Cannabis Terpenes: What They Are and What They Do

Once upon a time, being a savvy stoner meant knowing the difference between the main cannabis strainsIndica for relaxation; Sativa for uplift, plus hybrid strains for a bit of both in varying degrees. But new research into the plant is giving terpenes (pronounced with a long e like, er, peen) an important role in cannabis’ effects.

Terpenes are fragrant oils found in many types of plants. The chemical compounds they secrete give fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs their signature scents. So terpenes are responsible for the citrus smell of oranges, and even the relaxing effects of lavender.

In cannabis plants, terpenes are formed inside the trichomes. There are over 100 identified terpenes, many of which are unique to the cannabis plant. Each cannabis strain has a different smell due to its distinctive terpene profile. So while you may think all weed smells “skunky,” terpene scents range from earthy, woodsy, herbal, spicy, diesel or cheesy, all the way to citrusy or sweet.

As well, terpenes themselves may have several aromas. And a strain’s terpene profile can vary between crops, due to factors such as climate, soil and fertilizers, and the age of the plant.

The Entourage Effect

Why should you consider terpenes when choosing a strain of cannabis? For starters, knowing if the terpenes are musky or citrusy will help you select a scent and taste profile that suits your preferences. But there is even more (and better) buzz around something being called the entourage effect.

The idea is that not only are terpenes responsible for cannabis’ flavours and aromas, but they work synergistically with cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD. For example, some strains can have the exact same levels of THC and CBD, yet produce different effects - and this, researchers are now saying, is caused by the terpenes.

So the entourage effect simply means that cannabinoids such as THC and CBD, along with the hundreds of other compounds, along with terpenes, are meant to work together. The theory is that the whole plant  does the best job, not just a single compound.  The sum is greater than the parts, as the simple illustration below shows.


The Cannabis Entourage Effect


Top 5 Terpenes


Myrcene gives cannabis its familiar earthy, fruity, and musky aroma. It is the primary terpene found in cannabis, and some plants’ terpene profile can be up to 65% myrcene alone.  Myrcene has relaxing effects as well as anti-inflammatory properties. It is also found in mangoes, hops, thyme, lemongrass, and cloves.


The second most abundant terpene found in cannabis, limonene can also be found in various citrus fruits and is responsible for the citrusy smell. Strains high in limonene provide a general uplift in mood and attitude. Limonene’s strong antifungal and antibacterial properties, and fresh smell makes it a common additive in household cleaning and cosmetic products. It has very low toxicity and adverse effects are rarely associated with it.


As its name suggests, pinene is most often found in pine trees, and gives pine needles their distinctive smell. A second beta variety has a scent like rosemary, dill, or parsley. Pinene is a strong bronchodilator, a medication used to treat asthma. It also has powerful anti-inflammatory and antiseptic effects, which have been used for centuries in herbal medicines.


The terpene found in lavender is well known for its stress-relieving, anti-anxiety, and anti-depressant effects. Linalool can help alleviate any anxiety produced by THC, making it an ideal terpene for the treatment of anxiety  Studies also suggest that linalool boosts the immune system, and can significantly reduce lung inflammation. It may also restore cognitive and emotional function, making it useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.


This terpene, which has a spicy, woody, peppery scent, is also found in black pepper and cinnamon. While this terpene does not effect your cannabis high, studies shows it has promise in treating insomnia, inflammation and chronic pain.

The infographic below provides a quick look at the common cannabis terpenes.

Cannabis Terpenes: What They Are and What They Do

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