Edible Flowers: Orchids (Vanilla)

Wandering around the Cancun airport, struggling to find a way to spend my last pesos on some worthy souvenir that would stretch the memories of my time with family in Isla Mujeures, I kept coming face to face with bottles of Mexican vanilla next to the sombreros and colorful rain sticks.  While I did not buy any bottles, vanilla would have been the perfect memento for the trip – adding its signature taste and scent to any number of desserts, and its smell would certainly invoke fond memories.  Vanilla is one of those spices that can instantly put you in a better mood; it tastes of homemade cooking and its scent is guaranteed to transport you to a better place.


Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices (second only to saffron) due to the extensive labor required to harvest the vanilla seed pods, and the hand pollination.  Despite its high cost, no self respecting baker or cook would consider a kitchen complete with out it. Vanilla is cultivated in Madagascar, Comoros Islands, Reunion, French Polynesia, Tahiti, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mozambique, Seychelles, Uganda, Guatemala, and Mexico.  Although Mexico is the original source of vanilla, Madagascar now holds the title for the world’s major supplier, contributing roughly 97% of the total production.


Originally cultivated by apparently culinary geniuses, the Totonac people of the Mazatlan Valley in what is today Veracruz, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is credited for introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s.  According to Totonac lore, the orchid sprang to being when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded, and where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew.

In the fifteenth century, Aztecs conquered the Totonacs, and quickly developed a taste for the vanilla bean. They named the bean, tlilxochitl “black flower,” after the mature bean, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked.  Vanilla is native to Central America and  long history use. Both the Mayas and later, the Aztecs used vanilla to flavor a drink made with water, cocoa beans and spices: chacau haa in the Mayan and cacahuatl in the Aztec tongue.

The Mayan chocolate, still consumed in southern Mexico (Yucatán), Guatemala and Belize, is often spicy mixed with chiles and other native (allspice, annatto) or imported (black pepper, cinnamon) spices. The deep red color achieved by addition of annatto was highly esteemed.  Sugar or honey may be added, but are not mandatory. The drink is enjoyed hot or cold, with a foam that is considered the best part.  We saw wooden “whisks” in the airport, come to think of it that might have been a good souvenir.

all the way to Europe

Europeans initially used vanilla much the same way, to flavor drinking chocolate, a very popular drink among the 17th century European nobility. European drinking chocolate was almost exclusively sweet and often used many additional flavorings, not settling for just anise, or cinnamon, but adding exotic animal products like musk and ambergris.  The main European contribution to the advancement of chocolate was replacing water with milk.  This switch led, at the end of the 19th century, to the production of milk chocolate bars.

Growing Vanilla Beans

Flowering normally occurs every spring, and without pollination, the blossom withers and falls away so no vanilla bean develops. Each flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of opening.  All vanilla grown today is hand pollinated.  Generally one flower per raceme opens per day, and therefore the raceme may flower for over 20 days. A healthy vine produces between 50 to 100 beans per year.

photo from vanillareview.com

Attempts to cultivate the vanilla plant beyond Mexico and Central America were futile due to the symbiotic relationship between the tlilxochitl vine and the native Melipona (abeja de monte or mountain bee).  No other bee could figure out the intricacies of what was required.  A viable work around was not achied until 1841,when a 12-year-old named of Edmond Albius, who lived on Île Bourbon, discovered the plant could be hand pollinated, allowing global cultivation of the plant.

Vanilla was unknown in the Old World before Columbus. Spanish explorers arriving on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early 16th century gave vanilla its name, and sent it on its way to Africa and Asia later that century. They called it vainilla, or “little pod”. Vainilla derives from vaina, from the Latin vagina (sheath) to describe the way the pod is split open to expose the seeds.  (Would it surprise anyone at this point if I mentioned that vanilla is considered an aphrodisiac?)

Vanilla planifolia – flower

The fruit, a seed capsule, if left on the plant will ripen and open at the end; as it dries, the phenolic compounds crystallize, giving the beans a diamond-dusted appearance which the French call givre. It will then release that distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny, flavorless seeds seen as black specks.

Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing up an existing tree (called a tutor), pole, or other support.  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 action also greatly stimulates flowering.

Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing up an existing tree (called a tutor), pole, or other support.  Left alone, it stops growing only when it runs out of support, with few flowers. Every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downwards so that the plant stays at heights accessible to a standing human. This action also greatly stimulates flowering.

Types of Vanilla

Bourbon vanilla or Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla, produced from V. planifolia plants introduced from the Americas, is the term used for vanilla from Indian Ocean islands such as Madagascar, the Comoros, and Réunion, formerly the Île Bourbon, for which it is named. It is also found in Indonesia.

