Botanical Name: Vanilla planifolia (Bourbon) or tahensis (Tahitian)
Common Name: Vanilla Orchid
Family: Orchidaceae (orchid family)
Origin for vanilla planifolia: Mexico
In the tropical countries where vanilla grows on tree-climbing vines, they call it gold. As a spice, it's second only to saffron in expense.
Cured vanilla, which contains more than 250 flavor components, is one of nature's marvels, but each step in growing and curing the bean is done by hand. And to produce a great bean, you must figure out how to get nature to work for the vanilla. That is what makes curing an art.
For most of vanilla’s history, production of the beans themselves eluded growers, horticulturalists, and eager European gourmands. Discovered and cured by the Aztecs in Vera Cruz, Mexico, the vanilla bean was first brought back to Europe by Cortez, where demand for the spice grew in French kitchens and beyond. It became such a highly prized spice that the adventurers began carrying the vanilla orchid to their tropical colonies for cultivation.
But they didn’t succeed. The vines grew, the orchids bloomed and died, and the beans didn’t come.
No one could figure out why this was until the French botanist Charles Morren, in 1836, studied the mechanisms of the orchid’s pollination. As it turned out, the Melipona bee, native to Mexico, was responsible for carrying the pollen from one blossom to another. Without that bee there would be no vanilla, and vines outside Mexico would never produce fruit. So Morren pollinated the orchids by hand with a method still used today, bringing vanilla production to tropical regions all over the world. Bourbon vanilla takes its name from the Island of Bourbon (Reunion), which remains one of the prime exporters of the spice. Today, major producers include Indonesia, South Pacific islands (including Tonga and Tahiti), India, Uganda and, of course, Mexico.