The Vanilla Orchid
By John Aird
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
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
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.
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.
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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