Vanilla planifolia, Orchidaceae

The origin of Vanilla Planifolia is Mexico, Indonesia and Guatemala. Vanilla grown on the islands of Madagascar, Reunion, and the Comoros is known as “Bourbon” vanilla. (Reunion and the Comoros were known as the Bourbon Islands in the early 1800’s.) Tahitian vanilla beans are grown in the South Pacific.

Vanilla is the World’s most popular flavour and, after saffron, the second most expensive among spices and flavourings.

Vanilla is a vine that is known since the time of the Aztec’s as the first historic reference to vanilla can be tracked back to the early 16th century when the Aztec’s conquered the Indian nations that inhabited the tropical regions of south eastern Mexico.”The Aztecs named the vanilla bean tlilxochitl and were so enamoured of the flavour that they required the tribes to make a gift of their finest pods as tribute to Montezuma.” After Columbus discovered America in 1492, vanilla was introduced on the European continent, but was primarily used for making perfume and scenting tobacco. The Aztec Herbal  Badiamus Manuscript (1552) is believed to contain the first reference to orchids in the Western Hemisphere. It included a description and illustration of Vanilla.

Vanilla beans were actually introduced in Europe in 1521, when Spaniards brought them over after discovering them with the Aztec’s. Its name is actually derived from the Spanish “vainilla”, which means “pod”. The Indians actually used vanilla pods as currency, and today, it still is a very valuable spice. In fact, its high price led to the appearance of many imitation vanillas that are often synthetically created. The Manila galleons (1565-1815) were Spanish trading ships that sailed once or twice each year across the Pacific Ocean   between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco, Mexico. The ships brought  Chinese porcelain, silk, ivory, spices, and other exotic goods to Mexico in exchange for New World silver.

Next to the saffron and cardamom, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices due the extensive labour required to grow the seed pods used in its manufacture. Vanilla Mill. is the only genus among orchids whose members produce a spice. The Vanilla of international commerce is derived from Vanilla planifolia. The major vanilla-producing countries are Madagascar, The Comoro Islands, Indonesia and Mexico.

It is a tropical climbing orchid, with a long green , fleshy stem that sprouts roots are clings to trees parasitically. Untended, vines climb up to 50 or 60 feet, so they must be pruned regularly to keep them manageable. The fruit, popularly termed as “beans” or “pod” is botanically a capsule, nearly cylindrical and about 20 cm long. People are unaware that vanilla comes from the fruit (seed pods or, botanically, the capsules) of the Vanilla orchid. Vanilla produces the only edible fruit in the entire orchid family.

It takes three years of growing to produce fruit. Usually, orchid flowers must be hand-pollinated. Vanilla beans are hand-picked 7-8 months after pollination before fully ripe, when only the tips of the pod are a bit yellow. This prevents the pod from splitting. Then 4-6 months of curing begins with the pods being immersed in hot water. Then the pods are dried on mats in the hot sun. Nightly, the pods are wrapped in the mats, placed in drums, and stored in a warehouse to sweat. Several weeks of the sun and sweat process turns the pods brown and aromatic. The pods are moved to mesh racks to dry for 2 weeks and then stored in drums for a minimum of 3 months to develop maximum flavour and scent. Lastly, the dried pods are sorted and graded according to quality based on their length, moisture content, lustre, flexibility, and colour. They are tied in bundles and packaged in airtight containers for sale and shipment. For each 2kg of dried vanilla pods harvested, only 1/2kg is marketable.

Vanilla production began in Mexico where the orchid flowers were pollinated by the tiny, stingless Melipone bee, native to that region. Without pollination, no pods develop. When artificial pollination was discovered in 1836, Mexico lost its monopoly on vanilla bean production.

Labour-intensive hand pollination of orchid flowers involves each flower being held to pry open the flower to obtain pollen for brushing across the stigma for fertilization. Since flowers lasts less than a day, pollinators go through the vines daily hand-pollinating 1,000 to 2,000 orchid flowers during the two-month blooming period.


Vanilla planifolia, Orchidaceae, Flat-leaved Vanilla, Tahitian Vanilla, West Indian Vanilla, flower. The fresh ripe pods are used in homeopathy as remedy: Vanilla planifolia (Vanil.) it is a genus of about 110 species in the orchid family.

Despite the fact that varieties of the vanilla orchid can be found in such diverse places as Africa and Asia, the only species that have proved to be edible and useful, came originally from the Americas. Further, there are only two members of the American family that have been used commercially: Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Pompona Schiede. A third edible species, Vanilla Tahitensis was believed to have originated by crossing Planifolia and Pompona stock in a plant laboratory in Manila in the 1700’s. It is rather a subspecies of Vanilla Planifolia.

Vanilla planifolia (Bourbon vanilla). The “Bourbon vanilla” is the term used for vanilla pods grown only on the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar, Reunion, Comoros and Mayotte. This variety also includes vanillas grown in India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Guatemala, and Uganda, but without the label “Bourbon”.

