saturday spice: vanilla, botany of the bean

previous saturday spices:

cardamom [11/15/15]

cloves [12/05/15]

ginger [1/16/16]

vanilla [2/06/16] 



Aaaaaaand we’re back!


How are you?

For those of you who missed the previous episode of Saturday Spice, we covered the beginning of the history of vanilla, an orchid native to Mexico and now grown primarily on Madagascar. Today, let’s look at the science of the plant, and do our own little vanilla tasting.

First things first, I am the realest.

Now that that’s out of the way,




taxonomic classification

Vanilla Planifolia, Flat-Leaf Vanilla, thrives in humid habitats, so it only makes sense that the 4 main producers of vanilla are tropical regions: Madagascar, Mexico, Tahiti, and Indonesia. The genus vanilla is the only member of the orchidaceae family, one of the oldest families of flowering plants, that bears any fruit, the vanilla bean pod*.

*Unlike lima and pinto beans, “vanilla beans” are actually seed pods, and the phrase is a misnomer. Officially, they’re “vanilla pods.”

Taking one step up the household staircase, we can see that the orchids are a member of the Asparagales order, otherwise known as the “asparagus and orchid” order. So…vanilla is related to asparagus? That’s nasty.

But I joke. The distance between such flavorfully opposed species is vast, and the family includes a wide range of other common garden plants, bulbs, and flowers. Some other siblings of vanilla and asparagus are hyacinths, narcissi, aloe, garlic, and onions. I’m no taxonomist, but those all seem pretty far apart to me.

One more step up, one more league separated: the Asparagus order is a member of the superorder of Lilianae, a superorder of flowering plants (angiosperms.) Orchids produce flowers, and vanilla produces fruit. Therefore: angiosperm.

I’ll bet you my bottom dollar that lilies are also members of the Lilianae superorder.

I could go on and on up the family tree, but that would take ages (and I’m abysmal at tree-climbing), so here’s the rest of it, abridged:

Kingdom: Plantae

Subkingdom: Viridiplantae

Infrakingdom: Strep throat…I mean….Streptophyta (land plants)

Superdivision: Embryophyta

Division: Tracheophyta

Subdivision: Spermatophytina (seeding plants)

Class: Magnoliopsida


And you know the rest.


the orchid

The vanilla orchid is a fleshy climbing vine that uses roots to cling to other surfaces, and can grow over 30 meters in length. During only two months each year, the green flowers bloom in groups, and the make matters worse (vanilla is a very picky plant), the orchid grows only 10-20 degrees north and south of the equator.

¡Qué lástima, Alaska!

After blooming, the flowers last a mere 24 hours before they wilt and fall. If pollinated, the vanilla pod will grow up to 20 centimeters over the course of 4-6 weeks, then spend the next 8 months maturing before harvest. When the base of the green pod starts to turn brown, it’s reaping time.

The uncured (raw) pods contain no flavor, but thousands of seeds. The flavor we know and love develops during the curing and fermentation process (topic of a later article), and differs depending on where the plant is grown.

Vanilla is the 2nd most expensive spice in the world (1st is saffron), because the pollination process must be done by hand in countries where the Mellipona bee does not exist, and is extremely labor-intensive. The bee is native to Mexico, having co-evolved with the orchid, but since Albus’s discovery of a hand-pollination method that aids in growth of the fruit in other countries, the other vanilla-producing regions have been using long, wooden needles to pollinate the flowers.

Imagine all the vanilla bakers use. Now imagine all the vanilla plants that contribute to the product. And now imagine pollinating all of those plants with your index finger…all for a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

Vanilla is both the saffron and garlic of baking: precious and expensive, but among the most ubiquitous of all ingredients.




regions and varieties

There are four major vanilla-producing regions: the Bourbon Islands (Madagascar, etc.), Mexico, Tahiti, and Indonesia. 95% of the vanilla we consume is of the original species, planifolia, but 75% of the world’s vanilla crop is grown in the Bourbon Islands, which include Madagascar, Comoro, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Réunion.

The vanilla that we imagine when we dream of vanilla, the sweet, warm, creamy fragrance, is Bourbon vanilla from Africa. Hailing from the same species of orchid are Indonesian, woody, smoky, and ideal in chocolates, and Mexican (duh), creamy with a hint of spice. Mexican vanilla makes up the smallest percentage of the world’s crop, ironically.

Slightly more aggressive than its African counterpart, Mexican vanilla shines the most in sauces, like salsa and barbecue sauce, and pairs well with other bitter spices, like cloves and cinnamon.

The highest quality of vanilla, Bourbon vanilla is ideal for dishes where the bean isn’t the star of the show, but rather a complement to other flavors: chocolate chip cookies where the chocolate and brown sugar shine through, blueberry muffins that showcase the fruit and the buttermilk, or buttery shortbread.

Tahitian vanilla, on the other hand, is its own species, vanilla tahitensis, a hybrid of two older species of the orchidThe pod of Tahitian vanilla is plumper than that of planifolia, with a sweeter, cherry-like flavor. There are fewer seeds and less of the vanillin compound, so a slightly-reduced vanilla flavor, with hints of anise and fruit. As a result, Tahitian vanilla is best in dishes where the bean is the belle: custards, creams, syrups, and really anything with “vanilla” in the name.

Also, candles.

The next time you’re making crème brûlée, try scraping the seeds from a Tahitian vanilla pod into the custard.


This was fun. Let’s hang out more often,

Nick P.



Earthy DelightsA Brief History of Vanilla. 

KEW: Royal Botanical Gardens. Vanilla Planifolia.

Kitchen Daily. “Types of Vanilla: Mexican, Tahitian, and Madagascar.” Huffington Post Taste. 2012 Aug. 31.

Ruggiero, Jocelyn. “The 4 Kinds of Vanilla Beans to Know.” Food & Wine. 2015 July 23.

Rupp, Rebecca. “The History of Vanilla.” National Geographic: The Plate. 2014 Oct. 23.

Schneider, Caitlin. “The Flavorful History of Vanilla.” 2015 Oct. 6. mental_floss.

Spiegel, Alison. “It’s About Time You Knew Exactly Where Vanilla Comes From.” HuffPost Taste. Huffington Post. Online. 2014 Nov. 6.

Vanilla’s Origins. Nielsen-Massey Vanillas.

“Vanilla”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. 08 Mar. 2016


upcoming spices:

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