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Submitted by on Sep 22, 2021

Vanilla is a spice made from orchids of the genus Vanilla, mostly from the Mexican flat-leaved vanilla variety (V. planifolia). Vanilla is derived from vainilla, a diminutive of the Spanish word vaina (vaina meaning a sheath or a pod), and simply means “small pod.” The vanilla orchid vine, named tllxochitl by the Aztecs, was grown by pre-Columbian Mesoamericans.

To make the plants produce the fruit from which the vanilla spice is made, pollination is necessary. This fact was discovered in 1837 by Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren, who pioneered artificially pollination the plant. The technique was found to be financially unviable and was never used commercially. Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old enslaved kid living on the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion, discovered that the plant could be hand-pollinated in 1841.

Hand-pollination enables the plant to be grown all over the world. Jean Michel Claude Richard, a well-known French botanist and plant collector, erroneously claimed to have discovered the technique three or four years earlier. Albius was regarded as the genuine discoverer at the end of the twentieth century.

Vanilla is presently produced in three primary species worldwide, all of which are descended from a species that originated in Mesoamerica, including modern-day Mexico. V. planifolia (syn. V. fragrans), which is found on Madagascar, Réunion, and other tropical islands in the Indian Ocean; V. tahitensis, which is found in the South Pacific; and V. pompona, which is found in the West Indies, Central America, and South America. The V. planifolia species, more often known as Bourbon vanilla (from the previous name of Réunion, Île Bourbon) or Madagascar vanilla, is grown in Madagascar and its adjacent islands in the southern Indian Ocean, as well as in Indonesia. Two-thirds of the world’s supply of vanilla is grown in Madagascar and Indonesia.

Because producing the vanilla seed pods is labor-intensive, vanilla is the second most costly spice after saffron. On the other hand, Vanilla is frequently utilized in commercial and household baking, perfume making, and aromatherapy.

The Totonac people, who dwell on Mexico’s east coast in the present-day state of Veracruz, are said to have been among the first to produce vanilla during the Aztec Empire’s reign (around the 15th century). Aztecs overran the Totonacs from the central highlands of Mexico, who acquired a love for vanilla pods. After the ripe fruit fades and becomes black immediately after being harvested, they termed it tlilxochitl, or “black flower.” In the 1520s, Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés is credited with bringing vanilla and chocolate to Europe.

Mexico was the leading producer of vanilla until the mid-nineteenth century. French entrepreneurs sent vanilla fruits to the islands of Réunion and Mauritius in 1819 to grow vanilla there. The pods began to grow after Edmond Albius learned how to pollinate the blooms fast by hand in 1841. The tropical orchids were quickly shipped from Réunion to the Comoros Islands, Seychelles, Madagascar, and pollination instructions.

Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros Islands produced 200 metric tons of vanilla beans in 1898, accounting for almost 80% of global production. According to 2019 statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Madagascar was the top producer of vanilla in 2018, followed by Indonesia.

Vanilla Production

The market price of vanilla soared dramatically in the late 1970s when a tropical hurricane devastated major croplands, and remained expensive into the early 1980s, despite the arrival of Indonesian vanilla. The cartel that had regulated vanilla prices and distribution since its inception in 1930 dissolved in the mid-1980s. Prices fell by 70% over the following five years, reaching roughly US$20 per kilogram; however, after tropical storm Hudah hit Madagascar in April 2000, prices soared dramatically again.

In the third year, a storm, political unrest, and bad weather drove vanilla prices to US$500/kg, attracting additional countries to the business. In 2005, a healthy harvest combined with decreasing demand due to counterfeit vanilla manufacturing brought the market price down to the $40/kg area. Prices had dropped to $20 per kilogram by 2010. In 2017, Cyclone Enawo prompted a similar increase to $500/kg.

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