How Terpenes inform our understanding of cannabis

There are many strains of cannabis, the characteristics and effects of which vary greatly. Making informed choices allows you to find the strain that is the best selection for your particular taste or preference. So how do we use science to organize the choices and make decisions?

The current understanding: Phytomorphology vs Chemometrics

Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid represent the current terminology used to sort and predict the effect of strains of cannabis. However, these terms describe the physical characteristics of the plant during growth and do not actually correlate to the effects of a strain at all. Instead of using Indica, Sativa, Hybrid, we should look to the chemistry of the plant to predict the effects.

The bioactive compounds in cannabis and hemp present in the highest volume are the cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis and hemp can represent upwards of 40% of the mass of a female flower. It is the profile of these highly potent compounds that is the best predictor of the effects of a particular strain. This profile is referred to as the plant’s chemotype; the identification and measurement of the cannabinoids and terpenoids in a strain.

Then why do people say “Indica, Sativa, Hybrid”?

Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid are in fact descriptors of the phytomorphology (the physical attributes) of the plant. In the past, these terms may have been more accurate at describing the attributes of strains, but they are now outdated. Due to continued breeding and hybridization of cannabis and hemp varieties, the original, physical characteristics of Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Sativa are no longer relevant in determining the chemical composition—and inevitably the effect—of the plant. So basically, we are using terms that no longer mean what we think they do.

indica plant phytomorphology


Phytomorphology: Short, squatty, wide/large leaf, short(er) flowering

Effects (no-longer accurate): Physically sedating; relaxing; couchlock

sativa plant phytomorphology


Phytomorphology: Long, stretchy, thin leaf, long flowering

Effects (no-longer accurate): Energizing, uplifting, cerebral

Instead of using Indica, Sativa, Hybrid, we should look to the chemistry of the plant to predict the effects. Chemotype offers a better method of organizing cannabis strains and predicting effects and organoleptic attributes.


Smell and Flavor

Aromatic descriptors such as skunky, cheesy, floral, peppery, and many others are all commonly used to describe different strains of cannabis. These organoleptic characteristics (flavors and smells) of specific strains of cannabis are, for the most part, directly attributable to the presence, volume, and combination of specific terpenes/terpenoids. There are additional compounds, such as esters, flavonoids, and phenols, that also nuance the smell and flavor of cannabis but occur in much smaller volumes.


In addition to being predominantly responsible for the organoleptic characteristics, there is also evidence that terpenoids may have profound effects on the pharmacological and therapeutic effects of the cannabinoids. Terpenoids are quite potent by themselves, and affect animal and even human behavior when inhaled from ambient air at serum levels in the single digits ng/mL−1.[1]

It’s important to note that there are many factors that impact an individual’s experience when using cannabis or cannabis products. How any substance affects an individual is dependent on a variety of factors including, but not limited to, the following:

  • body size
  • general health
  • the amount and strength of the dose
  • mental health, mood, and environment
  • and whether any other drugs are in the system at the same time

There’s an extensive body of research regarding the role of terpenes in cannabis, led by pioneers such as Dr. Ben-Shabat, Dr. John McPartland, and Dr. Ethan Russo. Collectively, their body of research forms the basis of what we know today as the Entourage Effect (also known as the ensemble effect).

This concept suggests that the presence of other compounds has a pronounced influence on the effects of THC and other cannabinoids. The idea was first proposed by Ben-Shabat in 1998[2] in the context of the endocannabinoid signaling—by noticing that the presence of other lipid signaling molecules enhanced the signaling by the endogenous cannabinoid 2-AG.

This idea was further articulated in the context of the cannabis plant by McPartland and Russo in 2000 who published the seminal paper “Cannabis and cannabis extracts: Greater than the sum of their parts?”, which proposed that cannabinoids in isolation did not have nearly as potent of a therapeutic effect without the other components of the plant. Finally, in 2011, Russo published “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects”, which breaks down the supporting literature demonstrating terpene’s modulation of the effects of cannabinoids.

Since then, many have used this research as a guide to direct cannabis breeding and the formulation of cannabis therapies. However, strains and formulations optimized to promote specific effects continue to remain elusive suggesting that these effects are multidimensional and beyond just the cannabinoids and terpenes.

Cannabis Aroma and Flavor Profile
Cannabis Entourage Effect Profile Example

The PhytoFacts® Solution allows you to gain insights into the products you deliver to market.


Cannabinoids are the major drivers of the pharmacology of a particular cannabis strain, or cannabis product. Strains of cannabis are generally organized into four main “types” based on the prevalence and proportionate volume of the dominant cannabinoids. The majority of cannabis strains available in the retail and traditional market today can be broken down into Types I-III as described by Etienne de Meijer in 2003[3].

Type I Cannabis | Most commonly found in the recreational market and is dominant in THCA with very little CBDA.

Type II Cannabis | Less common and contains both CBDA- and THCA-producing genes and produces these compounds in varying ratios.

Type III Cannabis | What we know today as hemp, that is, a cannabis variety that produces predominantly CBDA and typically contains less than 0.3% THC (but not always). Historically, hemp strains were selected based on their ability to provide fiber or seed. Based on how political and legal definitions of hemp have been evolved, hemp strains that produce larger volumes of trichrome producing flowers and cannabinoids have become more favored.

Cannabis Classification Plot Example

SC Labs

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