Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)
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Vanilla is a flavouring derived from orchids in the genus Vanilla native to Mexico. The name came from the Spanish word “vainilla”, meaning “little pod”.
The main species harvested for vanillin is Vanilla planifolia. Although it is native to Mexico, it is now widely grown throughout the tropics. Madagascar is the world’s largest producer. Additional sources include Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitiensis (grown in Tahiti), although the vanillin content of these species is much less than Vanilla planifolia.
Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing up an existing tree, pole, or other support. It can be grown in a wood (on trees), in a plantation (on trees or poles), or in a “shader”, in increasing orders of productivity. Left alone, it will grow as high as possible on the support, with few flowers. Every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downwards so that the plant stays at heights accessible by a standing human. This also greatly stimulates flowering.
The distinctively flavoured compounds are found in the fruit, which results from the pollination of the flower. One flower produces one fruit. Vanilla planifolia flowers are hermaphroditic: they carry both male (anther) and female (stigma) organs; however, to avoid self-pollenization, a membrane separates those organs. Such flowers may only be naturally pollinated by a specifically equipped bee found in Mexico. Growers have tried to bring this bee into other growing locales, to no avail. The only way to produce fruits is thus artificial pollination.
A simple and efficient artificial pollination method was introduced in 1841 by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion: a method still used today. Using a beveled sliver of bamboo, an agricultural worker folds back the membrane separating the anther and the stigma, then presses the anther on the stigma. The flower is then self-pollinated, and will produce a fruit. The vanilla flower lasts about one day, sometimes less, thus growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labour-intensive task.
The fruit (a seed pod), if left on the plant, will ripen and open at the end; it will then release the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny, flavourless seeds. In dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, these seeds are recognizable as black specks.
Like other orchids’ seeds, vanilla seed will not germinate without the presence of certain mycorrhizal fungi. Instead, growers reproduce the plant by cutting: they remove sections of the vine with six or more leaf nodes, a root opposite each leaf. The two lower leaves are removed, and this area is buried in loose soil at the base of a support. The remaining upper roots will cling to the support, and often grow down into the soil. Growth is rapid under good conditions.