Humans feel quite satisfied with our accomplishments I the field of chemistry and the production of chemical solutions to suit needs of all types. Nevertheless, even our most advanced chemical facilities don’t hold a candle to the awesome chemical production taking place in the smallest flowers and herbs in nature.
Terpenes are a special type of chemical fabricated in a wide variety of plants and plant families. These amazing organic compounds have a long history of suiting human needs, providing relief to physical and mental conditions and even bring simple poignant pleasure a found when smelling rose.
Plants are highly-advanced chemical factories. Where human and non-human animals like to communicate through behavior, plants interact with their environments through chemical arrays and are very advanced in this highly-developed skill.
What are Terpenes and Secondary Metabolites?
Every plant produces two sets of chemicals that allow it to thrive in its environment. The first set are the primary metabolites, these are the “standard” chemicals all plants need to survive. Chemicals pertaining to photosynthesis, for example, are all primary metabolites.
Then, plants will produce a second set of metabolites, aptly called “secondary metabolites”, which have been designed by the species of plant itself to survive better in its environment. Secondary metabolites are very important to a plants unique personality. Secondary metabolites give the rose its fragrance, cinnamon its spice and every herbal medication its therapeutic value.
Even though the secondary metabolites we find are so delightful and fitting to human needs, they have actually been produced by the specific variety of plants in response to the needs of its environment. Some secondary metabolites are produced to attract pollinators, ward off pests or otherwise interact with the plants environment. But, the sophisticated solutions that secondary metabolites have provided plants are uncanny in an eerie kind of way.
For example, a recent report told of a species of acacia trees in North Africa conspired to kill off the local antelopes and were successful in their culling. The most common secondary metabolite in the world is a terpene called A-Pinene. You will recognize this terpene from a hike you may have made to a forest. Scientists believe this terpene is emitted by trees to help rain clouds form overhead and bring life giving water.
What are Terpenes?
The largest category of secondary metabolites belong to a class called terpenes. Terpenes are produced by plants everywhere on the planet and have extensive application to human benefits. The Rubber tree produces a terpene that gives its sap rubbery qualities and latex was once worth its weight in Gold–– during the ghastly Belgian occupation of the Congo.
Many terpenes, like a-pinene, myrcene or pulegone, are referred to as Volatile Organic compounds for their capacity to evaporate quickly into the atmosphere. If you have ever purchased an essential oil, what you are holding is not actually an oil at all. Essential oils are actually collected secondary metabolites of a given plant. Most of the content will likely be terpenes and because of their hydrophobic qualities, they have been labeled oils.
As VOCs, terpenes are highly aromatic and often have specific benefits to the health. When smoking or ingesting cannabis, terpenes are part of the “entourage” effect that improves the physiological benefits of the cannabinoids working in the body.