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Terpenes: a new buzz word making its way into the population’s conscience.

Discovered in the 1850s, terpenes are part of organic chemistry and integral to major industries: food products, agriculture, perfume, petrochemical, skin care, pet products, cleaning products and now more recently, the newly emerging cannabis industry.

Broader Perspective 

There are plenty of books and information on the internet about terpenes and essential oils. I am not going to go into information that is readily available. My intention is to offer a larger, conceptual framework for understanding terpenes, essential oils and how they relate to the cannabis industry.  The planet’s survival and our survival is intertwined with terpenes. They are more than products to be purchased. Terpenes are what give food, wine, weed and the scent of the air its scent and taste. They guide our choices.

Terpenes are hydrocarbons, a type of molecule that make up what we more commonly know as essential oils. An essential oil profile or terpene profile is a plant’s unique thumbprint in the world; a distinct expression of aroma, personality and soul. Essential oils contain Terpenes, Terpenoids, Aldehydes, Ethers, Esters, Ketones, and Phenols – each group of compounds containing its own healing properties. This is why authentic, steam-distilled essential oils are powerful medicines and can also be dangerous due to their heroic concentration of this group of compounds. But essential oils are more than just hydrocarbons and isolated terpenes. 

Terpenes are a shared biological communication tool in the natural world. Both plants and humans are interdependent through essential oils for survival. Their use in skin care products, turns moisturizers into healing compounds rather than possible sources of carcinogens. Monoterpenes have been proven to help prevent breast cancer. Use of plant based monoterpenes might just help give our bodies another tool to help strengthen our defense mechanisms just like plants. Essential oils are part of an organisms dynamic life cycle. These volatile, bioactive compounds interact with our ‘organism’ to help create equilibrium, good health and well being. Terpenes are a plant’s response to its environment. Terpenes are by-products of an organism’s defense system and a chemical response to its environment. The production of terpenes takes place in the plant’s secondary metabolite system, similar to our immune system. You may be familiar with some terpenes found in cannabis strains already, as they share common food sources like uplifting Limonene, also found in citrus and many other plants. Another example is calming linalool found in over 200 species of plants including basil and thyme. And there are many more.

The sticky flowers of Cookies, Blue Dream, Sour D and OG are specific terpene profiles we have come to know by a name. The original intention of naming strains was meant as a way to identify a specific flavor or terpene profile. The same strain grown in different environments triggers the plant to have variance in its terpene expression. Cannabis strains grown indoor vs outdoor or coastal vs inland will each have a slightly different terpene expression. Other environmental factors include: light intensity — southern vs northern exposure, full sun vs dappled light, temperature swings, elevation, wind exposure, air circulation, humidity, pests and diseases and ultimately, time itself due to the plants life cycle. Soil is an invisible but significant input as well. 

The Science

From ‘follow your nose, it always knows’ to ‘the smell of danger,’ smell goes through our olfactory and into the limbic system. We are wired for terpenes, from the aromas of plants wafting through the air, to the smell, flavor and taste of our food (incl. natural and artificial flavorings), to the bouquet of wines and the effectiveness of medicines and pharmaceuticals, terpenes surround us, sending biological information to all living cells. They help us navigate our world safely through discernment of our environment, informing us what is safe and not safe. Terpenes are major, biosynthetic building blocks within nearly every living creature. Terpenes have been part of evolution. Humans evolved alongside of terpenes. They are part of our survival and all species’ DNA. Terpenes are stored in specialized cells, such as glandular organs, hairs and scales. In terms of Cannabis, terpenes are stored in the glands found in the resin or trichome crystals — the same place as the cannabinoids, THC and CBD. Trichome is greek for ‘hairs’ and scientifically speaking, terpenes are part of a large and diverse group of organic compounds, produced by living organisms including plants, algae, lichens, some insects such as termites and swallowtail butterflies, which emit terpenes from their osmeteria (defensive organ found in all stages of papilionid larvae), and protists (eukaryotic organisms that don’t fit into any other group in the biological kingdom).

Pesticides and Safety

Pesticides alter the taste and smell of terpenes and are unsafe to consume. This is a public health and safety concern. Pesticide testing is critical to all market channels — from flowers to concentrates and medicines.  Purchasing verified, lab tested products from licensed dispensaries helps ensure your safety. Micro levels of pesticides and chemicals are concentrated during the extraction of plant based medicines. There may have no detectable pesticides at harvest time, but after processing into essential oils or other concentrates, pesticides are detected through lab testing. Pesticides accumulate in the soil and over the life cycle of plants. It may show up in the next generations as well. As a trained Clinical Herbalist, I am aware of protocols using the inhalation of specific burning herbs. The issue here is that heat from a single flame, burning a plant leaf is not the same as burning concentrated distillate containing terpenes at high temperatures. Use caution with concentrates and vaping cartridges. Inhalation of excessive terpenes can burn your throat and lung tissues.


Dr. Kurt Schnaulbelt, The Biology of Essential oils

Dr. Kurt Schnaulbelt, Aromatherapy Course, 3rd Edition




United States Congress Hearing 1966:


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