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Vanilla

Vanilla planifolia

Scientific Name:

Conventional
 

Extensive labor for a unique taste

Vanilla is a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla native to Mexico. Etymologically, vanilla derives from the Spanish word vainilla, little pod. Originally cultivated by Pre Columbian Mesoamerican people, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes is credited with introducing both the spice and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s. Attempts to cultivate the vanilla plant outside Mexico and Central America proved futile because of the symbiotic relationship between the tlilxochitl vine that produced the vanilla orchid and the local species of Melipona bee; it was not until 1837 that Belgian botanist Charles Francois Antoine Morren discovered this fact and pioneered a method of artificially pollinating the plant. Unfortunately, the method proved financially unworkable and was not deployed commercially. In 1841, a 12 year old French owned slave by the name of Edmond Albius, who lived on Ile Bourbon, discovered the plant could be hand pollinated, allowing global cultivation of the plant.

There are currently three major cultivars of vanilla grown globally, all derived from a species originally found in Mesoamerica, including parts of modern day Mexico. The various subspecies are Vanilla planifolia (syn. V. fragrans), grown on Madagascar, Reunion and other tropical areas along the Indian Ocean; V. tahitensis, grown in the South Pacific; and V. pompona, found in the West Indies, Central and South America. The majority of the world's vanilla is the V. planifolia variety, more commonly known as Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, which is produced in a small region of Madagascar and in Indonesia.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron, due to the extensive labor required to grow the vanilla seed pods. Despite the expense, it is highly valued for its flavor, described as pure, spicy, and delicate and its complex floral aroma depicted as a peculiar bouquetDespite its high cost, vanilla is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture and aromatherapy.