The Vanilla Orchid

By John Aird

Vanilla planifolia

The Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla belongs to the Orchid family. There are around 60 types of Vanilla Orchids Distributed around the world. Most types of Vanilla do not produce the delightful Vanilla beans. Vanilla planifolia is Native to Mexico and is the species of Vanilla that produces the Vanilla beans used in flavorings and desserts. Vanilla could have been used by the Totonac Indians for flavoring around 1000 A.D.

The modern history of Vanilla had its origin in the 16th century. The Aztec Indians in Mexico discovered that the seemingly inedible fruit or bean of a tropical orchid, when cured by months of heat and humidity, acquired an exotic aroma.

Not only was Vanilla considered a wonderful flavoring for foods and beverages, but from the 16th to 19th centuries it was considered to be an aphrodisiac and to have therapeutic values, from aiding digestion and preventing headaches to counteracting poisons and bites. The Aztecs called these brown beans "tlilxochitl"(tea-so-shill), the Aztec word for "Black Flower", and required the Totonac Indians who produced them to give some of the finest pods to the emperor Montezuma as a tax payment.

In 1518, while the Spanish Conquistador Cortez was seeking the treasures of the New World, he observed the Aztec emperor Montezuma enjoying a royal beverage of Vanilla scented chocolate. He was so impressed by thls kingly drink that when he and his men returned to Europe, they took bags of cocoa and Vanilla along with the gold, silver and jewels of Montezuma's fallen empire. Within half a century after Cortez made his discovery, Spanish factories were preparing Vanilla-flavored chocolate. For some time Europeans continued to use Vanilla only in combination with the cocoa bean.

In 1602, however, Vanilla began to be used as a flavoring on its own, the suggestion of Queen Elizabeth's apothecary, Hugh Morgan. Since then Vanilla has soared in popularity, making it more popular than chocolate or any other flavor known before or since. For more than 300 years after its discovery by Cortez, Vanilla was produced only in its native Mexico.

Plantings were tried in many countries, but the delicate orchid never bore fruit. The mystery was not solved until 1836, when a Belgian named Charles Morren found that common insects cannot pollinate the Vanilla orchid. He observed that a tiny bee, the Melipone, which is found only in the Vanilla districts of Mexico, is uniquely equipped to bring the plant to fertilization. The bee did not survive outside Mexico and so Morren developed a method of hand-pollinating Vanilla blossoms.

Shortly after Morren's discovery, the French started to cultivate Vanilla on many of their islands in the Indian Ocean, East and West Indies and French Oceania, the Dutch planted it in Indonesia and the British in Southern India. Eventually the French took Vanilla to Reunion, an island off Madagascar's coast. There a former slave named Edmond Albius perfected a quick and simple method of hand-pollinating which is still used to this day.

This was the impetus of major cultivation in the Indian Ocean area. Scientists specializing in biotechnology have been working for several years with Vanilla plants to improve and optimize the vanilla flavor. They use tissue culture techniques to propagate Vanilla orchid plant cells with desirable flavor characteristics.
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