Since founding Floraplex, a company that manufactures and sells terpenes and terpene blends, in the summer of 2018, CEO Alec Riffle has seen it grow exponentially month-over-month and sees himself and his company on the crest of the hottest trend in the cannabis world.
“2019 is going to be the year of ‘Terpene Enhanced!’ on the front of many packages,” he says.
Judging by the yet-to-plateau sales numbers of Floraplex, Riffle might be on to something. The terpene business is booming and as more and more states legalize some form of cannabis, it only stands to get bigger, particularly as extracted forms of cannabis such as tinctures and oils grow in popularity.
And Riffle knows booms. He owns a CBD company that distributes to a few hundred stores in the Midwest and has been in the cannabis industry for about a decade on the medical side.
He sees terpenes as the Next Big Thing.
“It’s a wave that people are riding,” he says.
Terpenes are entering a new era of popularity due to the continuing spread of cannabis legalization, though the tiny molecules have been known for decades and are not just a feature of cannabis plants.
“Terpenes are made by just about all plants,” says Lesley Putman, Ph.D., a professor of plant biochemistry and medicinal plant chemistry at Northern Michigan University. “They are not unique to cannabis.”
For example, the terpene linalool is found in large amounts in lavender while limonene is found in citrus plants and myrcene can be harvested from mangos. All three are also found in varying levels in cannabis.
Composed of two five-carbon units, terpenes are the molecules that give plants their distinctive smells and tastes and are generally used by the plants as protective compounds by creating smells or tastes that predators find objectionable and useful insects find attractive. Some terpenes may also function as anti-fungal agents. They are found in all parts of the plant, from flowers and leaves to stems and even roots.
Putman says there are additional studies that show plants may use terpenes to communicate with other plants about predators or other potential problems, much like animals use pheromones.
Putman says some studies with humans have shown that certain terpenes have analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-convulsive properties, as well as other medical uses, though she admits there is not a lot of “convincing literature” as to exactly what medical properties the molecules have.
But while the medical properties of terpenes are still being studied, the modern cannabis industry uses the chemicals primarily to add flavoring to extracts or edibles. The processing of marijuana plants into oils for vape pens often strips the terpenes out of oils, leaving them generally flavorless.
Companies like Floraplex supply processors with terpenes and terpene blends to give concentrates the taste of cannabis flower.
Floraplex sells terpenes individually or as a combination of multiple terpenes designed to recreate the smell and taste of 40 popular marijuana strains, though the company does not derive its terpenes from cannabis plants.
Because terpenes are found in all plants, it is easier — and cheaper — to source them from plants grown in larger quantities.
“We source from plants that have high concentrations of whatever specific isolate we are looking to extract,” says Floraplex Chief Science Officer Jared McKinney.
McKinney and Riffle both say it is not cost-effective to source their terpenes from cannabis plants.
The company tries to get as close as it can to matching the flavor profile of each strain.
“We’ve accumulated test results across the nation, aggregated averages and rebuilt our profiles based on those test results,” Riffle says.
For example, if the company gets a lab result from California that shows a strain of OG Kush that has a terpene profile of 20% myrcene, 10% linalool, 5% limonene and other minor terpenes, it adds that result to its database and aggregates an average based on all test results for that strain. Then, it recreates the profile with terpenes harvested from non-cannabis sources.
Riffle says terpene molecules, such as myrcene, are the same whether they’re extracted from cannabis, mangos or nutmeg, and he says that in the quantities they sell, it makes more sense to get their terpenes from large, commercial farms of other products, rather than from cannabis.
“We sell gallons and gallons,” he says.
But while Floraplex and other terpene companies get their product from non-cannabis botanical sources, California’s Essenciere goes the other way, sourcing all its terpenes exclusively from cannabis plants.
CEO Daron Sarr says his company harvests whole plants and extracts a full terpene profile using steam distillation, the same way terpenes and essential oils have been traditionally extracted from plants for centuries.
“That’s really what makes us different,” he says. “There’s aspects to the oils you cannot recreate.”
Sarr started in the industry as a cultivator and says it was the different aromas and effects from various strains that got him interested in the chemical aspects of the plant. Sarr says by using the whole flower instead of trim, his terpenes more closely resemble the actual taste of the cannabis buds. Like Floraplex, his primary customers are vape cartridge manufacturers, as well as companies that make edibles, topicals and drinks.
Essenciere also sells strain-specific terpene blends, but unlike other companies, his are derived from the strain itself, instead of recreated from lab reports.
“I want that vape pen to taste like the first hit off a bowl,” he says.
However, because of that, sourcing terpenes for Essenciere’s product line is “considerably more expensive” than using botanical terpenes. The majority of his plants are grown by Morning Sun Farms in Humboldt and Gold Country Cannabis from Marysville, in Yuba County, north of Sacramento.
Although there are more than 100 terpenes found in cannabis, the primary terpenes associated with the plant are:
– Alpha-Pinene: Found in pine needles, rosemary, dill and basil, this terpene gives cannabis its familiar overtones of pine.
– Myrcene: With an earthy, herbal smell that reminds of cloves and cardamom, myrcene can also be found in mangos, lemongrass and hops.
– Limonene: A major part of the profile of many top-selling strains of cannabis, limonene adds a a citrus smell and taste and can also be derived from the rinds of lemons and other fruits, as well as rosemary and juniper.
– Beta-Caryophyllene: Also found in black pepper and cinnamon, beta-caryophyllene has a woodsy, almost spicy, peppery aroma.
– Linalool: Found primarily in lavender and believed to be part of that plant’s relaxing effects, linalool is the floral terpene most familiar to the non-cannabis world.
– Humulene: A major component in hops, cloves and coriander, humulene has a woody, earthy aroma.
“I can’t compete with a botanical terpene company,” he says, adding that he operates in accordance with California’s cannabis laws and can also only sell his product in the Golden State because of his sources.
Sarr is a believer in the “entourage effect,” a theory that all of the terpenes and cannabinoids in cannabis work together to produce effects larger than the sum of their parts. It is why his company sells only cannabis-derived terpenes and why it makes them using the full plant instead of just trim or leaves.
McKinney, on the other hand, says that while he believes there is “likely” something to the entourage effect, there is just not enough scientific evidence to prove it at this point. And when it comes to sourcing their product, McKinney and Riffle fall back on the science that shows that no matter where they get their terpenes from, they are all the same.
“A terpene is a terpene,” Riffle says.
Putman, at Northern Michigan University, agrees.
“Any terpene you find in cannabis, you can find in another plant somewhere,” she says, adding that at the individual level there is no difference between those produced by the cannabis plant or elsewhere.
But whether they are sourced from cannabis or not, Floraplex and Essenciere, as well as others in the space, are seeing great success in selling their products. Both companies are expecting to grow in 2019 as more processing companies looking to enhance the taste of their products turn to terpene providers, whether they are derived from cannabis or other botanical sources. As the industry expands, so does the reach of terpene providers.
“We ship these things worldwide,” Riffle says. “The synergistic effects of terpenes when combined with cannabinoids is just being discovered.”