What are Terpenes?

Woman smelling terpenes on a cannabis bud

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What Are Terpenes?

Terpenes are organic compounds found in a wide variety of plants, including cannabis. They are responsible for the aroma and flavor of different strains of cannabis, and have a wide range of therapeutic benefits.

Terpenes are made up of isoprene units, and their chemical structure is similar to that of terpenoids, which are modified terpenes. There are over 20,000 known terpenes in nature, with more than 100 found in cannabis alone.

The most well-known terpene found in cannabis is beta-caryophyllene, which is responsible for the spicy, peppery aroma of certain strains. Other common terpenes found in cannabis include limonene, which gives off a citrusy aroma, and linalool, which has a floral, lavender-like scent.

What Are the Benefits of Terpenes?

Terpenes have a wide range of therapeutic benefits, including anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-anxiety effects. They are also believed to play a role in the entourage effect of cannabis, which is the idea that the combination of cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis is more effective together than any single compound alone.

One example of the therapeutic benefits of terpenes is the ability of beta-caryophyllene to bind to the CB2 receptor, which is found in the immune system and is involved in reducing inflammation. This suggests that beta-caryophyllene may be useful in treating conditions such as arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and other inflammatory conditions.

Limonene, on the other hand, has been found to have anti-anxiety and mood-elevating properties, making it useful for treating conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Another important terpene is linalool. It has a sedative effect, making it useful for promoting sleep and relaxation. It also shows potential as an anti-inflammatory and anesthetic.

Terpenes are also believed to play a role in the therapeutic effects of CBD. For example, the terpene myrcene is believed to enhance the bioavailability of CBD, making it more effective.

It is important to note that, while the research on terpenes is promising, it is still in its early stages and more studies are needed to fully understand their therapeutic potential. Additionally, the effects of terpenes may vary depending on the individual, the dosage, and the method of administration.

However, as the research on terpenes continues to grow, it is likely that they will be recognized as an important aspect of cannabis therapy and will be used more widely in the future.

The Difference Between Terpenes and Cannabinoids

Terpenes are responsible for the aroma and flavor of cannabis, while cannabinoids are responsible for the therapeutic properties of the plant. However, both terpenes and cannabinoids work together to produce the unique effects of different strains, and the balance of these compounds can greatly affect the overall experience.

How Are Terpenes Produced?

Terpenes are produced in the plant’s epidermal and secretory cells by a process called biosynthesis. This process involves the conversion of carbon dioxide and other nutrients such as water and minerals into organic compounds, including the terpenes. They are then stored in specialized structures called “glands” and released when the plant is damaged or stressed, or when the flowers are broken during harvest. 

Terpenes are also produced by certain fungi and bacteria, which are responsible for the smell of certain cheeses and other fermented foods. For example, the smelly rotten egg smell found in some blue cheeses is caused by the presence of the bacteria responsible for the production of the terpene geosmin, which is also found in soil.

How to Extract Terpenes

There are several methods for extracting terpenes from plants, including steam distillation, solvent-based extraction, and supercritical CO2 extraction.

  • Steam distillation is the most traditional method of extracting terpenes. It involves heating plant material to release the terpenes into the steam, which is then cooled and condensed back into a liquid. The liquid is then separated into two layers: the water and the terpenes. The terpenes can then be collected from the top layer.
  • Solvent-based extraction uses a solvent, such as ethanol or hexane, to extract the terpenes from the plant material. This method is often used for high-volume, commercial extractions. The solvent is then removed, leaving behind the concentrated terpenes.
  • Supercritical CO2 extraction uses carbon dioxide that is pressurized and cooled to a liquid state. It is then used as a solvent to extract terpenes from the plant material. This method is considered to be one of the safest and most efficient methods of extracting terpenes, as it does not leave behind any residue and the CO2 can be easily evaporated.

How to Test for Terpene Quality

Testing for terpene quality is a complex process. While there are several companies that offer terpene testing, it is still a relatively new practice and is not yet fully standardized.

The biggest challenge when testing for terpene quality, is that terpenes evaporate easily, especially when heated, so they have to be extracted and tested “neat” or in their raw form.

If terpenes are extracted with a solvent like butane or hexane, they will evaporate during the process, and it will be impossible to test the quality of the original compound. It is also important to note that a solvent like hexane is extremely flammable, so the risk of explosion is high.


Terpenes are a class of organic compounds found in a wide variety of plants, including cannabis. They are responsible for the unique aromas and flavors of different strains of cannabis and have been found to have a wide range of therapeutic benefits. They are also believed to play a role in the “entourage effect” of cannabis.



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