Terpenes: Taste, Medicine, and Plant Protection

–        The many uses of a large family of exciting plant compounds.

Plants in the genus, Cannabis, have so much to offer us. From industrial uses like manufacturing rope, clothing, paper, and buildings, to providing delicious and healthy snacks like hemp seeds, there’s no almost no limit to the number of ways that humans benefit from Cannabis plants.

In fact, the United States of America might not exist if it weren’t for hemp growers during its foundational years. The Founding Fathers possessed well-documented support for growing hemp, including owning their own hemp farms.

That being said, there is more to Cannabis than meets the eye. Sure, the industrial uses of hemp are well-documented, but it’s closely related cousins–the cultivars with loads of THC–have long been demonized for their psychoactive properties. Those properties have unfortunately overshadowed the many medicinal aspects of this beautiful plant.

Thankfully, research continues to open up and Cannabis’ full potential is finally being looked at more closely. While most people are familiar with the two major cannabinoids found in this plant–THC and CBD–there is a complex profile of many other compounds present, as well. Most markedly: the terpenes.

Why do plants have terpenes?

To be clear, terpenes aren’t only found in Cannabis. They’re found in many different plant species throughout the world. While they may possess valuable medicinal benefits for humans state hemp laws, that isn’t why they evolved in plants.

The life of a plant is difficult. They face the prospects of being stomped on by ungulates, devoured by insects, infected by fungi, being poisoned by neighboring plants competing for their space, or even being frozen or burnt to death by the elements.

Plants may seem docile, but they’re in a constant struggle to survive. One of their most important defense mechanisms is their terpenes.

To deal with the danger of being smashed or eaten by a wide range of animals–including insects and microbes–terpenes emit smells that drive them away. For example, a 2001 study that appeared inAnnual Review of Plant Physiology and Plant Molecular Biologyshowed that conifers use diterpenes as an antimicrobial defense. Likewise, according to a 2014 paper published in Plant Physiology, oranges use terpenes to fight off certain types of fungi.

In Cannabis plants, the use of terpenes is no different. Many different animals may want to eat the plants, but the proper terpene structure can help dissuade them from doing so.

Thankfully for us humans, terpenes in Cannabis have other uses that don’t drive us away from consuming it. Quite the opposite, in fact. The more we discover about how we can use terpenes, the more excited about their consumption we become.

Your cannabis tastes and smell great–why?

As mentioned, terpenes produce scents and flavors that push away many creatures. For us, however, we find them highly attractive. For example, consider a cultivar that has an abundant source of limonene, like Super Lemon Haze. Many growers say their plants smell exactly like lemons. That’s no surprise, lemons have high doses of limonene in them.

Even if you wouldn’t eat a lemon, there’s no denying that a cultivar like Super Lemon Haze smells wonderful and has a delicious flavor. We have the terpenes to thank for that.

Limonene is present in many of the sativa cultivars and often offers a light, mind-stimulating experience to go along with its pleasant smell and taste.

Another common terpene that is easy to identify through smell and taste is pinene. It produces the piney smell associated with conifer trees. Unsurprisingly, conifer trees are often loaded with pinene as a result of its ability to protect leaves from freezing and its efficacy in keeping herbivores from eating them.

Pinene is typically associated with the indica cultivars. As a result, they tend to grow better in colder environments–a trait they share with conifers. Like conifers, indica cultivars that are loaded with pinene also possess the piney smell. These varieties of Cannabis tend to have relaxing and calming effects that many people look for when consuming.

Terpenes do more for our cannabis than increase their smell and flavor.

Scientists are becoming increasingly excited about the medical potential of the terpenes found in cannabis plants. The cap on future research into terpenes is virtually limitless. They can ask questions like:

  •          How does pinene impact depression?
  •          Does limonene have anti-tumoral properties?
  •          When combining myrcene and beta-caryophyllene, do they work together to provide medicinal benefits?

Because scientists have already identified over 140 terpenes within cannabis plants, questions like this are innumerous. Their answers are all we need to wait for.

However, scientists have asked many questions about how terpenes effect the human body and have provided us with interesting responses.

In 2016, researchers published an interesting paper in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Bai et al., found that limonene has an interesting ability to protect cells from oxidative stress in human lens epithelial cells (HLECs). HLECs undergo apoptosis when suffering from age-associated cataracts. Limonene appears to prevent the damage caused by H2O2 that leads to HLEC cell death.

Terpenes aren’t just good for our eyes, they’re also good for our teeth, immune system, and many other things. A recent paper in Biomedicine and Biotechnology described how terpenes are valuable in dentistry, help produce mucus when our bodies aren’t generating it on their own, reduce gastrointestinal spasms, combat itchiness, prevent flatulence, and even provide antimicrobial activities.

Be thankful for terpenes.

As you can see, there are plenty of reasons to be thankful for terpenes. From their ability to keep our cannabis plants alive to providing interesting tastes and flavors to acting as interesting medicinal compound upon consumption, terpenes offer humans a plethora of benefits.

What’s your favorite terpene and why? Let us know in the comments below!