Aldona Bird, Contributors, Latest News

Vanilla beans are related to orchids

While writing my most recent DIY (vanilla bean extract) I texted my family’s group chat — “did you know that vanilla beans are orchid seed?!”

Later, we discussed this on a group chat. My sister Ana and I exclaimed that we had no idea, and it was just incredible. “I assumed they grew on trees!” I said. “That’s a reasonable assumption,” Ana said.

Our sister Lina broke in with, “I’m pretty sure you both knew they are from orchids. When Phipps Conservatory had that exhibit of orchids, they had vanilla orchids.”

I wish I had some memory of that exhibit, due to my newfound fascination with vanilla.

This spice is native to Mexico. It is a vining orchid, and when grown outdoors vines can grow 75-100 feet long. It requires humid conditions to grow, and partial shade.

According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine (I read this, and several other reliable sources to learn about this spice’s story), pre-columbian Mayans are the first recorded users of vanilla, but likely it’s use went much farther back. Aztecs followed suit, using it in drinks combined with cocoa.

Spanish invaders took vanilla back to Europe, where it became immensely popular. However, the plants brought to Europe wouldn’t produce.

Lack of production was due to lack of pollination — the only pollinator of this orchid was back in Mexico.

Later, in the 1800s on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, an enslaved boy named Edmond Albius developed a way to pollinate the flowers by hand.

This painstaking task remains the primary way vanilla flowers are pollinated. The method spread to other islands, including Madagascar — which remains the primary producer of vanilla.

The plants flower over the course of about two months, and each flower only lasts one day.

Madagascar vanilla has thrived due to the island’s poverty making labor for pollinating the precious flowers very cheap.

This has made me want to find a source for fair trade vanilla beans, and make a total switch to homemade extract. Doing so would give more of my dollars to the farmers, and less to middlemen for storing, transporting, stocking, etc.

Back to the beans — after pollination the flowers very quickly set beans. And then very slowly mature them. The beans develop flavor over months of staying on the vine.

Once mature enough, they are harvested and then dried over several weeks.

To dry properly, they must sweat at night and dry during the day. This goes on for about two weeks, then they are just air dried for a few more days.

Vanilla prices are subject not only to regular market variations, but also to weather. Prices have spiked after cyclones hit Madagascar, wiping out the crops.

I read that vanilla grown in different places has distinctly different flavors. But even with that consideration, I don’t fully understand why Mexico only grows about 5% of the market’s vanilla. It seems with a natural pollinator, more of this delicious flavoring should come from it’s natural habitat.

In the United States, we use over 600 million beans per year. Since each flower only produces one bean, that is a heck of a lot of hand pollination.

Vanilla flavor can be synthesized — usually from petrochemicals, but sometimes from natural sources.

After learning (or relearning, if indeed I learned it long ago at Phipps) the story of vanilla, I think I will appreciate how precious vanilla is, every time I add it in my baking adventures.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, exploring possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email