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Herbs Section

Vanilla - The strange Fruit of the Orchid

Vanilla is the only food we get from the orchid and was known to the Mesoamericans but the first reference to cultivating vanilla does not appear until the Aztecs conquered the Totonacos in 1427. They immediately came to love the flavour and aroma of the Totonaco’s vanilla. The Aztecs called the prized spice “tlilxochitl “black flower”. They used it to flavour their famous chocolate drink, cacahuatl (chocolate water), made from cocoa beans, ground corn, ground vanilla beans, and honey. The Aztecs required that the Totonaco people grow vanilla as a tribute to the Aztec king, Montezuma. Vanilla still continues to be cultivated in the eastern portions of tropical Mexico.

El Tajin Totonac Capital City

El Tajin the Capital City of the Totonac Civilisation and the first people to cultivate Vanilla

In the 14th century, the Spanish conquistadors under Cortez, documented watching Montezuma, Emperor of the Aztecs, pulverize vanilla beans and cocao seeds to make "xocolatl" which was a beverage consisting of cornmeal, chillies, cinnamon, anise seed, vanilla and other spices. It was consumed only by royalty on special occasions, in golden cups which were used only once.

The Spanish caught on quickly and by the middle of the 15th century, were importing it to Europe for use as a flavor in the manufacture of chocolate, another new export from their new colonies in the Americas. As European explorers mapped the unknown tropical forests of the South Americas their botanists discovered more about this strange fruit of the forest and ways to cultivate it. Europeans followed the example of the tribes in the New World and used vanilla in their confectionery, the production of medicine, as a nerve stimulant and even as an aphrodisiac.

By the early 1800's vanilla plants were growing in botanical collections in both Germany and France. Horticulturists, experimenting with various growing conditions discovered the optimum cultivation conditions for its propagation and were soon sending plant stocks out to various tropical colonies, where farms were established. From Europe it was transported to Reunion, Mauritius and the Malagasy Republic. Slave labour favoured the vanilla farming industry because it was very labour intensive. Emancipation in the colonies dealt a severe blow to the industry because the high labour content required for propagation, pollination and harvesting of the beans, priced the product out of the market. The chemical industry came up with a synthetic version of vanilla for use in essences and many farms abandoned vanilla as a crop.

>The Vanilla orchid flower

The Bourbon (Planifolia) Vanilla Orchid flower.

Today's focus has shifted away from synthetic goods, as we discover some of the hidden problems of the chemical industry. With improved measuring and analytical equipment, we have discovered toxic residues in some synthesized consumable products and environmental problems related to the manufacture of many synthetic products. Synthetic products have risen in price to the point that the organic alternatives are becoming viable again. With the adoption of environmental surcharges like the Carbon Tax, the rise in production costs of synthesized goods will mean that many natural products that were replaced by cheap automation, will once again be competitive. Vanilla is one such example.


Vanilla is a member of the Orchidae family – the Orchids, those flowers renowned for their waxy, beautiful, long lasting properties in bouquets. It is the only edible product we get from all the orchid species. It only grows in the humid warm tropical regions where it grows into a fleshy, herbaceous vine that is perennial. Growers reproduce the plant by taking a cutting. A section of the plant is cut off and planted in the ground where it will grow roots. As the vine grows, aerial roots are produced all along the stem, opposite to the leaves. It climbs up a host plant and can reach a height of 50 feet in ideal circumstances but in the wild usually reaches only 30 feet, the height of it's host plant.

Because the flowers are best pollinated by hand, the vanilla vine is trained and pruned to a height that will allow hand pollination of the flowers and hand harvesting of the beans.

Green Vanilla Beans

Vanilla beans almost ready to be harvested

Most orchid flowers are prized for their long life but if vanilla orchid flowers remain un-pollinated, they last only a day. The farmers choose five or six flowers from each plant, to obtain three or four fruits. They know better than to abuse the vine's reproductive capacity. If it becomes over taxed the vine will weaken and become prone to diseases. From the state of the flowers, cultivators can judge the number of fruits that have set and control the number of beans to a plant.

The fruit is a capsule, called a "bean" or "pod" in the trade. It looks like a bean because it is so elongated, however unlike a bean which is divided into two sides, the vanilla pod has three sides. On the plant, when the bean reaches 7.5 cms (3 ins) in length and about 2cms (¾ inch) in diameter, it is ready for harvesting. At this stage the beans are odourless. Only after the beans are harvested and cured, do they develop their characteristic aromatic vanilla fragrance.

Only in Mexico and tropical Central America, can the flowers can be naturally pollinated by bees and hummingbirds. Elsewhere, natural pollination is impossible due to the unique structure of the flower and must be done by hand adding to the cost of the final product. A small bamboo toothpick is used to pollinate each flower. The rostellum (a structure that separates the male and female plants sexual organs) is pushed aside and pollen is spread from stamen to stigma by causing contact between the two. In this way the flower is self pollinated. If successful, the flower will set and produce a vanilla bean. Because flowers only last one day, this task must be done anew at the start of every day, making vanilla farming highly labour intensive.

Now do you see why vanilla beans are so expensive?

Separator bar with green apple


There are 110 varieties of vanilla but only three types are used commercially - Planifolia, Pompona and Tahitian.

Madagascar or Bourbon vanilla Bourbon vanilla is the generic name or the common market name used for the vanilla species planifolia. Vanilla Planifolia cuttings were taken from Mexico in the 1800s and grown by the French in large plantations in Reunion then known as the Ile de Bourbon. Thus it became known to traders as Bourbon Vanilla and has the familiar sought after vanilla aroma we have come to know and love in foods like ice cream, flavoured desserts and drinks. Madagascar Bourbon is the most sought after bourbon vanilla bean with it's rich mellow aromas of wood, oil, and leather. The beans are wide and flat.

