Unlike most of the orchids of commerce, the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) emits a rather slight scent. Nevertheless, the vanillins in its long, thin pods and oily black seeds offer a flavor intensity that rivals that of saffron and an aroma that outdistances that of cardamom in its complexity. The taste of fermented vanilla has been described as sweet, smoky, and caramel-like, though it is so potent and enigmatic that a single drop in a carbonated beverage is sufficient to elevate the name of the drink to “vanilla flavored” and to command a higher price.

The economic value of this tropical vine was well established in the pre-Columbian era of Mesoamerica, with vanilla pods already a recognized form of currency in prehistoric Mexico. The conquistador Hernán Cortés witnessed Aztec rulers demanding vanilla pods as a tax from the Totonac people, who were the primary harvesters of the pods along the Mexican coast of Veracruz. Vanilla vines historically ranged through the wet tropical forest habitats of eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Costa Rica, but most of these have been logged, fragmented, and degraded over the last three centuries, so much so that wild vanilla orchids are listed as critically endangered. The native bee (Euglossa viridissima) that serves as their most allegiant pollinator is also of concern to conservationists.

It was the indigenous people of eastern Mexico rather than those of Central America who initiated the management and harvesting of vanilla orchids and the diffusion of their dried pods to others as a high-value culinary and medicinal product. It appears that the Totonacs were the first to bring this orchid out of the rainforest and cure its pods, calling them xa’nat. Their extra-local trade to the Aztecs was facilitated by pochteca, long-distance traders and merchants who saw the value in mixing tlilxochitl (vanilla) with kakaw (chocolate) for a luxurious after-dinner drink enjoyed by the Nahuatl-speaking elite of Tenochitlán.

Not until it arrived in Spain during the reign of Philip II did this spice take on the same vainilla, which refers to the slender or diminutive pods (vainas) of the orchid. The first written announcement of vanilla released in the Old World described it as a black-flowered orchid. It appeared in a 1651 natural history of herbs that was initiated by the Castillian court physician Francisco Hernández, who had been sent to Mexico to document the local flora, but was written and published by others long after his death. Eight decades after Hernández’s visit, a Portuguese Jewish immigrant to what is now Guyana learned the traditional techniques for vanilla harvesting, extraction, and drying from Arawak-speaking natives of the Pomeroon River basin and begain to modernize the process for higher yields of better quality. Dried vanilla pods were soon being sent across the Atlantic. For decades, this intercontinental trade was facilitated in part by crypto-Jews in Mexico City, the port of Veracruz, and Port Royal in Jamaica who had retained contacts with Sephardic Jewish refugees in major trading ports in Europe, Asia, and Africa. By the end of the eighteenth century, vanilla and cocoa were regularly being shipped from Mexico and Jamaica to Old World bakers and confectioners.

Given its high value, its habitat specificity, and its rarity, it is no wonder that horticulturists soon endeavored to cultivate vanilla in the Old World. Although live plants were carried from Mesoamerica to European gardens and greenhouses, they did not immediately flower or set seed. It was not until 1806-07 that vanilla vines finally flowered in Charles Grenville’s greenhouse in England. This singular event triggered widespread dissemination of his cuttings to other greenhouses, most of them in southern Europe. However, it was the handful of cuttings from Greenville’s plants that eventually made it to the island of Réunion that changed the trajectory of vanilla production forever. There, on the plantation of Féréol Bellier-Beaumont in 1841, a slave named Edmond Albius accomplished the first quick, practical means of cross-pollination of vanilla orchids by hand, thus eliminating the need to have Euglossa bees present to ensure the fertilization and full development of vanilla pods. By 1898, vanilla production on Réunion and nearby Madagascar and the Comoros Islands had far outstripped that of Mexico, and today there is also cultivation of a distinct vanilla orchid in Tahiti. Although the production of Mexican vanilla continues, the orchids are more likely to be tended by Italian immigrants than native Totonacs. What is harvested in its homeland competes in the global market with the pure vanilla extract from many other tropical nations, as well as with many imitation vanilla flavorings.

Gabrelle, Fabienne. The Flavor of Spices. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.
Ecott, Tim. Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid. New York: Grove Press, 2004.
Hill, Tony. The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.
Rain, Patricia. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. New York: J.P. Tarcher, 2004.
Image Credit:
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press