By Laurelynn Martin and Byron Martin
Vanilla, or Vanilla planifolia, is a vining orchid native to Mexico and it’s one of the most highly sought after spices in cultivation. Vanilla has become a mainstay flavoring and essence in the world of culinary and perfumes. Today, vanilla is grown mostly for commercial production in Madagascar, Reunion Island, Comoro Islands, Indonesia and Mexico.
The Aztecs first used vanilla for flavoring in cocoa. The long vanilla bean pods were dried and cured to produce its distinctive flavor. Today, the pods are sometimes used whole and the flavoring is drawn out by infusion or the pods are split and the tiny seeds are scraped out. You may have seen tiny seeds infused in creams or custard based dishes such as Crème Brûlée.
The Vanilla orchid grows wild in tropical forests and comes from one of the oldest plant families (Orchidaceae). Ninety-five percent of the world’s vanilla bean trade comes from one species, Vanilla planifolia. The vine can reach up to 30 meters long and the pods form in bean-like clusters.