One can do a quick Google search and find that Wikipedia defines this quality of plants as “a large and diverse class of organic compounds, produced by a variety of plants, particularly conifers…They often have a strong odor and may protect the plants that produce them.”
For example, lavender is a plant that many are familiar with in terms of looks and smell. The terpene that you smell in lavender is linalool. Linalool is common in several cannabis strains as well, although it is combined with several others, creating a scent profile for that particular strain.
Yerba Buena Farms, one of Oregon’s first recreationally licensed cannabis farms, did an excellent article about what these plant qualities are why we as cannabis consumers should know about them. Their article states:
Terpenes, or isoprenoids, provide cannabis with its unique bouquet. The molecules are quite small and consist of repeating units of a compound called isoprene. Although less well-known than the major cannabinoids, terpenes are instrumental to the physiological and psychoactive effects of cannabis.
The relationship between terpenes and cannabinoids, known as the “entourage effect,” ultimately differentiates one strain of cannabis from another. Although, over 200 terpenes have been reported in the plant, only a small minority has actually been studied for their pharmacological effects.
Since cannabinoids and terpenes are related it is no surprise that terpenes would trigger the body’s endo-cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoids are a class of terpenophenolic compounds, part terpenoid and part phenol, a sub-set of terpenes. While terpenes are hydrocarbon groups created by various combinations of the isoprene units that make them up, and may be aromatic, all phenols are aromatic hydrocarbons, which means they have a very pronounced scent. Terpenoids are compounds related to terpenes but may also include oxygen or have molecules rearranged; the terms are often used interchangeably. Cannabinoids, being half terpene and half phenol, have very pronounced scents and flavors. The different combinations of terpenes and cannabinoids found in cannabis are what give strains their distinct flavors and scents, as well as their medicinal properties.
Terpenes play a vital role in the plant kingdom; they deter insect predation, protect plants from environmental stresses, and act as building blocks for more complex molecules, such as cannabinoids. Many terpenes act synergistically with other varieties of terpenes, and some either catalyze or inhibit formation of different compounds within a plant. Understanding how terpenes function allows scientists to manipulate cannabinoids to desired ratios.