Vanilla is a crop that has crossed many borders and continents, but it did not come from Madagascar, the world’s main producer today. It originated in the forests of Mexico and Central America, where a long, twisting vine developed a unique and powerful fragrance that we all recognize.
The remarkable thing about vanilla is that its huge market depends on a 12-year-old enslaved boy who lived on a distant island in the Indian Ocean 180 years ago. But the orchid, whose pod-like fruits have the sweet vanilla flavor, had a long journey from Mexico, where the Totonac Indigenous people, who settled on the Atlantic coast of Mexico around 600 CE, first smelled it.
“The Totonacs gathered the pods from the wild and did not have a systematic way of growing them,” said Rebecca Menchaca García, who runs the Orchid Garden and Lab at the Center for Tropical Research of the Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico. “It was so rare and precious that the Aztecs asked for it as a tribute after they defeated the Totonac civilization [in the late 1400s]”. A vanilla legend The Totonacs have an old legend about how the vanilla plant came to be. It involves a royal princess running away with a young man. After they were found and killed, a tree and a climbing orchid grew in their resting place: the orchid wrapped around the tree’s trunk, like a woman’s arms around her lover. The flowers that bloomed from the vine turned into aromatic pods, known today as vanilla beans.
The Aztecs used vanilla to flavor xocoatl, the drink they made from cacao and other spices, but it was only for the elite or special occasions. It was this prized drink that emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin offered Hernán Cortés and his group of Spaniards when they came to his capital city of Tenochtitlan in 1519.
In the first years of conquest, the Spaniards brought many fruits, vegetables and other crops – including vanilla – across the Atlantic to grow and display in their homeland. Historians call this exchange of foods and goods the Columbian Exchange.
“Vanilla and cacao have always gone together,” said orchid expert Adam Karrenmans, a professor at the University of Costa Rica and director of Lankester Botanical Garden, a leading orchid research center based in Costa Rica. Europeans liked the smooth drink, and it spread, reaching France from Spain in the early 1600s after the marriage of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, the Spanish king’s daughter.
Vanilla followed a different route after crossing the Atlantic. In 1602, near the end of her rule, Queen Elizabeth’s doctor began adding the spice to the monarch’s dishes, as he thought it was a strong aphrodisiac, writes Rosa Abreu-Junkel in Vanilla: A Global History. Across the Channel, the influential Madame de Pompadour used vanilla in her food when she tried to win back her lover, King Louis XV of France, around 1750.
Vanilla had joined the global spice trade that was changing borders and economies around the world, with the European colonial powers competing to get pods. Everyone wanted the spice – chefs were trying new desserts, manufacturers made new perfumes and aristocrats just wanted to impress – but the global supply of vanilla was limited to the same coastal area in the Americas where it had flourished for centuries.
Other colonial powers tried to grow vanilla outside the Spanish colonies, wrote Tim Ecott in Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance. The British in India, the French in the Indian Ocean colonies, the Dutch in Java and even the Spanish in the Philippines planted it in the 1600 and 1700s, but none succeeded.
Karremans seems almost amused by their attempts. “Whenever Europeans took the plants and planted them in their colonies in other parts of the world, they found that plants could grow and blossom there, but they never produced fruits,” said the expert, who studies the ecological relationships between orchids and their pollinators and seed dispersers.
Orchids have very specific pollinators, Karremans explained, and vanilla needs a certain kind of bee that’s only found in the tropical regions of the Americas. No grower in the world has ever found a natural pollinator to replace them.
Among those who wanted to end the Spanish monopoly of Mexican-made vanilla were the white French planters in the island of Bourbon, now called Réunion, in the Indian Ocean. In 1822, the colony got a batch of vanilla plants, cuttings from the first ever vanilla plant to live and flower in Europe. Although they were hopeful, no fruit appeared and the planters gave up.
Menchaca García explained that each orchid species lives in very specific conditions. “I always say that orchids are very social. For their germination they need a fungus, to grow they need a tree, and for pollination they need a specific bee or pollinator that fits their anatomy.”
But in late 1841, something happened in Bourbon that questioned those assumptions. Planter Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont was walking in his field with a 12-year-old enslaved boy named Edmond when he saw two vanilla fruits on a vine, wrote Ecott in his book.
How was this possible? The planters had done everything before with no results, and now this single vine had borne fruit. Edmond said he did it, but Bellier-Beaumont did not believe him. However, when he saw another flower pollinated some days later, he came back and asked the boy to explain.
Edmond demonstrated. Each vanilla orchid (vanilla planifolia) has both male and female parts, separated by a membrane to stop self-pollination. The boy picked a nearby flower and peeled the lip of the orchid with his finger, lifted the membrane with a stick and pushed the female and male parts together – a technique that was similar to the pollination of a watermelon he had learned before.
Bellier-Beaumont was both amazed and pleased and could not keep quiet. Soon Edmond was travelling the island, teaching other planters his trick.
“After this, you could grow vanilla in Réunion, in Madagascar and elsewhere,” said Karremans. “This was in the 1800s, three centuries after Europeans first learned that vanilla could be used. It took them 300 years to figure out how to get fruits from the plant.”
Réunion’s vanilla planters achieved their dream: by 1848 they exported 50kg of vanilla pods to France, and in 1898, when they made 200 tonnes of dried vanilla, they had surpassed Mexico as the global provider.
Edmond did not benefit from this success. Although he was freed with all French slaves in 1848, in the next years he was accused of a theft and sentenced to five years’ jail with hard labour in 1852. A French botanist tried to claim Edmond’s invention, saying he had visited Réunion in 1838 and had shown a group of planters how to pollinate vanilla.
While Edmond was finally freed and his discovery was recognized (thanks partly to the strong support of his former enslaver), he died poor at 51. “The very man who at great profit to this colony, discovered how to pollinate vanilla flowers, has died in the public hospital in Sainte-Suzanne,” was how the local paper Moniteur reported his death in 1852, according to Ecott’s book. “It was a poor and sad end.”
Dried vanilla is valued for its seeds as well as its pod (Credit: Norbert-Zsolt Suto/Alamy) After his death, the discovery by Edmond Albius (his full name as a free man and citizen) changed the vanilla global market. Few parts of the world felt the effects like the Mexican coastal area of Veracruz, where most vanilla was made before hand-pollination was discovered.
At the time of the Réunion breakthrough, growers in Mexico still depended on local bees to pollinate the flowers. When the global market was flooded by vanilla from elsewhere – first just Réunion, but then Madagascar, Indonesia and other countries – the local industry could not match. Today, Mexico’s production makes up just 5% of the trade of natural vanilla pods.
The industry was more complex with the creation of artificial vanilla in the late 1800s, which now serves most of the market. Only 1% of the market is natural vanilla, which can reach very high prices. In 2018, it reached a record high of £445 per kg, making it more expensive by weight than silver.
Those trading natural vanilla – even in Mexico – have adopted the hand-pollination method, which is much more dependable than waiting for natural pollinators. In fact, every vanilla plant that’s grown in the world is now pollinated by hand, making the task very hard work.
“Flowers might open in a month, but each opens only for some hours per day. So, every day you have to walk the fields to pollinate them by hand. It’s amazing,” Menchaca García said. “Every time I see a vanilla pod, I say to myself ‘This is a hand-made product’.”