The publication of this genera, for the first time, according to the linnaen system was undertaken by Miller in his "Gardener's Dictionary" in 1754, with the latinized name of vanilla
Nowadays, more than 50 species of vanilla are recognized (the number is actually between 65 and 100, depending on the author) and the flavoring substance is extracted from the seed pods of only some of the species.
Discounting the obvious ornamental importance this extraction makes Vanilla the only orchid with economic value The species most used commercially today are the American species (Vanilla planifolia and V.pompona) and a species from Tahiti (V. tahitensis). Vanilla planifolia is the plant most often used and Vanilla pompona is considered to be of inferior quality. According to Hoehne, Vanilla trigonocarpa is also one of the best producers of vanilla flavoring.
Vanilla plants are spread out over tropical and subtropical regions around the world (Indonesia, South and Central America, Mexico and Africa) and this distribution supports the theory that it is very old genus. This belief is also reinforced by the fact that these orchids carry an important number of similar characteristic features making researchers conclude that the genus was differentiated when the primitive continent of Gondwanaland divided 120 million years ago. This deduction, based on the plate tectonics theory, makes the conclusion that the origin of the orchidaceae family is dated from the very early Cretaceous period (120-130 million years ago) and appeared at the time of other flowering plants (Robert Dressler, 1981).
The story of the Vanilla orchid starts in Europe only since the "discovery" of the Americas but it was part day to day life of the pre-Colombian civilizations of North and Central America. Vanilla was, in reality, one of the plants used from time immemorial by Mayan and Aztec civilizations but it was especially used by the Mexican Aztecs to flavor and scent beverages made with cocoa which was another one of the "discoveries" of European conquest.
During this conquest of Mexico (1520 to 1540), when Cortez visited Montezuma's court, he heard about the Aztec emperor's habit of drinking a beverage called 'chocolatl', served in golden goblets with gold or turtle shell spoons. It was said he partook of this beverage before visiting his wives.
The flavor of the "'chocolatl" was accentuated by adding vanilla which was called by the Aztecs"tlilxochitl". The Aztec word "tlilxochitl" translates to black flower but it seems more appropriately applicable to the fruit (matured pod). The Aztecs extracted the flavoring from the fruits using a process of fermentation and the extract would be later called Vanilla.
When Spanish conquerors, on the southeast coast of Mexico, first came into contact with Vanilla they called it "Vainilla" (Spanish for little pods) because their elongated fruit, which contained the seeds, reminded them of the "vainas" (pods) of some leguminous plants. "Vaina" is also the Spanish name for the Latin word vagina which means "sheath". One wonders if the Swedish botanist, Olof Schwartz, thought about the shape of the pod (a sheath) or of its aphrodisiac properties when he named the orchid Vanilla.
In the famous Codex Badianus, published in 1522, are drawings and texts prepared by a Mexican Indian about the usage of Mexican plants. Included is a drawing of a Vanilla plant with the corresponding name in Náhuatl language (tlilxochitl). There is also a description of the process (in Latin) for extracting the scent or flavor essence of the orchid and other flowers. This was the first known pictorial representation of an orchid of the New World.
In 1651, another Vanilla plant was illustrated and described in Francisco Hernández's work "Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus".
Plumier, a pre-Linnaean botanist, also published, in the seventeenth century, a description of a Vanilla plant.
In his "Gardener's Dictionary" of 1754, Miller was the first person to publish about this genus following Linnaean's system. The Spanish word "vainilla" has been Anglicized to Vanilla (Garden Dictionary, abr. ed. 4, 3. 1754)
The introduction of this plant to Europe, in about 1500, had been quite intense but its cultivation did not prosper. For the most part the plants did not bloom or bloomed poorly under European conditions. Besides the difficulties of cultivation (even today they are considered difficult plants to cultivate), the insect which does the pollination is not found in Europe.
The first successful cultivation took place in 1807 and was repeated during the following decades. In 1819, vanilla was brought to Cayenne, La Réunion island, a French possession, in the form of plantlets. Those plantlets had been cultivated in the King's garden in Saint-Denis de La Réunion and they soon prospered allowing distribution among the growers on the island. Unfortunately the flowers did not fructify due to the lack of the specific pollinator on this island (a bee from the Eulaema genus, according to Robert Dressler). During the two next decades, the plants grew very well but the growers did not succeed in producing even one ripe pod.
In 1837 in Liège, a Belgian botanist called Morren was the first person to succeed in pollinating artificially the Vanilla's flower and the next year Neumann, a French botanist, succeeded in repeating a successful artificial pollination. However, on 'La Réunion' island, the process did not work. In 1841 Edmond Albius, a young slave of 12 years old, discovered by himself, the technique of manual pollination and in 1848, Réunion exported to France about 50 pods (or capsules). Due to the success of this cultivation, the Vanilla's culture was introduced to the neighboring islands of Madagascar, Comoro and Santa Maria and by 1898 about 200 tons had been produced in the French colonies. The discovery of the artificial pollination techniques and the sale of plantlets allowed the development of the commercial culture of Vanilla in tropical regions. Besides France, England and Belgium cultivated the vanilla orchid in many of their own colonial possessions.
