Everything you need to know about terpenes and flavonoids
What are terpenes?
Terpenes are aromatic molecules found in the essential oils of many botanical organisms, ranging between fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, providing the strong scent typically associated with them. You’re probably aware of how plants use this smell; either as a discouraging stench to prevent herbivores from eating them, or as an enticing fragrance to attract potential pollinators, but in each instance it’s the terpenes creating this scent. These essential oils and the terpenes within them form the basis of perfumes, aftershaves, and countless other fragrant product lines.
The difference between terpenes and terpenoids
Terpenes are naturally occurring organic hydrocarbons, whilst terpenoids have been dried and cured, meaning they’ve been denatured through a process of oxidation. Since this occurs during the process of harvesting hemp, terpenes and terpenoids are often used interchangeably in reference to CBD.
Interesting fact: the root of both words is turpentine, the fluid obtained by the distillation of resin from live trees renowned for its pungent smell, they do differ slightly.
CBD oils and terpenes
For anyone who’s smelt the strong scent of a cannabis plant, it should come as no surprise to hear that the average cannabis strain contains over 100 terpenes. For connoisseurs the unique notes the interplay of these terpenes leave in the nostrils can reveal volumes about the biological makeup of the plant in question, much like with wine enthusiasts. Even before the other properties of terpenes were properly understood, they were recognised as an important factor in user interaction, particularly in determining the plant’s potential effects.
Terpene production in the hemp plant
The terpenes are actually synethesised in the glandular trichomes of the female hemp plant. From a distance trichomes appear to the human eye a series of crystalline protrusions, but they are, in fact, a bed of small hair-like growths. It’s the trichomes that serve as the primary deterrent for herbivores once the plant begins to flower, producing a bitter taste and the strong aroma released by the terpenes. Simultaneously, they act as a form of protection from the elements, shielding the delicate parts of the plant from harsh winds.
Whilst serving as the hemp plant’s primary defence mechanism, these trichomes also house a majority of the other essential compounds for the production of CBD oils, including cannabinoids and flavonoids. When somebody well versed in hemp smells the different scents produced by the terpenes, it’s the balance of these phytochemicals (literally: plant chemicals) they’re discerning. In essence, the terpenes act as a nasal menu, giving growers an easy way of sensing the balance of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids.
Terpenes and CBD products
Since the hemp plant contains up to 120 different terpenes, the functions of each one in the entourage effect is difficult to discern, but there is evidence to support certain qualities. The terpenes alpha-pinene and beta-caryophyllene have been shown to dilate blood vessels, enabling cannabinoids to pass through the bloodstream more easily. Vitality CBD’s Whole Plant E-liquid retains the terpenes during the hemp extraction for this very reason.
What are Flavonoids?
Like terpenes, flavonoids are found throughout the plant kingdom, including in hemp. Whilst the etymology of the word calls to mind flavour, it’s actually rooted in the Latin term, flavus, which translates to “yellow”, and was particularly used to refer to the colour yellow as it manifested in the natural world. Accordingly, one of the primary functions of flavonoids is providing the colour pigmentation for flowers, fruits and leaves, typically to attract pollinators or warn off herbivores, as well as helping with UV filtration.
What do flavonoids do?
One of the most noticeable instances of the impact flavonoids have on pigment change is in the changing tone of autumn leaves. During spring and summer trees are predominantly green, a product of the masses of chlorophyll growth encouraged by high exposure to sunlight. However, as the sun begins to fade, it’s the flavonoids (alongside carotenoids, another organic pigment) that come to the fore, giving the leaves their yellow colour.
Despite the etymology of the word flavonoid, and their role in turning tree leaves yellow, that doesn’t mean flavonoids exclusively provide yellow pigmentation. For example, one of the most prevalent flavonoids, anthocyanins, are found predominantly in fruit, playing a key role in changing their hue as they ripen. Covering a palette of red, blue or purple, they’re often found in blueberries, blackberries and other rich dark fruit, managing a far broader spectrum than yellowing leaves.
Flavonoids and CBD
Over 6000 unique flavonoids have been identified thus far within the world of flora, making them one of the largest known nutrient families. But what does this have to do with cannabidiol? Well, of the over 200 different biological compounds within the average hemp plant, flavonoids make up around 10% of those that have been identified so far, a huge percentage when you consider the focus given to cannabinoids and terpenes.
Flavonoids are pharmacologically active, with the properties of flavonoids found in other biological bodies having been well documented and researched due to their prevalence throughout the majority of fruit and vegetables we consume. As with terpenes, flavonoids aren’t simply window dressing, but instead serve multiple roles. The most well documented of these is their usage as antioxidants, which ties to the role of flavonoids in warding off pests and fungi.
Finally, What are Cannalfavins?
Looking specifically at the hemp plant, the 23 identified flavonoids are separated between those that occur elsewhere in the natural world, and those that are unique to the Cannabis family. The latter compounds are referred to as cannaflavins, a portmanteau of cannabis and flavonoids. Whilst we typically associate terpenes with the flavours and scents that differentiate strains, flavonoids play an active role in this too, alongside their more obvious contribution to the pigmentation of the flowers.