What is That Smell – Terpenes 101


Do you ever wonder why certain aromas affect us the way that they do? Freshly cut grass, coffee grounds, gasoline, baby powder? Maybe these are the ones that seem to affect me – spark memories, produce emotions, get under my skin. Have you wondered why these smells impact us the way that they do?

Well, let’s talk about terpenes, which quite literally are, what you smell. They are the life blood of plants, berries, fruits, that give the distinct odours you pick up when you smell them. That distinct smell of the pine tree at christmas, and that fresh bouquet of roses? Terpenes.

Every plant is full of chemical compounds. Cannabis is no different. Around 140 of these belong to a gross class of aromatic organic hydrocarbons, which are known as terpenes. When you smell that pungent smell of cannabis – the terpene – you can trust that under that distinct aroma is a complex working of constituents affecting your body and brain in various ways.

Have you heard cannabis flavours described as mint, berry, citrus, and pine? Well those are the terpene oils at work. They are secreted in the same glands that produce cannabinoids CBD and THC, and similar to many other strong-smelling flora, terpenes began with the biological purpose of keeping predators away while drawing in the coveted pollinators. There are numerous factors which affect how the plant develops it’s specific terpene make-up, including weather, maturation, soil type, age, climate, fertilizers, and even the time of day.

The wide array of flavours and constituents provided by terpenes is wildly impressive, however, when it comes to the cannabis plant, it can be argued that the plant’s ability to interconnect terpenes with other compounds found within, such as cannabinoids, is outstanding. It is understood that cannabis varieties are bred specifically to contain high amounts of THC, thus reducing other cannabinoids such as CDB, which has many speculating that the differences in various strains of cannabis can largely be placed on the terpenes present in specific plants.

The ability for THC to bind to cannabinoid receptors, which are brain dominant, specifically where psychoactive effects are made. The binding to these receptor sites can also be known to actually change or affect the chemicals produced, while also affecting how much THC crosses the blood-brain barrier. It can be said that dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters are also reached, affecting how they behave in way of availability, movement, creation, and elimination. While each terpene, and the effect it produces varies from one to the next, here are a few key terpene facts to keep in mind:

  1. After greenery and flora are harvested, their compounds change to what is biologically referred to as a terpenoid. It is essential that proper curing procedures take place to ensure the compounds remain intact, as high heat will burn off these naturally occurring compounds, which can diminish potency and effectiveness.
  2. When growing cannabis plants, it’s important to know that terpene production is either encouraged or hindered dependant on what nourishes it. The most effective way to grow a bounty of flavour-filled flowers is to feed your crops organic.
  3. The ‘terp wheel’ is what many refer to when referencing certain flavours experiences during and after smoking or consumption. At the core, the wheel is composed of spicy, sour, bitter, and sweet flavours.  The flavours are said to become more specific as one moves farther out on the wheel.
  4. Make sure your plants are showered with a lot of fresh water, as this will allow for the plant’s terpenes to expand as freely and greatly as possible. Any salt or chemical build up in the soil will prevent terpenes from growing to full potential. You will taste the difference between a plant that has been well watered and one that hasn’t.
  5. Look at more than just the THC percentages present when choosing a specific strain. There are many other valuable compounds and constituents present which make up a strong product.
  6. You can buy terpenes in a bottle, which are most commonly referred to as essential oils. Make sure you are purchasing from a reputable (and legal) source, as any cutting or alterations to pure products (by adding fillers or using excess heat) can also have an effect on the potency and effectiveness of the oil.
  7. The ways in which terpene interact with cannabinoids have been shown to produce incredible effects on the brain. Some are especially helpful in stress relief, sleep disorders, and focus. They have the ability to speed up the absorption rate of THC in our bodies, increase and decrease dopamine and serotonin production, and affect our moods. The “high” experienced depends greatly on which dominant terpene is present in the product. What may seem like a subtle difference between the smell of limonene and myrcene, for example, holds greater changes both physically and psychologically to the human body.

Terpenes hold great benefit, and the ones found in cannabis have been largely un-tapped until recently. From their anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties, greater understanding of these organic compounds are beginning to surface. It is likely that new medical and scientific ground will be tread as continued research into these magnificent properties is conducted.