Vanilla is a genus of orchid (Family ORCHIDACEAE) with approx. 60 species, however only 3 are appropriate for use as flavouring. Most commonly grown is Vanilla planifolia which the primary source for vanilla flavouring due to its high vanillin content. Vanilla is second only in value to Saffron as an herb. Vanilla loves hot, wet, tropical climates and although it is native to Mexico most of the world’s Vanilla beans are grown in Madagascar, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Like all members of the genus, Vanilla planifolia is a vine, using its fleshy roots to support itself as it grows upwards towards the light. Flowers are greenish-yellow with a diameter of 5 cm. They last only a day and must be pollinated by hand, during the morning, in order to produce fruit. The plants are self-fertile, and pollination simply requires a transfer of the pollen from the anther to the stigma. If pollination does not occur the flower is dropped the next day. In the wild, there is less than 1% chance that the flowers will be pollinated, as pollination requires a Mexican Melipone Bee (called abeja de monte or Mountain Bee). To receive a high enough yield fruit for commercial use the flowers must be hand-pollinated. Hand pollinators can pollinate about 1,000 flowers per day.
The Totonac people, who inhabit the Mazatlan Valley on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the present-day state of Veracruz, were the first to cultivate vanilla. According to Totonac mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew.
In the 15th century, Aztecs invading from the central highlands of Mexico conquered the Totonacs, and soon developed a taste for the vanilla pods. They named the fruit tlilxochitl, or “Black Flower”, after the matured fruit, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked. Subjugated by the Aztecs, the Totonacs paid tribute by sending vanilla fruit to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.
Fruit is produced only on mature plants, which are generally over 3 meters long, but can grow to massive sizes, easily reaching 20 meters or more. The fruits are 15-23 cm long pods (often incorrectly called beans). They mature after about five months, at which point they are harvested and cured. Curing ferments and dries the pods while minimizing the loss of essential oils. Vanilla extract is also obtained from the bean, although it is often sold as fresh pods or dried powder.
The sap from Vanilla is a skin irritant and may cause dermatitis.