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Vanilla planifolia: The spice orchid

The most economically important member of the orchid family is true vanilla, Vanilla planifolia. You’ll have to look up to see it, as the vanilla orchid is a climbing plant that can reach a height of 10 meters. It is the ripe seed pods of the plant that are used as a spice. Harvested when nearly ripe, the pods must be processed to develop their characteristic scent. The main component of vanilla’s aroma is vanillin, which can also be created synthetically. But the taste of vanillin cannot compare with the complexity of natural vanilla, whose flavor also contains more than 35 other aromatic compounds.

The vanilla orchid is native to Mexico, where it was treasured by the Aztecs. For a long time, Mexico held a near-monopoly on the production of vanilla, until French entrepreneurs shipped seedlings out of the country and to the botanic gardens of Antwerp and Paris, from which vanilla eventually made its way to Java and the island of Réunion. At the time, Réunion was known as Bourbon, which is why genuine vanilla is today still sometimes called Bourbon vanilla.

Mexico’s monopoly on commercial vanilla production wasn’t broken until 1864. Today, the center of production is Madagascar, which in 2005 harvested 6,200 tons of vanilla. Because their natural pollinators are only found in Central America, all vanilla orchids cultivated elsewhere must be pollinated by hand.

Audio file download
Vanilla planifolia: The spice orchid (MP3, 646 KB)

Audio production and copyright: Soundgarden Audioguidance GmbH
Text: Ehrentraud Bayer, Botanischer Garten München-Nymphenburg

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