in that case, they’re usually called pheromones. 

The chemical compounds, like cannabinoids and terpenes, in the cannabis plant can all be found in the plant’s ‘trichomes’. These are fine outgrowths on plants and come in many different forms, like hairs, resin glands, scales, and papillae. On the cannabis plant, they look like this:

Trichomes on a sugar leaf of a cannabis plant containing cannabinoids and terpenes ready to vape

These beautiful little resin glands contain all the cannabinoids and terpenes that make us feel so damn good!

To get back to the main subject and cut a long story short; terpenes are compounds plants use for signalling each other and the animals they rely on for their survival (pollinators), or to tell hostile organisms (like pests, bacteria, moulds or fungi) to back off.
This is an important fact to note for later, but the first thing you need to know is that terpenes give plants their distinctive smell

Cannabis 101: Great aroma = great quality

Because it’s by this smell that the plant (in this case the cannabis plant) can convey what her characteristics are, which, in turn, is important for you as a cannabis consumer. A rich and complex aroma is by far, the best and primary determining factor for judging the quality of the nug (1) you are about to buy and vape. 

Sure, you can look at the colour and density of a nug to determine the quality, but that will only tell you so much and a good looking nug can still turn out to be of crap quality.    

No, good weed needs to have a robust and present aromatic bouquet (2). Otherwise, it won’t blow your socks off when vaped. That goes for effect as well as flavour.   

        1. Nug: The dried and manicured flower of the cannabis plant. Also referred to as ‘bud’ 
        2. Bouquet: the characteristic scent of wine, perfume, or more recently, dried cannabis flower.: "the aperitif has a faint bouquet of almonds".

The smell can tell you a lot about the effects

One of my all-time favourite cannabis strains is Grand Daddy Purple; a sweet and floral flavour/aroma profile with earthy undertones and highlights of juicy red fruits, accompanied by a dash of a zesty citrus finish. 

This profile is created by a specific combination of terpenes: (respectively) Ocimene, Geraniol, Linalool, Humulene, Myrcene, a pinch of Caryophyllene and a splash of both Beta Pinene and Limonene.  

A chart of the some of the most common terpenes found in cannabis

A chart of the some of the most common terpenes found in cannabis

Not only does this combo of terpenes give off an amazing fragrance, but they can also tell you a lot about the effect this strain will give you when vaped. You see, contrary to what most people think, it’s the terpenes that “steer” the effects of cannabis. The amount of THC and other cannabinoids like CBD will only tell you how potent that effect will be. Terpenes work in conjunction with cannabinoids and influence how they affect the body and mind. This cooperation is what the science community calls ‘The Entourage Effect’.

In the case of Grand Daddy Purple, the effects can mostly be described as ‘sedative’ or ‘relaxing’ with a slightly energetic and euphoric undertone. This sedative quality is due to the high concentration of the terpenes Geraniol, Linalool, Humulene, Myrcene. Ocimene, Caryophyllene, Beta Pinene and Limonene, on the other hand, are responsible for the energetic and euphoric effects. 

What is true for the strain in this particular example is true for every cannabis strain on the planet. They all have their specific terpene profile and thus, specific effects. With a little practice, you can learn to recognise the profiles and know in advance what the effect of any strain will be, without having to know the name or if they are classified as ‘indica’ or ‘sativa’ dominant.     

Terpenes are good for the plant, and for you!

Let’s go back to what I wrote about attracting or repelling certain organisms. This is important for you too, as the end consumer. Terpenes in plants act a little bit like our own immune system. 

They protect the plant from harmful elements in their environment like drastic changes in temperature or against pests, but also bacteria and fungi. Luckily for us humans, these same terpenes offer the same protective properties within our body.  

Take the terpene Myrcene, for instance, one of the most abundant terpenes found in most cannabis strains. It has antiseptic, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that help us fight off infections and inflammation. From more recent studies, we’ve even learned that it can protect us from DNA damage caused by toxins or help us battle lung cancer

This is yet another reason why you want to go for cannabis buds that have a rich aroma, which indicates that that particular flower has an abundance of terpenes and in turn, offers better protection. 

This also means you better vaporise your bud, instead of smoking it because terpenes are volatile compounds. The high temperatures that are involved with combustion cause most terpenes to burn up long before you can inhale them, wasting all the precious health benefits.   

The age of Sativa and Indica is over: It’s all about the terpene profile 

Like I said in the intro, soon our purchasing decision when looking for the best nugs of dried flower won’t be based on strain names anymore, but on terpene profiles.
Sure, those strains will still have a name, a brand name at least, but they won’t tell you anything concrete about the flavour or effect they’ll provide. 

Even the age-old classification between ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ will be (is already) a thing of the past. There are no ‘pure’ indica or sativa plants to be found anymore, at least not at the places where you get your weed. There might still be an undiscovered member of the Cannabis Sativa L. family chilling in some uncharted part of the planet somewhere, but other than that, all the cannabis we cultivate for consumption is so hybridised that trying to pin-point the indica/sativa ratio is spotty at best. Nor can it tell you anything about what effect those nugs will have on you.

The light Padouk wooden version of the Dreamwood/Dispensr DynaVap VapCap stem

This is what a basic strain chart will look like that will be included with every cannabis purchase in the (near) future.

To sum up what we’ve learned about terpenes

  • Terpenes can be found in the trichomes on the cannabis flowers and leaves.
  • Terpenes are chemical compounds that are responsible for the aroma of the flower. 
  • Terpenes protect the plant from nasty stuff like pests, infections or the elements. 
  • Terpenes provide a multitude of health benefits for humans. 
  • Terpenes are your best guide to judge quality when purchasing weed. (provided you can smell before buying or have access to their terpene profile)  

Now I would like to know if you still buy weed based on its strain name or if you use your nose to make decisions. Is there anything unclear in this article? Do you have more questions? What is your favourite terpene or profile? Let me know in the comments below or on Dispensr’s social media channels. 

Peace out & vape on!

Herbert M. Green

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