Terpenes Defined

Updated: May 7

Three primary families of wellness molecules are produced by the cannabis/hemp/marijuana plant species: Cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes. This Higher Learning LV homework sample examines the major and minor terpenes derived from cannabis, including their general characteristics, wellness efficacies, and safety profiles.


Terpenes, produced in the nearly microscopic glandular trichomes of the flowers of the plant, are the aromatic flavor molecules that give cannabis its sometimes pungent fragrance—especially during the latter stages of flowering, immediately prior to harvest. They are a class of lipid (fat) molecules that feature a distinct and repeating set of five carbon atoms called an isoprene. Isoprenes combine to form larger and larger terpenes.

Some terpenes, such as pinene, feature two nearly identical molecular siblings, called analogs or isomers. The scientific naming convention involves an alpha (alpha-pinene) and a beta (b-pinene).

Evolutionary Function

From an evolutionary perspective, terpenes provide two essential functions to the plant species that produce them:

  1. Dissuade pests and predators (which perceive the aroma to be undesirable or toxic).

  2. Attract pollinating insects (which propagate the species, helping ensure its survival).

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This same aroma is perceived as pleasant and acts as an attractant to humans and some mammals. Like pollinating insects, humans support the cannabis species through selective breeding, horticulture, and overall commercialization.

Molecular Types

Beyond major and minor categories that indicate their relative presence in the cannabis genome, scientists categorize terpenes in several different categories based on their molecular and chemical characteristics.

Isoprene molecules, often called isoprene units, are molecules that join with other molecules to form compounds. Isoprene molecules feature five carbon atoms with double bonds. Thus, the most simple terpene category, monoterpenes, features two isoprene molecules. The most sophisticated and molecularly heavy terpene type, tetraterpenes, feature eight isoprene units.

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