A Meandering Walk Through Terpenes (2024)

Today I want to talk about terpenes.

No, these are not the name of the newest mind-bending discovery out of an advanced particle physics lab, but they can be pretty hard to figure out.

Terpenes are organic compounds found all across plant life, and they’re essential to a plant’s unique fragrance, taste, and therapeutic benefits. Terpene production is also crucial in the animal kingdom for mechanisms such as self-defense and mate attraction. Like in other plants, terpenes in cannabis are essential components of a given strain’s “bouquet” and effect profile.

THC - the psychoactive component of cannabis that produces the flower’s familiar blissed out “high” and perhaps all-too-familiar urgent need for sustenance - plays a pivotal role in determining the strength of a strain’s mental and physical effects. Too little may leave you wondering if you got swindled for some schwag or bamboozled for some boof. Too much may leave you feeling anxious, or perhaps tuck you in for an earlier-than-expected nap. Regardless, THC doesn’t act alone in shaping cannabis’ wide-ranging effects. Terpenes - in addition to non-THC cannabinoids like CBD, CBG, and CBN (I’ll come back to these another day…) - work together to provide a strain’s unique profile in what has been termed in the industry as the “entourage effect.” For the many flavors and aromas delivered across over 700 unique cannabis strains in existence - from the sweet and dreamy Wedding Cake to the surprisingly aptly-named GMO (Garlic, Mushroom, and Onion) - we can thank our friends, the terpenes.

While there are hundreds of naturally-occurring terpenes in cannabis, there are only a handful of primary terpenes that are found in relatively large concentrations across strains and that produce the bulk of the effects and bouquets most customers, breeders, and growers seek out. Below are five of the most common cannabis terpenes (in alphabetical order out of fairness), alongside scent/flavor notes and my personal recommendations for relevant strains you can buy right now at your local licensed NYC dispensary:

Caryophyllene (or β Caryophyllene)

Limonene

  • Notes: Lemon, rindy citrus

  • Effects: Uplifting, anxiety and depression relief

  • Recs: MAC, Gas Face, Sherbanger

Linalool

  • Notes: Lavender, floral/verdant spices

  • Effects: Eases stress and body aches

  • Recs: Grandaddy Purp, G13

Myrcene (the most rich terpene across cannabis strains)

Pinene

Even with increased research and experiential knowledge in budtender communities and weed-focused message boards surrounding the benefits and differentiation that terpenes bring to cannabis, they can still be hard to pin down. As a rather on-the-nose example, when I sat down to write this piece, I originally intended to write only a strain review for my most-recent pick-up from the great folks at The Travel Agency - the citric-gassy and invigorating Toronja from regenerative grower Hudson Cannabis. As I let the deep earthy citrus and sour notes take over my palette, I knew I needed to dig into the terpene profile so that I could find similar flower and hopefully help others do the same. There was only one problem: I had already thrown away the mylar bag the product came in, which contained the state-mandated testing and Certificate of Analysis (COA) information via a QR code. These documents are great resources for understanding a given product’s THC level, full cannabinoid profile, terpenes, and any contaminants or impurities. Without one to reference, I started digging through the strain’s genetics for clues.

Toronja, as a hybrid flower, benefits from the profiles of its parents’ differing genetics. What makes this flower and many other cannabis strains interesting is that both of its parent strains are the product of cross-breeding. In one parent, you have a cross between the Grapefruit Chem and THC Bomb strains, coined Face Melt by legendary Oakland cultivator Purple City Genetics (not to be confused with Face Melt OG which is a cross between Grimace OG and the product of Face Off OG and Rare Dankness #1). With the other Toronja parent, you have the creamy, gassy, and slightly garlicky GovernMint Oasis, which is a cross between the previously-mentioned GMO and Gush Mints. At the risk of making this family tree more complex, I thought it worth mentioning that the four parent strains of Toronja’s parent’s (it’s grandparent strains) are all the result of cross-breeding as well. With a basic understanding of Toronja’s somewhat messy family structure, I was closer to knowing which terpenes made this strain tick.

While resources like Leafly, Seedfinder, and cultivator websites almost always have something interesting to learn about a strain’s genetic information, there can sometimes be some noise, especially for strains like Toronja that can be considered “crosses of crosses.” In the instance of Toronja’s Face Melt and GovernMint Oasis parents, both have somewhat unclear published terpene profiles. With GovernMint Oasis (where limonene is dominant), you have limonene, myrcene, and caryophyllene coming in from the GMO side and caryophyllene, limonene, and humulene (which is also the dominant terpene in hops - or “humulus lupulus”) from Gush Mints. Since both the parents of Face Melt are of rather unknown origin, I was at a dead end there. While research into the grandparent strains’ genetics yields some insights on what terpenes were passed down to the GovernMint Oasis parent, I was hard pressed to find information on how those proportions exactly came together and how Face Melt and it’s parents’ terpenes affect the profile of their child Toronja.

With no luck behind the screen of my computer, I set back out to The Travel Agency to talk to some of their budtenders and see if there was another bag of the flower I could scan to look at the COA. After catching some of the team members up on my personal mini investigation, I had my bag, scanned the QR code, and checked out the terpene analysis on the COA:

A Meandering Walk Through Terpenes (1)
A Meandering Walk Through Terpenes (2)

Looking through the percentage presence by weight columns, caryophyllene dominates, with limonene and myrcene coming in second and third place. That helps explain the strain’s characteristic gassy grapefruit funk. Caryophyllene is key in knocking the edge off, while limonene levels help support this flower’s “wake and bake” potential where you can enjoy your day at ease without worrying about an afternoon crash. Myrcene rounds out the strain and tamps the energy level down to a nice “cool and relaxed.” Now that I have the information I was curious about, I’m looking forward to kicking back and enjoying some more of this tasty flower.

This story is just one example of what makes the cannabis plant and business world both special and complex. General terpene knowledge can be a helpful tool in understanding how cannabis works with your mind and body to produce the effects you desire, but you may not always have the information readily available. Don’t hesitate to check out a COA on your product (numbers can be fun!), talk to your budtender, or visit cannabis education platforms like Leafly and Seedfinder to learn more. Ultimately, knowing the flavors and types of cannabis experiences you enjoy can make it easier to add similar strains to your stash or try something new!

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A Meandering Walk Through Terpenes (2024)

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