The reputation of being an aphrodisiac followed the vanilla orchid along to countries where it was introduced. In the beginning of the XVIII century, in Europe, they used to tell young husbands to drink beverages flavored with Vanilla. In the court of Louis XV, it was a common practice to intensify the flavor of chocolate by adding amber and vanilla. Until the end of the XVI century, Vanilla was part of the European pharmacopoeia where it was used for recovering from fevers, hysteria, melancholy and other diseases because of its supposed diuretic, aphrodisiac, sedative and purifying qualities. Primitive medicinal practices of the Islands de La Réunion and Madagascar still use Vanilla. Although it is widely used as an agent to flavor beverages, sweets and ice-cream, no one seriously believes in its reputation as an aphrodisiac.
At the end of the XIX century, the active flavor agent of Vanilla had been identified and artificially produced. The natural extraction of the active agent has been replaced, in many cases, by artificial production but, as the natural product is a result of a complex combination of many substances, it has a clear superior quality and plants are still naturally cultivated in many tropical countries.
Most of the commercialized natural production comes from Mexico, Madagascar and the Comoro Islands.
Due to the lack of the Vanilla Orchid's natural pollinators (insects that exist in their original habitats) on these islands, the flowers need to be manually pollinated. Similarly as in Madagascar, where forests are cut down to increase the cultivation of vanilla, Mexican forests are destroyed by growers and vanilla is planted as a single species crop. This practice is reducing the source of the natural gene which could ameliorate the production and improve the resistance to pests and diseases.
Vanilla plants are vine like and are the longest orchids reaching 30m or more in length. They are terrestrial or humic plants and are easily recognized by the monopodial habit they have of climbing other plants with adventitious roots and they have quite big flowers. Except for one, all species are ascendant. Due to this growth characteristic all species need to be supported so their stems can be held firmly as they are in the nature. When supported by their stems, their branches hang with leaves and blooms.
They do not have pseudobulbs and their leaves are more or less succulent, coriaceous and dark green. The leaves are alternated and are sometimes reduced to a scale like appearance or are occasionally missing. Opposite the leaves, in each node, one or more quite thick aerial roots arise. The flowers, quite big and with a good structure are produced from the leaf-axils or from the scale like leaves. They can be many or just a few, arising from the very small racemes which produce few flowers. The flowers are very showy but in almost all species, although produced in succession, each individual flower is short lived. The petals and sepals are free and alike. The lip is united at the base and has a long narrow sheltered column. In all species the pollen is soft and powdery and is not divided into different types. The Vanilla's seed is very different from the seed of other orchids. They have a very hard and opaque tegument (epidermis) which is externally sculpted.
There are two kinds of Vanilla plants. Those whose stems are thick and have succulent type leaves are considered as good producers of vanilla and those which have thinner stems and wider leaves and whose pods are not succulent are not good producers. The fruit is an elongated capsule (pod) and is the true economic value of the plant because the flavoring is extracted directly from it. The pods need much preparation to improve the characteristic flavor and scent of the vanillin, the active ingredient of vanilla. First, they should mature on the vine for many months before being picked. The process to develop the flavor involves many manipulations that include initial heating, drying in the sun, curing in the shade, grading and finally the packaging.
Just for curiosity, here is an old method of obtaining vanillin. The pods are cured by first dropping them into nearly boiling water for a few seconds followed by putting them between layers of cloth to absorb moisture and before they are then put in the sun to dry out. The pods are then rolled in another cloth and put in a closed box, to be taken out every day and laid out in the sun for one to two hours. This process continues for 2 or 3 weeks until the pods become dark and pliable.
Even today, cultivation is considered to be very difficult. The plants need bright light, constant moisture and frequent fertilization. The watering should be regularly maintained all year round, with just a little reduction during the winter. Due to their climbing habits, the vines need plenty of room to extend and need a supporting stake or trellis for support that will allow for manual pollination. Most of the species grow well when the plants basal roots are potted in a substrate of organic matter and sandy earth that has very efficient drainage system but as they have a lot of aerial roots which do not need to be potted, the container where they are planted should be small.
The greatest difficulty of the cultivation to obtain the vanillin is the process of doing manual pollination. Due to the very short duration of the flowers, the pollination is done during a very short time span, in at most one day and sometimes in only hours.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Orchids, editada por Alec Pridgeon.
- Native Colombian Orchids (Colombian Orchid Society), de Pedro Ortiz V.
- Orchidaceae Brasiliensis, de Guido Pabst and Dungs
- Orchids Care and Cultivation, de Gérald Leroy-Terquem & Jean Parisot.
- Simon & Schuster's Guide to Orchids, editada por Stanley Schuler.
- Orchids of Asia, de Teoh Eng Soon.
- Orchidées, de David Menzies.
- The Magna Book of Orchids, de David Squire.
- Orquídeas, de Jack Kramer.
- Cultura das Orquídeas no Brasil, João Siegfried Decker.
- Iconographia das Orquidáceas Brasileiras, Hoehne.