Why do lemongrass, citronella and lemons all smell like… lemons?

These unrelated plants have something in common, responsible for their distinctive lemony aroma and flavour… limonene

Limonene is just one of many of a particular class of organic molecules we find in nature. We call these molecules terpenes. Science has identified many thousands of different, individual terpenes, principally found in plants and some insects. Here’s a little guide to this amazing family of molecules and what they have to do with your cannabis.

Terpenes and aroma

Terpenes are responsible for the aroma and taste of many plants. If you’ve smelled essential oils, you’ve experienced terpenes (isolated from their plant hosts) at work.

Cannabis is particularly rich in terpenes. Science has isolated more than 100 of them, some of which are only found in the cannabis plant. The cannabinoids that give cannabis its punch get most of the attention, but they aren’t what’s responsible for the plant’s distinctive aroma. That comes from the terpenes. In fact, it’s the unique mix of terpenes in each cannabis strain that deliver its individual fruity or spicy or woodsy smell and taste.

Terpenes at work in the cannabis plant

Evidence suggests that terpenes are there to help the cannabis plant. For example, cannabis flowers (also known as buds) tend to have higher concentrations of specific terpenes that may attract pollinators and turn away potentially destructive insects, while the lower leaves instead feature bitter terpenes that deter grazing animals looking for a bite.

Cannabis at work in the human body

While there is a lot we still don’t know about cannabis terpenes, we know they help us, too. It’s been demonstrated that inhaling these compounds does produce altered behaviour (mostly positive) in animals and people.

It’s the differing combination of terpenes in each particular strain of cannabis that produce its unique effects. That dreamy, relaxing indica? Terpenes made that happen. A more active strain? One that stimulates creativity, or conversation, or introspection? Terpenes at work. It’s the terpenes in your strain that form its personality.

Cannabis scientists talk about the Entourage Effect, which is the idea that all of the active compounds in cannabis work together to produce sensations and effects that no one compound could produce on its own. Terpenes play a crucial role in this. It’s believed that they interact with the endocannabinoid system in our bodies, working alongside cannabinoid molecules like THC and producing unexpected reactions in our bodies.

We are just at the very beginning of understanding of how this works, but the science looks promising.

Cannabis terpenes and your health

Potential benefits for health and well-being under investigation include helping with pain and inflammation, fighting bacterial and fungal infections, and treating anxiety, depression, epilepsy, and even some forms of cancer.

There’s a whole untapped world of knowledge about terpenes and what they do that we haven’t yet discovered. The more scientists learn about what’s going on in the cannabis plant at the molecular level, the more excited they get. We hope that these wonderful and mysterious compounds get the research and attention they deserve.

In our next post, we’ll look at a few of the best-known and most important terpenes and their particular effects.

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