Now that I am deep into this project, I am surprised at the amount of overlap between botany, human sexuality, and American history. The founding fathers had quite a hand in the importation and exportation of plants for reasons of “health.” The story of vanilla is no different. Of course, like most history involving the formation of America, the native peoples had been aware of and utilizing vanilla for hundreds of years before Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers showed up.
Vanilla (V. planifolia) is a species of orchid that is native to Mesoamerica. It rarely flowers, and when it does, pollination must occur within 12 hours of the flower opening to produce the coveted “bean” in which the vanillin compound is produced. In the wild, the Vanilla orchid has co-evolved with the Mexican Stingless Bee – the bee is the only known pollinator and resulted in Mexico being the only exporter of Vanilla until a process for hand pollination was discovered in 1841. Even now, there are only a few suitable climates for growing the orchid and planting to production can take upwards of 5 years, making vanilla second only to saffron in price of spices. Continue reading