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Why Are Terpenes Important in Nature?

Terpenes infuse products with fantastic flavor, smell, and effects! But why are terpenes important in nature?

From vapes and beers to body wash and candles, adding terpenes to products infuses them with flavor, aroma, and effects. These natural hydrocarbons are expertly extracted from botanical sources so you can make your unique products even more innovative! But why exactly do plants produce terpenes? More specifically, why are terpenes important in nature? 

We talk so much about why terpenes are pivotal for a product’s success, but today we’re going back to the source. Why do plants produce different terpenes? What possible evolutionary purpose could terpenes have? These are some of the questions at the very heart of terpene science! 

Read on and discover all the different ways that terpenes are important in nature.



Plants Use Terpenes for Protection, Reproduction, and MORE

Want a quick rundown of why terpenes are important in nature? No problem!

  • While some plants use vibrant colors to attract pollinators, some of them actually rely on terpenes to lure in specific pollinators like bees and butterflies.
  • Many plants produce specific terpenes to repel predators like insects and herbivors.
  • Conversely, some plants produce terpenes to attract insects or herbivores that will destroy other harmful predators.
  • Some terpenes protect plants from sun damage by protecting them from harmful UV rays, absorbing UV rays, or even by acting as antioxidants.
  • When plants detect certain pathogens, their immune systems release various compounds (including terpenes) that help destroy the pathogens and alert nearby plants about the danger as well.
  • Terpenes also influence cloud seeding, they can slow the growth of nearby plants competing for space, and more!

Terpenes Help Some Plants Attract Pollinators

Reproduction is perhaps one of the most important parts of survival for any living organism. If a species is to live on, it must have a way of creating more of itself. Fungi and animals use a variety of methods. And while some plants do reproduce asexually, many MUST be pollinated in order to produce seeds or fruit. That’s why some plants work very hard to attract pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds, small mammals, etc. 

While some plants use vibrant colors to attract pollinators, some of them actually rely on terpenes to lure in specific pollinators. 

For example, kiwifruit depend on bees to transfer pollen from male and female plants. A study published by the Journal of Experimental Botany found that terpene levels varied throughout the day, and between male and female plants, to attract bees. “Previously, it has been shown that α-farnesene and germacrene D are involved in the attraction and conditioning of honeybees and other insects. Indeed, emission of these terpenoids, as well as (E)-β-ocimene over a light/dark cycle occurs during the daytime when potential pollinators are active” (1).

They even concluded, “This work reinforces the importance of volatile terpene cues for insect pollinator attraction and conditioning, a requirement for efficient pollen transfer between the staminate and pistillate plants, and ultimately the survival of any dioecious species.”

Terpenes Can Protect Plants By Repelling Insects and Herbivores

Another important aspect of survival is being able to defend oneself against predators. For plants, that mainly means insects and herbivores that may try to eat or infest the plant. Turns out, many plants produce specific terpenes to repel these predators.

Some terpenes are toxic to herbivores, while other terpenes influence the reproductive system of insects. The former encourages animals to avoid said plant, while the latter makes it harder for insects to infest a plant. Both options make it much more likely that a plant species will survive. 

The International Journal of Molecular Sciences says, “Cinnamon and clove essential oils are toxic and repellent to Sitophilus granaries, an important grain pest” (2). 

There are even some chemicals that attract certain insects specifically so they’ll attack or eat any insect infestations. “Attracting predators or parasitoids is an effective indirect defense adopted by plants against herbivores.” For example, cabbage plants can become infested with the insect Pieris brassicae (a type of caterpillar). However, cabbage plants also attract another insect that actually lays eggs inside those caterpillars, effectively ending the infestation. 

Terpenes Can Protect Plants From Sun Damage

While sunlight is necessary for photosynthesis, too much sunlight and/or heat can be damaging to plants. Luckily, certain terpenes act as a natural sun protectant. 

Linalool in particular, has been known to increase or decrease in concentration depending on how much sun exposure a plant gets. This helps protect plant tissue from UV rays. There are even some terpenes that absorb UV rays and act as antioxidants. That means they function almost like sunscreen while providing additional protection against the effects of UV rays. So, if you’ve ever wondered why so many sun protection products have D-Limonene, this is why! 

A study published by Phytochemistry specifically looked at the berries from grapevines to determine terpene concentrations after UV exposure. They found that, “...UV-B induce grape berries to produce VOCs (mainly monoterpenes) that protect the tissues from UV-B itself and other abiotic and biotic stresses, and could affect the wine flavor” (3).

Terpenes Can Protect Plants From Pathogens

Bacteria, viruses, and various microorganisms can all cause detrimental diseases in plants. Fortunately, just like us, plants have immune systems that help them overcome pathogens. 

“Many plant-associated microbes are pathogens that impair plant growth and reproduction. Plants respond to infection using a two-branched innate immune system. The first branch recognizes and responds to molecules common to many classes of microbes, including non-pathogens. The second responds to pathogen virulence factors, either directly or through their effects on host targets” (4).

Unlike us, however, their immune systems use terpenes to help destroy or overcome these pathogens. When the surface receptors of a plant detect certain pathogens, the plant immune system begins a series of responses. The plant will release proteins, oxidases, and terpenes to attack and destroy pathogens. 

One study found that 16 terpenes, “had antimicrobial activity at the initial screening. Eugenol exhibited rapid bactericidal action against Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium (2 h). Terpineol showed excellent bactericidal activity against S. aureus strains. Carveol, citronellol and geraniol presented a rapid bactericidal effect against E. coli” (5).

What’s more, terpenes are important for providing this protection to an entire area. Essentially, plants use terpenes to tell other plants that it’s time to prep their immune responses because a pathogen is nearby.

Terpenes Play A Pivotal Roll In Nature!

That’s just the beginning! Terpenes also influence cloud seeding, they can slow the growth of nearby plants competing for space, and more! Yes, we love terpenes for their unique aromas, flavors, and the various effects they have on us. But terpenes are an absolutely essential part of nature as well. 

We would love nothing more than to discuss terpenes all day, so contact us today if you have any questions about adding terpenes to your products.

READ NEXT → Types of Terpenes

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