Vanilla originates from tropical South America, most notably Mexico. The Aztecs introduced the Spanish Conquistadors to Vanilla. They used it to improve the flavour of their bitter cacao drinks. Today, 80% of the world’s vanilla production takes place in Madagascar and only 1% comes from Mexico. Wild Vanilla is now rare due to habitat reduction and overexploitation. The IUCN red-listed Vanilla planifolia as endangered in the wild in 2017.
Vanilla planifolia produces the most and best Vanilla. Two other species also provide Vanilla: Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitensis. The plant grows as a vine on tropical trees in the wild. Vanilla is the only genus in the Orchidaceae or Orchid family that is grown as a crop.
Vanilla in Cultivation
Vanilla flavouring is extracted from the cured pods, sometimes called beans. When Europeans brought Vanilla plants back from Mexico they struggled with their cultivation. While they managed to make them flower, they could not produce the necessary pods or beans. The absence of the tropical Melipona bees as pollinators meant that the flowers were not fertilised. Today’s Vanilla crops are pollinated by hand.
A Slave’s Discovery
It seems extraordinary that it was a 12-year-old slave on Réunion Island who discovered how to pollinate Vanilla flowers by hand. His master sent him to explain to other landowners and the Vanilla trade was born. Sadly, Edmond Albius (1829-1880) did not profit from his work. An unscrupulous botanist even tried to take the credit away from him. The French press, unable to countenance the true story, even pretended that he was white. Ultimately, although Edmond Albius gained his freedom with the abolition of slavery in 1848, he died in abject poverty.
After Saffron, Vanilla is the second most expensive spice. Its high cost relates to its highly labour-intensive production. The producer needs to be very attentive to be sure of catching the flower at the right time for pollination by hand. Each Vanilla flower only blooms for 5-6 hours in a single day. It then shrivels up and drops to the ground. A succession of buds flowering at different times requires close observation.
The pods take 8-9 months to ripen. Once harvested, they go through a blanching process at 160oC with the aim of stopping the pods from ripening. Next, they are dried and sweated in a closed container for 48 hours to draw out the vanillin. The following stages involve being laid out in the sunshine followed by shade for approximately 1-2 months. The refining process entails storage in wax-paper-covered boxes for 4-5 months to develop secondary aromas. Only then will the dried pods be measured, categorised, packaged and exported. US and European laws regulate the number of Vanilla beans used to make Vanilla extract.
The world market for vanilla is primarily centred on the USA, France, the Netherlands and Germany. Vanilla is used to flavour a host of baked goods, custards, sweets, drinks and ice cream. Can you imagine vanilla ice cream going out of existence? Undoubtedly, we will eat Vanilla in some form this Christmas. Advent without Vanillekipferl, a baked vanilla-flavoured crescent, seems unthinkable in Austria and other European countries.
Synthetic v. Genuine Vanilla
US and European demands for Vanilla flavouring far exceed the supply of natural Vanilla produced every year. As a result, 90% of processed foods use synthetic rather than natural Vanilla extract. While many consumers may not realise that they are not eating the genuine article, in taste test comparisons they always choose the natural product. The main component is vanillin. Chemists have identified more than 400 other components in natural Vanilla. Man simply cannot replicate the subtle and delightful flavour of Nature’s Vanilla.
Previous Vanilla-related Blog
Austrian Vanillekipferl at Christmas 16 December 2015. (Published on my old On the Bridge blog)
References and Further Reading
- African Heritage (2013): Edmond Albius, the Slave who launched the Vanilla Industry. Afrolegends.com. 14 November 2013
- Bell, Rashad & Coamhanach, Nuala (2020): The Vanilla Plant and Edmond.
- CBI (2018): Exporting vanilla to Europe.
- Davidson, Alan (2006): The Oxford Companion to Food. Second Edition. Ed. Tom Jaine. Oxford University Press.
- Greenfield, Patrick (2021): Avocados and Vanilla among dozens of wild crop relatives facing extinction. The Guardian. 7 September 2021.
- Kew Science (2022): Vanilla planifolia Andrews. Plants of the World Online.
- Laws, Bill (2010): Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. David & Charles. Exeter, UK.
- Norohy (?): The A-Z of Vanilla: everything you need to know about Vanilla.
- Parthasarathy, Villupanoor A. & Chempakam, Bhageerathy & Zachariah, T. John (Eds.) (2008): Chemistry of Spices. CABI. Oxfordshire.
- Scott, Tim (2004): Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance. Penguin Books accessed via Google Books.
- van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005): Food Plants of the World. An illustrated guide. Timber Press. Portland, Oregon. USA.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.