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What are terpenes?

The different combination and proportion of terpenes in cannabis cultivars result in different aromas, flavors, and effects, but what exactly are these naturally produced chemical compounds?

Terpenes are widely produced by microorganisms, plants, and fungi. Their biosynthesis in animals has only been described in a few insect species – specifically a butterfly that produces (E)-beta-ocimene as an anti-aphrodisiac. So although terpenes are most commonly associated with cannabis, they are found throughout the natural world, most commonly in flowers and plants. They are the aromatic compounds that give these flowers and plants their unique scents and characteristics. Imagine pine trees, lavender, rosemary, oranges, lemons, mangos, peppers; the scents each of these plants, their fruits, and their flowers give off are primarily due to their terpene profiles.

black butterfly with orange and yellow on wings sitting on a green leaf
Male tropical butterfly Heliconius melponene produces ocimene in its sex glands | Photo Credit: Kelsey JRP Byers

Not only do terpenes affect the way a flower smells, they also affect the way these plants and flowers interact with their surroundings. In nature, plants produce these terpenes primarily to fend off grazing animals, attract pollinators or battle infectious germs. Terpenes can also be beneficial to the health of humans, as they are bioactive in nature. Effects of terpenes will vary, depending on the concentration, the terpene itself and how a person intends to use it.

bumble bee pollinating a purple lavender flower in a field of purple lavender
Bumblebee pollinating a lavender flower – the terpene linalool is a known pollinator attractant

Why are terpenes important?

When it comes to cannabis, terpenes play a significant role in how each individual cultivar will be experienced, enhancing the effects of cannabinoids like THC and CBD in what’s known as the entourage effect. This commonly used phrase in the cannabis world refers to the action of terpenoids and cannabinoids working harmoniously to produce the unique psychoactive and medicinal effects associated with different cultivars.

Some of the most prominent terpenes in cannabis cultivars include:


a-pinene molecule diagram


limonene molecule diagram


linalool molecule diagram


myrcene molecule diagram


terpinolene molecule diagram


b-caryophyllene molecule diagram

Each of these active terpenes affects how a particular cultivar interacts with an individual. When shopping for cannabis, terpene profiles are equally, if not more important than THC content when determining the effects one is likely to experience. THC is important, but without those terps, consumers can be left with an incomplete and unsatisfying high. 

close up of purple cannabis flower with deep dark purple leaves
The most abundant terpene in the cultivar Black Death is myrcene, followed by limonene and pinene

Sessions Terpene Series

In future posts, Sessions will describe each of these unique terpenes, highlighting the effects they carry, and explore which profiles might be best suited for your individual cannabis needs. 

Tom Stevens

Author Tom Stevens

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