Mexican vanilla, made from the native V. planifolia, is produced in much less quantity and marketed as the vanilla from the land of its origin. Vanilla sold in tourist markets around Mexico may not be pure vanilla extract, but a mix containing an extract of tonka beans which smell and taste similar to vanilla.

Tahitian vanilla is from French Polynesia, made with the V. tahitiensis strain. Genetic analysis shows that this species might be a cultivar from a hybrid-cross of V. planifolia and V. odorata. The species was introduced by French Admiral Hamelin to French Polynesia from the Philippines, where it was introduced from Guatemala.  (Guatamala → Philippines → Tahiti)

West Indian vanilla is made from the V. pompona strain grown in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

The Fake Stuff

Most imitation vanillas contain vanillin, one of 171 identified aromatic components of the real vanilla beans. Vanillin is produced synthetically from lignin. Not to gross you out, but most synthetic vanillin is a waste product of the pulp and paper industry.  It is made from waste sulfate, which contains lignin-sulfonic acid.    The same chemical reaction, by the way, lies behind the vanilla aroma of some wines aged in wood barrels (barrique). Pure vanillin’s scent does resemble vanilla, but lacks the subtle flavor of the true spice, so it is not a good substitute in high-quality products such as good vanilla ice cream.

The food industry uses methyl and ethyl vanillin. Ethyl vanillin is more expensive, but has a stronger note. Cook’s Illustrated ran several taste tests pitting real vanilla against vanillin in baked goods and other applications, and tasters generally could not differentiate the flavor of vanillin from vanilla; except for vanilla ice cream, natural vanilla won out.


The vanilla bean may grow quickly on the vine, but takes about 10 months to mature. Harvesting vanilla beans is as labor intensive as pollinating the blossoms. Immature dark green pods are not harvested. Pale yellow discoloration starting at the distal end of the beans indicates the pod’s maturity. Each bean ripens at its own pace so daily harvest is required. To ensure the finest flavor from every bean, each individual pod must be picked just as it begins to split at the end.  If the picker waits too long, the bean looses market value. Vanilla’s value is primarily determined  by the length of the pod. Beans more than 15 cm in length belong are first quality products. If the beans are between 10 to 15 cm long pods are under second quality and beans less than 10 cm in length are under third quality. Each bean has copious amounts of seeds inside that are covered by a dark red liquid from which the vanilla essence is extracted.  The vanilla beans must be cured before they are processed.

Vanilla – Knowing what you are getting grades

Vanilla’s value is based on the length of the pod. If the bean is more than 15 cm in length it belongs to first quality product. If the beans are between 10 to 15 cm long pods are under second quality and beans less than 10 cm in length are under third quality.

Grade A: 15 cm +, 100–120 beans/pound Also called “Gourmet” or “Prime” Moisture content: 30–35%.

Grade B: 10–15 cm, 140–160 beans per pound Also called “Extract beans”. Moisture content:15–25%.  Vanilla extract is normally made from Grade B beans.

Grade C: 10 cm

So there you have it, a bit about vanilla.  Not so plain vanilla is it?

Warming you from the inside

Aceite de Vainilla (Vanilla Cordial)

from My Sweet Mexico by Fany Gerson

makes 1 quart

3 dried vanilla beans, split lengthwise
1 ½ c sugar
1 ½ c water
2 ½ c rum or vodka

Chop the vanilla bean into small pieces.  Combine the sugar and water in a pot over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves then add in the vanilla.  Pour into a large container, stir, add rum or vodka and cover tightly.  Store in a cool dry place for about a week.  Check the taste after four days to see how you like it.  Strain and serve chilled.  This drink will last about two months if not consumed first.

Resources and Recipe Ideas:

Spice Pages – Vanilla

Wikipedia – Vanilla

Le Blog de Pierre – search for vanilla

Sweet Life – Chocolate Tres Leches Cake

As to those pesos, I never managed to find the souvenir of choices, so now they’ll be waiting as pocket change for our next trip.

Update me when site is updated

29 comments for “Edible Flowers: Orchids (Vanilla)

  1. December 29, 2010 at 9:03 AM

    Vanilla has enchanted me since I was very young – even more so than chocolate. Interesting to hear the lore behind it. I had no idea it was the second most expensive spice after saffron. I only know my kitchen must always have it. Thanks for a tour through the world of that amazing bean.
    Claudia recently posted..The Christmas Spirit

  2. December 29, 2010 at 10:35 AM

    5 Star Foodie Jr. enjoyed learning all about vanilla here which is one of her favorites, thanks! We have tried all the types of vanilla other than the West Indian one, would be great to find that one too sometime.