Vanilla Beans

Bourbon Vanilla beans

Mexico introduced the world to vanilla. The Aztecs name for vanilla was "tilxochitl" or black flower. They used it to perfume a drink called "xocolatl" which we call chocolate today. It was prepared with vanilla and cocoa for the first banquet offered to Hernan Cortes. When he was shown the cocoa grains and the black vanilla beans he was overwhelmed by the incredible perfume of the brown beans known as "xanath" (vanilla flower) by the Totonacs. Unfortunately Mexico is no longer the largest producer of vanilla beans today. A devastating freeze in the late 1950's destroyed most of the vanilla plants. A few growers were able to start all over again and Mexican vanilla beans are available once more. They are chocolate brown to black in color with a sweet, clean, delicate aroma.

Tahitian Vanilla Tahitian vanilla is the generic name for the vanilla species tahitensis. This variety began as plant stock taken to Tahiti. Today it has a different flower and aroma to Bourbon and Mexican vanilla probably due to wild mutation and is regarded as a different species. The aroma id different to beans from the Vanilla planifolia species with a more earthy and fruity undertone and it has less natural vanillin than planifolia beans.

Pompona Vanilla or Antilles Vanilla This is the result of plant stocks taken to the Antilles and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. The Pompona vanilla pods are considered lower quality than either planifolia or Tahitian with less vanillin that the other commercial varieties. The beans tend to be smaller, around 75mm long (3 ins).

Varieties – An Overview - It's important to get it into perspective that while we discuss various varieties of vanilla bean as being superior or inferior, remember we are comparing the real thing, not synthesized vanilla essence. To the average shopper, the real vanilla bean is much richer in both flavour and aroma, where the synthetic essence has only an aroma.

Although expensive, by making your own pure vanilla essence, you can halve the cost of the supermarket price and end up with a far superior product. We have included a recipe for making your own genuine vanilla essence in the recipes section. Click here to go directly to the Real Vanilla Essence page.

The Vanilla orchid flower

Vanilla Farming founded by a 12 y.o. child
No-one knew how to pollinate vanilla orchid flowers, so bean production was haphazard. The most effective hand pollination method was discovered in 1841 by a 12 year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion, then a French colony, in the Indian Ocean. This method is still in use today, in spite of all our modern technology. Individual flowers are pollinated in the early morning, directly after opening. A small bamboo toothpick is used to pollinate each flower. This process has to be repeated every morning until the fruits start to develop.


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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Vanilla Facts

How do I use the vanilla bean? Split the bean length-wise and scrape the contents out. This is then added to your recipe. For a rich vanilla flavour (to die for), use 1 vanilla bean for every teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Slitting a vanilla bean

Slitting a vanilla bean to extract the seeds

What do I do with the vanilla pod after I have split it and used it? Don't throw it out! The outer skin also contains vanillin (that beautiful vanilla aroma). See our home made vanilla essence page in the recipe section or you can let the pod dry for a couple of days and then put it in your sugar for extra flavour. Some readers say they like to like to tie the the dried vanilla bean skins in cheesecloth as a vanilla potpourri. A couple of readers in New Zealand said they use the potpourri in their wardrobe where it rids that musty smell - basically don't throw out the pod until there is no aroma left.

How do I store vanilla? Vanilla should be stored in a sealed container, like a glass jar. Preferably never store aromatics in a plastic container. Plastics are capable of absorbing esters and other aromatic hydrocarbon compounds, which are present in many herbs and spices. These containers should be put in a cool, dark place, like the pantry, but not in the refrigerator.

How long will the vanilla beans last? Vanilla properly sealed and stored in an airtight glass jar should last 6 to 9 months if kept dry and in the dark. Ultraviolet light breaks down the aromatic components faster. A little trick I use, is to keep those little bags of Silica Gel that come with some products and medicines. Warm one up in a cool oven for a few minutes (without browning it of course!) and add to the jar of vanilla beans. The silica gel sachet in the jar will absorb atmospheric moisture in the jar and extend the shelf life of the vanilla

What do I do with vanilla beans that have dried out? Vanilla beans that have become hard due to excessive moisture loss can be re-hydrated by soaking them in warm water for several hours before use. Don't discard the water. Use it with the beans.

How long can I store vanilla extract? Vanilla extract, or vanilla essence as it is also called, like fine wine, gets better with age. Most extract reaches its peak at around 2 years of age. Like fine wines, it contains complex hydrocarbons that interact and mellow with time. Keeping vanilla extract for awhile is not a problem, in fact it improves!

Why does vanilla extract have alcohol? There are two reasons:
Firstly alcohol is required to extract the oil from with the plant cells. Alcohol dissolves the oil and allows it to leech out of the plant tissue.
Secondly, alcohol is a preservative so once extracted, it prevents the resulting essence from deterioration due to bacteria. For this reason the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations stipulate that Pure Vanilla Extract has to be made using no less than a 35% alcohol solution. At this concentration it will not support bacterial growth.

How do I use Pure Ground Vanilla? Pure Ground Vanilla is ideal in warm drinks because it does not have an alcohol base to evaporate, like vanilla essence. It can be substituted for (or added to) vanilla extract in baking and cooking and is ideal in biscuits that are cooked at a high temperature.

Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

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