The cannabis plant has the broadest range of smells of any known plant on Earth. From citrus to cheeses, cloves to cardamom, pear to pomegranate, you name it and it’s quite probable that a strain has been breed to emphasise a certain scent and flavour. So where do these scents and flavours come from? They all come from a common class of aromatic molecules known as terpenes. Terpenes are the primary molecular agent responsible for flavour and scent in almost all plants. The aroma and flavour of hops, a close cousin to cannabis and a primary ingredient in beer, owe their flavour to these rather interesting molecules.
Terpenes are expressed by a variety of plants for a variety of reasons. Different terpenes provide unique benefits that are bespoke to the conditions that brought them about. Trees release terpenes more actively in warmer weather as a form of cloud seeding, providing a medium for water molecules to latch onto to encourage microlevel cloud formation. They’re not only essential to plants, but to animal life as well. In addition to being end products in many organisms, terpenes are major biosynthetic building blocks within nearly every living creature, with endogenous steroids being built with the triterpene squalene.
Terpenes are used in many products, because of their aromatic properties, they’re the primary component of most essential oils. They’re used as fragrance in perfumes, in foods to add flavour, and in some cases to add nutritional value, as vitamin A and a few other essential compounds either are terpenes or synthesised from them. They’re the major components of plant resins and the reason why a certain paint remover is called turpentine. There’s many to be isolated, with many uses, but some are much more expensive than others to isolate, especially rarer ones that are only produced in small quantities by plants.
There have been over one hundred unique terpenes identified in cannabis, with each unique bouquet of combinations being responsible for the scents and flavours of different varieties of the plant. Among the terpenes found in cannabis are alphapinene, which produces a pine scent and has antiseptic properties, myrcene which is a primary terpene in hops and has antioxidant properties, and limonene, which is responsible for citrus scents and has antibacterial properties. These three alone could be building blocks for a diverse palate of flavours, but then there’s also terpenes in the mix like linalool which produces a flowery scent, and caryophyllene which produces peppery and woody scents.
All these base terpenes produce scents on their own, but can also be naturally synthesised into further scent molecules by the plant. Myrcene which is abundant in sativas is a building block for menthol, citronella and geraniol. These scents are all vastly different from each other but come from a common source. Terpenes overall, and especially in the context of cannabis are a fascinating subject and definitely worth looking into. Who knows, with the right knowledge and some time, you could master the terpenes of cannabis to become the world’s next master perfume artisan.