  3. December 29, 2010 at 1:49 PM

    What a great thing to do with Vanilla – I’m adding it to my list. Hope you’re having a great year end and looking forward to 2011 – the year of success. Lots of love

  4. December 29, 2010 at 6:35 PM

    That is a great recipe to use vanilla!!!!Great post as usual! happy new year!

  5. December 29, 2010 at 6:41 PM

    I kind of put vanilla in everything…if a baking recipe doesn’t call for vanilla, I add a drop anyway. Hee hee. The only vanilla I have ever used is the big bottle from Costco, which I am very fond of because it’s big and cheap. I have yet to dabble with the more…exotic and expensive ones, but hope to some day! 🙂

  6. December 29, 2010 at 8:10 PM

    That’s so cool that only a particular bee could pollinate the flowers. This makes me want to try making my own vanilla extract. Hope you had a great trip, and happy new year!

  7. December 29, 2010 at 9:34 PM

    Wow, I had no idea each vanilla flower has to be hand-pollinated. No wonder vanilla is so pricey. But baked goods just wouldn’t be the same without the real stuff.

  8. OysterCulture
    December 30, 2010 at 7:02 AM

    Claudia – Agree, its a must have

    5 Star – I confess to not paying that much attention, but now I want to do a taste comparison

    Kitchen Butterfly – Same to you!

    Erica = Thank you and happy new year to you too!

    Sophia – I hear ya! But as we learned unless you’re making vanilla ice cream chances are you cannot tell the difference.

    Lisa – I know, it took over 300 years before they came anywhere close to being able to mass produce

    Carolyn – I agree!!

  9. December 30, 2010 at 7:44 AM

    Even Tahitian vanilla is expensive here. And, quite ironically, pretty hard to find! The few that are produced here are mostly exported. Vanilla extract is so hard to find here. I bought a few pods and used them to make some truffles 2 years ago and I just reused the pods and soaked them in vodka and voila, I now have access to uber pricey (here in the PH) vanilla extract.
    The Kitchen Masochist recently posted..Local Christmas Traditions

  10. December 30, 2010 at 11:36 AM

    Love reading about vanilla since it is once of my favorite baking ingredients. So much work to produce such a delicious treat!

  11. December 30, 2010 at 1:37 PM

    I have never seen so much information on vanilla in one place…
    I absolutely love this post and will share it with my oldest son 🙂
    Wishing you a fantastic New Year 🙂

  12. December 30, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    Vanilla is one of my favorite flavors. I always know that its origin was in Mexico but I didn’t know that today is Madagascar the main source – and it is expensive like saffron, but worth in the desserts, artificial or not 🙂

    Happy New Year Lou!!

    Gera@SweetsFoodsBlog recently posted..Eat Sweets and Still Lose the Belly Fat

  13. December 30, 2010 at 4:15 PM

    This spice is so marvelous and versatile! Thanks for the great info. I always learn something when I read your articles.

    Happy New Year!



  14. December 30, 2010 at 6:42 PM

    Vanilla is one of those things I haven’t explored much so I appreciate this post. Even though I stand staring at the prices of vanilla bean, I had no idea it was the 2nd most expensive spice. I try to fall somewhere in the middle with price and quality, but there is a huge difference in the flavor of quality vanilla for sure.
    Lori recently posted..Cherry Nut Cookies- The Last of the Holiday Cookie Tray

  15. December 30, 2010 at 7:30 PM

    What a coincidence, I have three Mexican vanilla bean pods to make my own vanilla extract. I’m surprised to hear that imitation vanilla is a waste product of the paper industry, it just sounds gross to be consuming something that may be mostly chemicals that would otherwise discarded.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Chicken Liver Porcini Pâté with Pistachios

  16. December 31, 2010 at 9:16 AM

    That is the most exhaustive post I have ever read on Vanilla; next time I need to read up on it, forget Wikipedia, I am coming here!
    tasteofbeirut recently posted..Pancit

  17. December 31, 2010 at 9:39 AM

    You are right about vanilla warming from within but I learned so much as I always do from your posts LouAnn. And I adore the Mexican chocolate that is seasoned with chilis. It is a favorite flavor. Happy New Year.

  18. January 1, 2011 at 6:56 AM

    Fascinating stuff Lou Ann. I always have vanilla sugar on hand. I scrape a vanilla bean into a mason like jar and fill it with sugar to mellow. Whenever a recipe calls for sugar and I want a bit of essence of vanilla, I add some vanilla sugar to the measurement. Mmmm….heavenly.

    Thanks for sharing, GREAT post!

    Happy New Year!!!
    Louise recently posted..A Toast with a Side of Humor- Happy New Year!

