Facts about Vanilla
The most popular aroma and flavor in the world
Although it is one of the most expensive spices in the world, no one today can imagine desserts or cosmetics without the scent of vanilla. This most popular aroma and flavor in the world became known thanks to the Spanish conquistadors, who succumbed to its charm and brought it to the continent. The leading producer of this spice, more expensive than silver, is now Madagascar.
1Vanilla is a flowering plant of approximately 109 species in the orchid family.
Orchids (Orchidaceae) estimate at 30-40 thousand species of perennials, distributed into 880 genera. Few family representatives, such as flat-leaved vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), hold practical use. However, the cultivation of many species as ornamental plants is widespread.
2Orchids are a cosmopolitan family found on all continents except Antarctica.
The greatest diversity of orchid species is found in the intertropical zone, especially in the American continents and Southeast Asia to New Guinea tropics. There are 350 genera and about 10,000 species growing in the American tropics. There are 4,5 thousand species in Malaysia alone and 2,3 thousand in New Guinea. The farther away from the equator, the lower the species diversity.
3Vanilloideae are prevalent in the tropics, reaching the temperate zone in eastern North America, eastern Asia, and southern Australia.
Flat-leaved vanilla naturally occurs in South and Central America, including Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil.
4Until the 19th century, Mexico was the homeland of vanilla, as it was the only place with varieties of stingless bees of the Melipona and Trigona genera that pollinated the plants.
It was not until Edmond Albius, a horticulturalist from Réunion (an island in the Indian Ocean about 700 kilometers east of Madagascar) invented a method to pollinate the flowers by hand. Soon after, the natives of Madagascar possessed this skill and turned the island into a vanilla kingdom and the Sava Region into a vanilla coast.
5Vanilla is an epiphyte (grows on top of another plant) that uses nutrients stored in dead tree trunks and branches, serving as its support.
It is a liana (a woody vine rooted in soil that climbs up the trees in search of direct sunlight) reaching from 10-15 meters in length.
6It does not have a strongly developed root system.
New roots (stolons) appear systematically in the corners of the leaves and grow into the bark of the tree that serves as the orchid's support.
7Its leaves are stiff, elliptical-lanceolate, entire-edged, flat, and light green.
The greenish-yellow flowers are large and fragrant, with a waxy sheen. The flower petals are 5 to 7 cm long. Vanilla flowers are hermaphroditic, containing both male and female organs, but self-pollination does not occur as a membrane separates them. Vanilla inflorescences are spike-shaped, consisting of 10-20 flowers.
8Vanilla blooms every 2-3 years, and the flowering period lasts about 2-3 months.
The fruit is a green, pod-like seed bag.
9Vanilla flowers are hand-pollinated.
The flower opens for just one day. It opens at sunrise and can only be pollinated for a few hours - otherwise, it dies. In Madagascar, where more than 80% of the world's vanilla production comes from, the pollination of vanilla flowers is done by women, called matchmakers. They can pollinate as many as 1,000 flowers daily, while an experienced worker can pollinate up to 2,000. It takes about nine months from pollination to harvest.
10Vanilla fruits (pods) are harvested at incomplete ripeness, then subjected to fermentation, and dried later.
The harvested unripe pods, which have neither aroma nor taste, are put into hot water, heated, and then cooled to activate the appropriate enzymes. Once removed from the water, the vanilla pods are wrapped in cloths and placed in a hot and humid room for about a week so that the fermentation process can take place. The pods begin to turn brown. They are then dried in the sunlight. Thanks to natural processes, the pods lose up to half their weight, become shiny, and are covered with characteristic wrinkles. The canes are wrapped in cloths for each night to retain the heat accumulated during the day. This process takes 1.5 months, after which the vanilla develops its aromatic power. After drying in the sun, there is a stage of drying in the shade with free access to air.
11One kilogram of dried vanilla pods is obtained from 6 kilograms of green pods.
The vanilla is sorted for quality and length, then packed in bundles and stored in wooden boxes, where it develops its aroma.
12The secrets of the vanilla production process in Madagascar have been passed down from generation to generation for almost two hundred years.
It is one of the most expensive spices in the world, more expensive than silver.
13Vanilla came to Europe half a thousand years ago. At the beginning of the 16th century, it was brought to Spain by the conquistador Hernán Cortés de Monroy Pizarro Altamirano, who had previewed the use of vanilla sticks at the court of the Aztec ruler Montezuma.
The first people to ever use the plant were the Totonac, the indigenous people of Mexico, who eventually were conquered by the Aztecs. They discovered that the fruit of the evergreen liana had an antipyretic effect. Later they found that dried vanilla pods were excellent for flavoring food and drinks. Cortés tasted vanilla in a "xocolatl", a drink with cocoa, chili, vanilla, and cinnamon.
14The Spanish, over time, began establishing vanilla plantations outside Central America.
The French made similar attempts on the Réunion and the Dutch in Indonesia. Seeds and seedlings illegally exported from Mexico grew healthy plants but did not bear fruit. The problem was not solved until 1841 when accidentally, a 12-year-old Edmond Albius pollinated the flower by hand. That is when Belgian botanist Charles Morren noticed the unusual structure of the vanilla flower. As it turned out, only a few species of bees and some hummingbirds, found only in Mexico, could pollinate it.
15Vanilla is used as a popular spice in the confectionery, food and perfume industries.
From an exclusive, once exotic rarity, it has become an indispensable ingredient in ice cream, candy, liqueurs, cosmetics and perfumes. However, since it is one of the most expensive spices, a cheaper substitute was quickly found. Today, globally, only 1% of vanilla flavor comes from nature. The remaining 99% is provided by vanillin, a substance obtained from, among other things, rice, pine bark, lignin, or creosote - a product of the dry distillation of wood. Recently, however, paying attention to food quality and the origin of ingredients used in the food industry has caused consumers to look for this natural vanilla more often.
16Just as Mexican Indians once used vanilla for medicinal purposes, nowadays, in the form of a tincture, it is used for febrile seizures or digestive disorders.
It is also used auxiliary in treating hypochromic anemia.
17The name "vaynilla," meaning "little pod," was first used in 1658 by Willem Piso, a Dutch naturalist.
The name la vanille (vanilla) was not popularized until 1703 by Charles Plumier, a French botanist.
18In the Aztec kingdom, vanilla flowers were once used to pay taxes.