What are terpenes and why do they matter?

Naturally found in all plants, terpenes are the group of aromatic chemical compounds with diverse culinary, medicinal, and industrial applications. They are responsible for the minty, earthy, resinous and citrusy flavors of herbs, trees, and fruit.

Any plant may contain a single terpene or a combination of terpenes which combine to give it a unique aroma profile. So far scientists have identified 20,000 terpenes but there may be as many as 100,000, with many potential terpenes still undiscovered.*

From the names of some terpenes, you can identify their source such as limonene and pinene. Other prominent terpenes include myrcene and terpineol. Terpenes can be found in the rind of citrus, the sap and needles of conifer trees, and in the leaves, flowers, and buds of herbs.

Examples of plants with terpenes:

  • conifers (pine, rubber, spruce, cedar)
  • citrus (lemon, orange, mandarin)
  • hops
  • thyme
  • tea
  • cardamom
  • juniper
  • rosemary
  • lavender
  • lemongrass
  • camphor
  • geranium
  • eucalyptus
  • sativa and indica

In the natural world, terpenes are important because they can attract or repel animals with their strong odors and active biochemical properties. A study in the journal Nature** on the function of terpenes in the natural world explains, 

“Terpenes defend many species of plants, animals and microorganisms against predators, pathogens and competitors, and they are involved in conveying messages to conspecifics and mutualists regarding the presence of food, mates and enemies.”

In agriculture, a frequent goal of botanists breeding new strains of herbs and plants is to produce a plant with a unique combination of terpenes. 

In the culinary world, terpenes are the primary source of the flavor of herbs. Terpenes are the primary aromatic component in all essential oils that are used for cooking as well as cosmetic purposes.

When making edibles and topicals with herbs or botanicals, aromatic terpenes make their way into the finished products because they are oil-soluble and are extracted along with the other psychoactive elements. 

Since they occur in all plants and provide practically infinite flavor combinations, terpenes provide a source of endless fascination for flavor enthusiasts.

Get started including delicious herbal terpenes in your edible creations by checking out our Ultimate Guide to Making Magical Butter.


** https://www.nature.com/articles/nchembio.2007.5