  19. January 1, 2011 at 11:44 AM

    I have looked high and low for the answer to why vanilla is required in so many recipes, especially baking- the only reason found is that it adds a dimension to the end result, no chemical reasons. I find it puzzling still, but love searching and learning!
    Chef E recently posted..Butter Milk-Meyer Lemon Soaked and Fried Oysters

  20. January 1, 2011 at 1:56 PM

    Now I know how to look out for real and fake vanilla! Thanks.

    happy new year to you and your family.

  21. January 4, 2011 at 7:26 AM

    vanilla is one of my favorite spices. I love the aroma and taste of good vanilla. This is such an informative post!
    Happy New Year!
    Azita recently posted..Shoorba-ye Yazdi Lentil and Beet Soup with Tiny Dumplings

  22. January 4, 2011 at 5:54 PM

    A wonderful post, vanilla is something we all cooks love and really apprecaite, but to learn something new is always refreshing to me. I have mixed feelings for Hernan Cortez, but do value his introduction of many Mexican ingridients we all enjoy today. When I was younger and we made our trips to Mexico everyone alwasy requested my mom to bring them back a bottle of vanilla, I could hear her clearly trying to explain that many of the bottles were made from less a superior blend, they insisted that it was fine. She always chuckled when we made the purchases. I never knew the fake stuff was made from waste products..thank you for such great info, I am sending your link to my little sister, she will love the info.
    sweetlife recently posted..Roasted Poblano Gordita Burger

  23. January 9, 2011 at 3:59 PM

    Love the story behind orchid flower. It has to do something with love! I was also surprised when I learnt that salep, which makes a perfect winter drink, is made from orchid bulbs. I thought orchid is just a lovely flower until then.

    Vanilla bean is not common here, you can’t find them at markets. We have the powdered version though. And I love to use this lovely flavor in different ways.

  24. OysterCulture
    January 9, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    KM – Interesting to know that vanilla extract is so dear in the PH. My sister-in-law just moved back and that might be a good addition to a care package,

    Lisa – The work involved was indeed a surprise.

    MoS – I try to be as thorough as possible =)

    Gera – The production and how it shifted was an interesting story. Happy New Years to you!

    Rosa – Happy New Year to you too!

    Lori – I knew it was expensive too, but before my research would not have nailed it as #2,

    Christine – That part just shocked me, but also helped explain some of the vanilla notes you get in wines that have been aged in wood casts.

    ToB – Wow, that’s high standards to live up to.

    Tammy, glad you liked it,

    Louise – Vanilla sugar is a favorite here as well, it just makes everything taste better.

    Chef E – Maybe because its so universal that now its expected to be in the flavor, if its left out, people might say, “now if only had a hint of vanilla”

    Tigerfish – Same to you – Happy New Years!

    Azita – I agree, just the scent puts me in a better place.

    Sweetlife – Happy to help, and what a great story about your mom – she knew what was going on!

    Zerrin – Interesting that the powder form is more common for you, sometime I’d be happy to get you real vanilla pods and the extract. I’d love to see what you do with them.

  25. January 15, 2011 at 11:37 AM

    there are times when I think, if there was a fire and I had a few seconds to grab a few things, what would I take? a few pieces of jewelry from my grandmother, old photos, and my jar of homemade vanilla. I spent a small fortune a few years ago buying hundreds of vanilla beans from a vanilla bean dealer (this woman who walks around to SF restaurants with a backpack full of beans – not sure how she got them in the country, but I’m not asking…). Anyway after sometime they were losing their freshness and I made jars of vanilla extract for all the cooks in my extended family. My jar is one of my most prized possessions.

    I know Mexican vanilla is always questionable, and since we are getting more into tonka beans wondering if I can make some sort of tonka bean extract at home? What do you think? Should I worry about the ban on it?! I can wait for the post for answers =).
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..Banana Nut Monkey Bread

  26. January 16, 2011 at 8:31 PM

    This is a great article! I never realized what artificial vanilla was to start with, and to learn that there are so many varieties of vanilla bean, well, that’s really neat. I did not know that the wine barrel that offers the “vanilla notes” was also the same thing in the artificial vanilla either. Thanks for the super post.
    weirdcombos recently posted..chickpea falafel

  27. OysterCulture
    January 16, 2011 at 8:38 PM

    Gastro – Wow, a vanilla bean dealer wandering the streets of SF, I will be on the lookout. Next time your up and we’re in the Mission, I’m going to have to take you to an ice cream shop where along with the ice cream they give you a vanilla bean – that almost makes the ice cream free!

    WC – Glad you liked it, I learned a lot from doing the research. I was also surprised by the connection between vanilla tastes in wine and the artifical wines.

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