Before I trained my nose on how to sniff out the dominant terpenes in cannabis, buying weed was a hazy, opaque mess. The overwhelming amount of choices, paired with the reality that flower branding offers no indication of how a cultivar will actually affect you, made the whole process feel like a shot in the dark, an expensive guessing game that often left me feeling down when I wanted to go up, and vice versa.
Even as a cannabis journalist, who knew a lot more about weed than your average consumer, it felt virtually impossible to know how a particular cut would actually make me feel. Not only are new strains constantly created with wild names no one has ever heard of, there’s also a massive amount of variation when it comes to the high, even within the same strains that have been grown by different farms.
Depending on the chemovar of the nugs themselves, a bowl of OG Kush could make you productive or glue you to the couch. It all comes down to that flower’s specific chemical expression, meaning which cannabinoids are present, and, perhaps more importantly, which terpenes are dominant.
While it’s becoming known that THC percentages are not the only indicator of quality to look for when buying flower, people have yet to catch on to the importance of terpenes, and how easy it is to train your nose to identify those present in your flower to help determine its high.
Dispensaries are businesses, and the main concern is getting as many customers in and out as fast as possible. While they should care about educating consumers on the importance of things like terpenes, they’re simply not set up as educational centers.
It’s up to us and us alone, but boy is it worth it. Nothing has aided more in the evolution of my cannabis understanding than taking the time to learn about dominant terpenes, the effects they entail, and how to sniff them out.
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are organic compounds that provide aroma and flavor in a wide variety of organisms, but are associated with cannabis due to the plant’s high concentration of them.
Have you ever noticed that your fingers are sticky after handling nugs? The sticky stuff is made from trichomes that contain terpenes, as well as other compounds like cannabinoids. In addition to curating the scent and taste of different strains, the combination of dominant terpenes present in the flower, or terpene profile, also helps determine its high.
For example, limonene is the terpene that makes lemons smell like lemons. It’s also the terpene that makes cannabis smell like lemons or citrus. Limonene has an uplifting effect, whether you smoke it in a strain like Sour Diesel, or feel the zing of lemon zest. So, when you take a whiff of a strain and lemon slaps you in the face, you know that strain will have at least some uplifting effect when you consume it.
Understanding the sticky alchemy behind the compounds that make us feel good is far and away the most important part of shopping for flower. Until recently, brands have had a hard time labelling flower products without relying on THC percentages and inaccurate indica/sativa labels.
Including dominant terpene information on the packaging can help consumers understand the product or strain’s effects. SC Labs, a leading testing facility, has started providing terpene testing data for brands using PhytoFacts, a graphic, color-coded depiction of the product’s chemical profile.
Alex Dixon, co-founder of SC Labs, explained to Weedmaps, “What we’ve been doing at SC Labs over the last however many years [is that] we took all our terpene data and started working with some data scientists to basically help us sort through all the terpene data that we tested. We wanted to understand, of these hundreds of thousands of strain names, how everything sorts out by terpene content. What we came to realize is that it’s actually a lot more simple than complex.”
He continued, “We test for over 42 different terpenes, but whenever you look at the best concentration of a terpene profile, which is the combined compounds that make up the smell, if you look at all strains of cannabis, it really reduces down to five primary terpenes, or primary smells.”
How to sniff out dominant terpenes
There’s a common phrase in cannabis: “The nose knows.”
When it comes to using your nose to identify the high of a specific cultivar, it’s all about becoming acquainted with these five primary terpenes, what they smell like, and what they do.
Here’s what you need to know.
Fruity smelling weed
- Likely dominante terpene: Myrcene
- Common aromas: Fruit, berries, sweet
- Effects: Relaxing, sedative, couch-lock
- Myrcene-dominant strains: Forbidden Fruit, Tropaya, Grape Ape
When you’re smelling a strain that gives off really fruity aromas, the terpene Myrcene is responsible. Within stoner circles, myrcene is believed to produce the calming, relaxing, and overall downer effects associated with “couch-lock.” A 2002 study on mice found that myrcene was sedative, as well.
