What Are Terpenes and What Do They Do?

PW Team
Feature Image Credit
high quality close up image of a Cannabis strain with thc in plain view


What do you think of when you hear the word: terpenes, terps or terpenoids? 

Maybe you’re a legend grower or a vetted budtender, in which case you already know, but maybe it’s a new term for you. 

The breakdown is this: Terpenes are primarily responsible for the smell and flavor of marijuana. They have diverse effects and can have medicinal benefits, even in low terp concentrations. 

Dr. Ethan Russo, MD, the Director of Research and Development at International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institut concluded in a study from 2016 regarding terpenes:

[Terpenes] offer “complementary pharmacological activities that may strengthen and broaden clinical applications and improve the therapeutic index of cannabis extracts.” 

That may sound a bit complex, but we will break down the primary things you should know about terpenes in this article.

What are Cannabis Terpenes?

From a chemistry standpoint, terpenes are nothing more than aromatic organic hydrocarbons (or hydrogen and carbon compounds). These molecular compounds (terpenes) are prevalent in marijuana, but are not exclusive to it. 

Terpenes are found in various parts of nature: fruits, vegetables, flowers and even some insects. If you are familiar with "essential oils" then you’re probably familiar with terpenes, as they share a variety of characteristics. While essential oils can set the mood, they won’t get you high. Terpenes found in cannabis will help do just that: enhance your high

Why Terpenes Matter to the Consumer

If you think of flavored juices or soft drinks, people make purchases based on personal preferences. (For example consumers may choose a product because it is watermelon, lime or strawberry flavor.) It’s the same with marajuana products. 

A recent study showed that the smell of marijuana strains influenced the value perception of the demonstrated products. When compared to products with less intensive terpenes, consumers devalued the strains and potential potency based on how the smell made them feel. 

When consumers show up to the dispensaries, they ask to smell the strains. Good budtenders usually provide them with the correct aroma palette: earthy, citrusy, creamy, floral, gassy, etc. When they do this, they are describing the terpenes. 

On a side note, the search term “terpene” is now five times more popular online than it was only two years ago, and many believe this is a direct result of spiked interest in the cannabis industry. 

Breeders, growers and exactors are familiar with this trend and the advancing consumer psychology of the cannabis industry. In fact, cultivators work to enhance their terpene flavor profiles in such a way that their strains will out sell their competitors. 

Oftentimes when cannabis goes through the cultivation process the terpenes will lose some of their effects. This has led to consumers mixing in experimental formulas like concentrated dab flavoring or vape juice. Manufacturers are also aware of this loss of terpenes and have started to reintroduce isolated terpenes after or during the growing, curing, drying, or extraction process.

Know the Terpenes, Taste the Terpenes

There are hundreds of terpenes and each of them has a unique scent and profile. Think of the citrusy smell of an orange or distinct smell of pine or even the relaxing smell of lavender, those smells are the result of specific terpenes. 

Here are the most common terpenes found in cannabis:

10 common terpenes

  • Limonene
  • Pinene
  • Myrcene
  • Linalool
  • Beta-Caryophyllene
  • Humulene
  • Terpinolene
  • Ocimene


It’s true that at some point terpene levels can exceed a limit resulting in a bad experience. That however, is not stopping cultivators from finding these limits. Consumers love cutting edge marijuana products and terpenes have been a huge indicator in determining strain value. 

The common rule of thumb for finding the best bud with the highest terpene levels: 

“Follow your nose”.

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