Terpenes 101

Marijuana’s Signature Scent

If you’ve spent any amount of time around the cannabis plant, you know the smell: earthy, piney, citrusy. The sources of this signature fragrance are terpenes. What’s a terpene? It’s an organic hydrocarbon—in other words, a chemical compound that puts off a strong aroma. But terpenes are more than just smells—they work with cannabinoids in what’s known as “the entourage effect.” Together, terpenes and cannabinoids act on receptors and neurotransmitters and can influence levels of serotonin, dopamine and GABA (the downer neurotransmitter), similar to certain medications.

These fascinating molecules originate from secretory cells inside trichomes, which are glandular hairs found on the surface of the cannabis plant. When exposed to light, trichomes ramp up production of terpenes, which in turn provide extra protection from bacteria, fungus, insects and other environmental threats.

There are hundreds of terpenes associated with the cannabis plant, and the concentration of each in a particular marijuana strain can produce specific smells and effects. Here are a few of the more common terpenes:


The most abundant terpene in cannabis, myrcene makes up anywhere from 50–65% of the total terpene count. It’s known for its earthy, musky and clove-like aroma and sedative effect, and can also be found in hops, mango, lemongrass and basil. Research indicates that myrcene can contribute to better health by serving as an:

  • Antiseptic
  • Analgesic agent
  • Antimicrobial agent
  • Antioxidant
  • Anticarcinogen
  • Muscle relaxant


While myrcene is the most common terpene in cannabis, pinene is the most common across all plant species. It comes in two different varieties—alpha and beta. Alpha-pinene is associated with the fragrance of pine needles or rosemary, while beta-pinene produces herbaceous aromas more akin to basil, dill, parsley and hops. Ever wondered why turpentine smells like pine? Look no further than pinene. This ever-present terpene can serve many different therapeutic purposes, including:

  • Bronchodilator
  • Anti-inflammatory agent
  • Antiseptic
  • Stimulant
  • Analgesic


Like the name suggests, limonene is a group of terpenes with a citrus fragrance resembling anything from lemon to lime to grapefruit. And that’s not a coincidence—the same chemical is present in both the plant and the fruit. Like myrcene, limonene enhances the effect of cannabinoids in the following ways:

  • Relieves stress
  • Aids digestion
  • Relieves acid reflux
  • Elevates mood
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Is antibacterial and antifungal


Does your cannabis smell floral, spicy or woodsy? Chances are it’s linalool. Linalool isn’t exclusive to cannabis—you can also find it in trees like birch and rosewood, flowering shrubs like laurel, and most prominently in lavender. It also happens to be one of the oldest known sedatives and sleep aids, in addition to treating the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Convulsions
  • Depression
  • Muscle tension

Next time you get a whiff of cannabis, take a moment to explore the aroma and see if you can identify the terpenes hard at work.

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