“Myrcene is the fruit terp,” said Dixon. “It’s the terpene that’s in hops and mango. For beer people, think IPA.”
“Myrcene, together with THC, is what really brings about the relaxation, couch lock-y effect,” Dixon said. “Previously, everyone thought of this as the Indica effect, but really it’s just the presence of myrcene.”
Spicy and herbally smelling weed
- Likely dominante terpene: Caryophyllene
- Common aromas: Black pepper, spicy, earthy
- Effects: Relief, comfort, relaxation, sleepiness
- Caryophyllene-dominant strains: GSC, GG4, Chemdog
Caryophyllene is one of the primary terpenes in black pepper and clove. It adds a spicy, earthy note to cannabis strains. Strains that are high in caryophyllene include GSC, Gorilla Glue and Chemdog. The effects of caryophyllene also exist on the relaxing end of the spectrum, but in a distinctly comforting way, perfect for after something that sucks, or before bed.
Citrusy smelling weed
- Likely dominante terpene: Limonene
- Common aromas: Citrus, lemons
- Effects: Uplifting, alert, energized
- Limonene-dominant strains: Sour Diesel, Lemon Diesel, OG Kush (and other OGs), Super Lemon Haze, Durban Poison
Limonene is found in lemons and all citrus, with a concentration in the citrus rind. This is an uplifting terpene that is exciting, energizing, and great for when you’re feeling bummed out or have shit to do — it’s usually found in strains classically known as sativas.
Piney smelling weed
- Likely dominante terpene: Pinene
- Common aromas: Pine, earth
- Effects: Focused, uplifted
- Pinene-dominant strains: Green Crack, Strawberry Cough, Jack Herer, Blue Dream, Lemon Jack
Pinene is a rare terpene that can be identified by the actual smell of pine trees. When paired with THC, it has an uplifting, focused effect. “There’s also research to show that pinene with THC helps to decrease the negative memory impairment that THC can cause short term,” added Dixon.
Sweet, musky smelling weed
- Likely dominante terpene: Terpinolene
- Common aromas: Cumin, lilacs, nutmeg, patchouli
- Effects: Energized, creative, cerebral
- Terpinolene-dominant strains: XJ-13, Train Wreck, Ghost Train Haze, Jack Herer
“Terpinolene is one of my favorite terpenes,” said Dixon. “It’s what everyone has always thought of as the sativa smell, and is found in lilacs, the smell of patchouli, and a little bit of a pine-y twinge.”
He continued, “Together with THC, terpinolene is really energizing and cerebral and artistically inspiring. It can be too much for new users. Even a lot of ongoing users don’t like smoking strains high in terpinolene because they’re too cerebral.”
Terpenes and the Entourage Effect
To illustrate how this array of primary terpenes work together — known as the Entourage Effect — to create some of our favorite strains, let’s look at one of the most iconic strains of all time: OG Kush.
“OG is interesting because there are three terpenes that are co-dominant,” said Dixon. “It’s not like one terpene dominates OG. That’s why OG is a really perfect example of a hybrid, because you’ll have a terpene like limonene in there, which is uplifting, then you have a terpene like caryophyllene in there in equal amounts, and/or myrcene, both of which are on the relaxing, sedative side.”
If a certain variety of OG is high in limonene and smells more citrus-y, it’s going to be on the uplifting side, whereas if it smells fruity, you know it’s high in myrcene and it’s going to be more on the relaxing end of the spectrum.
By training your nose to identify these key smells, and becoming acquainted with their corresponding effects, you’ll be able to be precise about what flower you buy, and how/when you use it.
“I think the future of cannabis is celebrating the diversity of what it has to offer, and being educated as a community. We’re not just pushing strain names that are the hype of the day, but we’re helping to empower people’s noses,” said Dixon. “Because the nose knows! And what you like may not be what I like. People deserve to know about this personalized approach and become more empowered in their cannabis use.”
Featured image by Dre Hudson/Weedmaps