Terpenes: a new buzz word making its way into the population’s conscience. Discovered in the 1850s, terpenes are foundational to the field of organic chemistry, the food & perfume industries, the beauty and cosmetic industries, pet products, cleaning products and now more recently, the newly emerging cannabis industry.
My discovery, study and journey of terpenes and their healing powers began in 2000 as part of a certified clinical herbal studies program. I have been hooked ever since.
A Broader Perspective
There are plenty of books and information on the internet about terpenes and essential oils. I am not going to elaborate on information that is readily available with a swipe of a finger. My intention, is to offer a larger, conceptual framework for understanding terpenes, essential oils and how they relate to the cannabis industry.
Our planet’s survival as well as our own survival is intertwined with terpenes and essential oils. Terpenes are released by forests and help seed the clouds to rain. The effect of terpenes and weather has even been part of a congressional hearings in 1964.1
They are more than just products to be purchased. They are woven into the fabric of life as we know it. An essential oil or terpene profile is a plant’s unique thumbprint in the world; a distinct expression of aroma, personality & soul.
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 & many other plants. Another example is calming linalool, found in over 200 species of plants including basil. 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 variances in its terpene expression. Cannabis strains grown indoor vs outdoor or coastal vs inland for example, will each have a slightly different terpene expression even though it is considered the same strain. Other environmental factors include: light intensity — southern vs northern exposure, full sun vs dappled light, temperature swings, elevation, wind exposure & air circulation, humidity, pests, diseases and ultimately, life itself due to the plants life cycle.
Soil is an invisible but significant input as well. Pesticides and fertilizers alter the taste & 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 & 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. They may have no detectable pesticides at harvest time, but after processing into essential oils or processing into other concentrates, pesticides are detected through lab testing. Pesticides accumulate in the soil & over the life cycle of plants. They can show up in the next generation of plants as well the plants can pull the pesticides out of the soil..
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 of a plant leaf is not the same as burning a concentrated distillate containing terpenes at high temperatures. Use caution with concentrates & vaping cartridges. Inhalation of excessive hot terpenes can burn your throat and lung tissues.
The science from ‘follow your nose, it always knows’ to ‘the smell of danger,' goes through our olfactory and into the limbic system and effects the way we feel and can even trigger thoughts. We are wired for terpenes, from the aromas of plants wafting through the air, to the smell, flavor & taste of our food (incl. natural & artificial flavorings), to the bouquet of wines and the effectiveness of medicines & pharmaceuticals, terpenes surround us, sending biological information to all living cells.
Terpenes 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 & all species’ DNA. Terpenes are stored in specialized cells, such as glandular organs, hairs & 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 & CBD. Trichome is greek for ‘hairs’ & scienEfically speaking, terpenes are part of a large & diverse group of organic compounds, produced by living organisms including plants, algae, lichens, some insects such as termites & swallowtail bucerflies, which emit terpenes from their osmeteria (defensive organ found in all stages of papilionid larvae), & protists (eukaryo8c organisms that don't fit into any other group in the biological kingdom).
Essential oils contain Terpenes, Terpenoids, Aldehydes, Ethers, Esters, Ketones, & Phenols - each group of compounds containing its own healing properties. This is why authentic, steam-distilled essenEal oils are powerful medicines & can also be dangerous due to their heroic concentration of this group of compounds. But essential oils are more than just hydrocarbons & 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 mono-terpenes might just help give our bodies another tool to help strengthen our defense mechanisms just like they do for plants. Essential oils are part of an organisms dynamic life cycle. These volatile, bioactive compounds interact with our ‘organisms’ to help create equilibrium, good health and well being. The intelligence and interdependence of nature and plants is intertwined by terpenes - smells that weave the web of life together and heal us.