Today, patients and practitioners recognize Cannabis as a beneficial homeopathic remedy for a host of ailments. Thanks to scientific research and legislative awareness, our Cannabis “inventory” of strains is no longer limited to only a handful. Instead, there are literally hundreds of Cannabis strains available today — a number that continues to grow in parallel with research and testing.

The Root of Cannabis Choices

Cannabis was grouped into two primary types—Indica and Sativa—distinguished by their physiological effects induced by their consumption, as well as their physical experience. Indica Cannabis produces an overall calming or relaxed state, whereas Sativa is better known for its energizing or uplifting effects. These two types were then crossbred to develop a hybrid category, which yielded a blended effect.

Indica Cannabis is traditionally expected to produce a calming, relaxed effect while Sativa varieties tend to create an energetic, uplifting effect. However, because of widespread hybridization to produce plants with qualities of both types, there are very few purely Indica or Sativa strains remaining in the world, if at all. The basic Indica/Sativa/Hybrid distinction is a very general way of looking at a complex chemical interaction happening inside the human body, therefore, variation is expected; for instance, certain patients will get the opposite effect expected.

While these three general classifications and their relative effects continue to be key drivers in medicinal Cannabis, both scientific research and patient demand have resulted in the development of many unique product “styles,” or strains. Among many factors that influence each strain, its aroma is likely the most identifiable. The broad array of scents present in Cannabis strains ranges from lavender, sage and peppery to citrus, sweet and earthy, as well as smells found in skunks, diesel and tar.

The Simplified Science of Strains

Several elements define and influence every Cannabis strain. Its individual phenotype (meaning the genetic expression of that individual plant, which can mimic the mother plant, father plant, or exist along a spectrum somewhere in between), chemical profiles, growing environment, and methods all distinguish the strain. The cannabinoid profile within each strain contains the compounds such as THC, CBD, etc. that largely determine its effect (psychoactive or physiological). The strain’s terpene profile, however, has significant importance for two main reasons:

The Chemical Connection

First, by combining with select cannabinoid compounds, terpenes catalyze chemical processes central to the plant’s medicinal properties. This enables them to either block certain cell formations (e.g., those believed to cause cancer or inflammation) or act as a binding agent (i.e., forming molecules to stimulate appetite).

Indeed the knowledge of the chemical processes taking place at a molecular level is integral to inform scientists and doctors of the many medical benefits Cannabis offers. Knowing what to address for particular health conditions or overall wellness can be daunting, however the physical traits of terpenes are equally helpful—if not more so—to its chemical counterpart, for patients and practitioners alike. Many scholars also believe that terpenes are most responsible for the strain specificity and the subtle differences between varieties, which are genetically similar and have similar cannabinoid profiles.

Scent Supremacy

Enter the second powerful property of the terpene: its capability to produce and emit many distinctive aromas, which is actually a feature of a plant’s defense system. The good fortune for insects is that their attraction or repulsion to plant-based scents is instinctive. For example, honeybees are attracted to the scent in certain flowers that provide nourishing pollens (and, in turn, play a positive role in the plant’s reproductive cycle). Alternatively, predatory creatures have an innate response to avoid specific scents the plant creates to protect its survival.

The olfactory sense in humans, however, isn’t so intuitive. While we might share a common positive or negative association with certain smells, our nervous system isn’t hard-wired to discern which aromas represent the potential physiological responses we need or seek for comfort or relief. (In fact, from a very basic herbal medicine perspective, many therapeutic or nutritional resources are “hiding” in the produce section of the grocery store!) How could our bodies possibly self-select the Cannabis strain most likely to generate successful results? Due to the complexity of the chemical interactions at play when a person consumes cannabis, there is sometimes a feeling out process that has to occur before a patient can determine which strain(s) are best for their particular conditions.

As our knowledge of Cannabis continues to expand, so do the opportunities for its therapeutic value. As a result, medicinal cultivators continue to breed new strains of Cannabis in an effort to expand the universe of health conditions this plant can potentially benefit. While research uncovers the relevant chemical properties in terpenes (and other molecules called ‘flavonoids’ which are also responsible for aromas and flavors in cannabis), their many unique aromas can aid patients in choosing the Cannabis strain most appropriate for each condition or desired effect.