By Jokūbas Žiburkus, PHD

Ahhh…this bud smells like lemon*!
Have you ever wondered what is it that you really smell in cannabis plants? Perhaps you thought it is THC that gives it that ‘skunky’ or ‘tangy’ smell. Or maybe you just never spend enough time thinking about it. Yet, time after time when you smelled different cannabis strains, the aromas were distinct, and, as often is the case, so were their euphoric and behavior-eliciting effects. Some cannabis strains and their smells attract and agree with a given user and others simply do not.


Cannabis flower and cannabis oil aromas stem from aromatic terpenes and a distinct chemical composition of the plants. The cannabis plant synthesizes phytocannabinoids and terpenes from geranyl phosphate inside the glandular trichomes that also produce cannabinoids. As such, phytocannabinoids and terpenes share a common parent molecule and can be considered to be half-siblings [1]. To date, over 1100 compounds, 200 plus of which are terpenes have been identified in cannabis. Sadly, the majority of the terpenes are not found in extracts due to the high volatility and the frequent use of heat or solvents during the extraction process. Some of the predominant terpenes in cannabis are limonene, linalool, pinene, myrcene, and beta caryophyllene [2].

Terpene molecules found in cannabis plants are not unique to cannabis, but are prevalent in other plants, roots, and fruits. For example, limonene is a terpene found in citrus and gives lemons or mandarins a related, but distinct smell. When inhaled through nostrils and mouth cavity, terpenes can activate parts of the brain that process olfactory (smell) information. The brain ‘smell centers’ in turn are connected to the areas of the brain responsible for emotions, moods, and memories. Each one of the aromas activates distinct neuronal networks, thereby initiating distinct behavioral outputs. Certain smells, like peppermint, invigorate and boost energy levels, while others, like lavender holds calming properties. Through the linkage to the memory areas in the brain, smells can instantly evoke vivid moments of distant events correlated to those particular smells, and even generate strong emotions.

When purchasing cannabis flower or even seeds at the source, dominant terpenes have always consciously or subconsciously influenced the choice of the product and the desired effect. Growers and cultivators enjoy growing several species of cannabis, and always work on creating new genetics, unique looking and smelling strains. Seasoned medicinal or recreational users often like to rely on three or more kinds of flower or products and even rotate them throughout their daily, weekly or month long cycles of use. Thus, over time people naturally gravitate toward specific smells and cannabis strains and many individuals form unique bonds and even co-dependency with different strains of cannabis.


Most cannabis terpenes get inhaled by vaporization or smoking into the lungs. Terpenes have different boiling temperatures, and when using vaporizers, they will get released gradually as the plant matter is heating up. The most volatile terpenes will be released at the lowest temperatures. The first vapor-filled bag from a vaporizer, like Volcano, or the first few inhalations is reported to have very strong aromas or ‘flavor’. Varied flavors come from unique combinations of terpenes in each strain or chemovar. With subsequent heating, flavor changes until it gradually dissipates. At that point, the recommendation is to continue heating or vaporizing because cannabinoids get released at higher temperatures than many more volatile terpenes. Thus, the third or fourth vapor bag will likely contain predominantly phytocannabinoids and be virtually flavorless. Nonetheless, there are anecdotal reports of THC contributing to the perception of sweet flavor, especially in concentrates that lack some of the volatile terpenes.


We ingest terpenes every day by eating fruit and vegetables and other foods. It turns out that cannabis plants and extracts can be dominated or contain some terpenes in high concentrations. Can cannabis terpenes be ingested? Yes, like with foods, cannabis oils can also be ingested. When ingested through mouth, terpenes can get absorbed into the entire body system or exert its effects locally within the gastrointestinal tract. In addition to ingestion, terpenes can also have significant effects through topical applications, acting on the skin cells or the nerve endings in the skin, which contains cannabinoid and other receptors that are bound by terpenes.

Be it in a form of medicinal extract, vaporizer, or topical creams, terpenes are clearly now at the epicenter of the cannabis world. Our growing understanding of various cannabis component functions, like terpenes, is evolving the relationship between cannabis plant and humans. Depth of this relationship stands to benefit not only humans, but the entire [cannabis] ecosystem.


In the coming editions of Grow Magazine, CannTelligence and Dr. Ziburkus will take us on a fascinating journey of terpenes and reveal the newest known functions of some of the terpenes predominant in the cannabis plants.


1.Russo, E.B., Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Br J Pharmacol, 2011. 163(7): p. 1344-64.

2.Russo, E.B. and J.M. McPartland, Cannabis is more than simply delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 2003. 165(4): p. 431-2; author reply 433-4.ts.

Photos By Marcus Richardson