The “Vanillon” (Vanilla Pompona Schiede) is a species of the genus Vanilla. This variety has become very rare, but still found in Guadeloupe and in the West Indies from Mexico to Bolivia and Brazil. The flowers are greenish yellow with a lip colour varying from white to reddish yellow. The leaf shape is oval and wide. This species has a lower vanillin content and a strong smell of coumarin. The fruits are shorter, more rounded than those of the reference case (Vanilla planifolia).

Vanilla Tahitensis is a weaker vanilla with ‘fruity, floral, and sweet’ flavours created by the compound heliotropin. Tahitensis is a mutated form of a planifolia orchid from Tahiti, though most Tahitensis vanilla is now grown in Papua New Guinea. Some vanilla of this type is also grown in Tahiti and Indonesia. The vanillin content in Tahitensis vanilla is lower in comparison to the planifolia vanilla variety. The closest relatives to Tahitian vanilla, from among 40 different Vanilla species they analysed from across the world, were two species that grow naturally only in the tropical forests of Central America: Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla odorata V. planifolia is also the primary species cultivated for commercial vanilla, and is grown principally in Madagascar and Indonesia. V. odorata has never been cultivated.


Flavour and Aroma

The compound vanillin is the one who is primarily responsible for the characteristic flavour and smell of vanilla. Another minor component of vanilla essential oil is piperonal (heliotropin). The aroma is “fruity”, alluring aromatics that harmonize seamlessly with a deep, warm, rich fullness that makes it universally renowned. the flavour characteristics are such as woodiness, sweetness, creaminess, and smokiness.

Health Benefits of Vanilla

Use of the vanilla bean was recommended by alchemists in the past. Whole vanilla pods are now made into vanilla powder, vanilla flavouring, and aromatherapy essential oils. Vanilla’s aroma can be used to create a mood that is comforting, relaxing, warm, and sensual. The exotic, pleasantly sweet, and powerful scent can counteract frustration, irritability, and tension.

The uses for vanilla pod products include its addition to furniture polish as a insect and bug repellent , in a sachet form to put into your linen, massage oils or other scented products, the combination CO2-extracted vanilla and jojoba oil can be used by itself or with other
aromatherapy essential oils for scented baths, body or massage oils, soaps, perfumes, candles, or other products, but not in food or cooking.

Its use to fight irritability, alleviate a burnt tongue, as a deodorizer or room freshener, for teething in  infants, a stomach soother, excellent as an aphrodisiac, and for flavouring.

Avoid vanilla with coumarin a known carcinogen derived from the tonka bean (Dipteryx ordorata) native to Brazil. It is similar to and less expensive than vanilla and is often added to vanillas from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. It adds a strong vanilla-like aroma but little flavour. Coumarin is known to cause liver damage.

Buying and Storing Vanilla

For commercial use natural vanilla can be found in the market in form of a whole pod, powder, and extract. Premium pods, regardless of where they come from, should have a rich, full aroma, be oily to the touch, and sleek in appearance. Pods to avoid are those with very little scent, are smoky, brittle or dry, or are mildewed. So purchase with care.

Vanilla pods keep indefinitely stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, or if vacuum-packed. Keeping pods cool helps prevent mildewing, but they should not be refrigerated or frozen since this causes hardening and can promote mould growth.

Manufacturers add vanilla to lipsticks, personal-care products, toothpaste and so on too; there are many products available.vanilla cupcakes

Ideas with using Vanilla in cooking

In cooking, vanilla flavouring may be achieved by adding it’s pods or extract to dishes. Natural vanilla gives a brown or yellow colour to preparations, depending on the concentration.

Add to recipes that contain hot chilli peppers to reduce the heat and enhance the flavour and sweetness of the peppers.

Add a few drops of vanilla to bring out natural sweetness of the veggies. Also great in a number of salad dressings/vinaigrettes.

Vanilla’s mellow fragrance enhances a variety of sweet dishes: puddings, cakes, custards, creams, souffles and ice cream.

Add a few drops for sweetness and to reduce adverse effects of citrus on the stomach.

Vanilla is the key ingredient in frozen desserts, yoghurt, baked goods, candies, liqueurs, flans, beverages, tobacco, fragrances and even meat stews. Added as a seasoning to seafood, meat and poultry. Great for marinades, sautee oils or sauces.

Other uses in such as chocolate, fruit and nuts, use vanilla as a background enhancer. In spite of this glowing pedigree, vanilla is often referred to as plain.

A dry vanilla bean added to hot chocolate is delicious. Vanilla pods may be infused in a liquid or a pod can be put in a coffee maker to be brewed with coffee.

Infuse a pod, sliced lengthwise, in a little brandy, bourbon, or rum for a month or longer. This makes an excellent homemade extract.

Interestingly, back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, vanilla Cokes were popular in soda fountains.

The whole vanilla bean pod can be used in recipes. A 2.5cm length of a vanilla bean pod is approximately equal to one  teaspoon of vanilla essence. Slice vanilla pods lengthwise to expose the seeds and extract more flavour. The vanilla bean pod should be removed before serving, but the seeds may be scraped out of the pod to remain in the recipe.