(Vanilla planifolia)

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) is the only spice that comes from the orchid
Cured Vanilla Beans
Cured Vanilla Beans
family (Orchidaceae). Vanilla is a perennial vine that is native to the humid tropical rain forests of Central America and Mexico. It produces elongate fruits or capusules, commonly called "pods", that are processed into vanilla beans. Its primary use is vanilla flavoring.

Scientific Classifaction:
V. planifolia


Vanilla Vine
Vanilla Vine
The Plant:
Vanilla is a herbaceous vine that is perenial and climbs up an existing tree. It grows to around 10-15m. The vine supports itself on the host plant with aerial roots. The roots are produced all along the stem and are opposite of the flowers. It has flowers that our greenish-yellow and can be pollinated naturally by certain bees and hummingbirds. These flowers are very fragarant, waxy and large. The plant opens three or four flowers at a time and if they remain unpollinated they only last about one day. The leaves are flat and fleshy and have a short stem. They are bright green and vary between elliptical and lanceolate shape.

Vanilla Flower
Vanilla Flower

The Fruit:
Vanilla produces "pods" or "beans" which are contained in the capsule. The "pod" is pendulous, and cylindrical but three-angled in shape. It reaches 10-25cm in length and about 1.5cm in diameter, at harvest size. These "pods" are picked when they are still green and are used in order to obtain the vanilla flavoring.


Vanilla was an important commodity among the Aztecs. They used the vanilla beans as flavoring, perfume, medicine and means of tribute to their gods. It is belived that Bernal Diaz, a Spanish explorer with Cortes, was the first European to report the use of vanilla. Vanilla was brought back to Spain and quickly spread throughout Europe. Today Vanilla orchids are cultivated in Madagascar, the islands of the Indian Ocean, and Mexico. Currently, Madagascar is the leading producer of vanilla in the world.

Worldwide Production of Vanilla
Worldwide Production of Vanilla

The Curing Process (Domestication):

Vanilla Beans Being Cured
Vanilla Beans Being Cured
First the vanilla orchids are hand-pollinated to ensure good pod production.The pods are picked while they are still green and then begin the traditional curing process, which takes several months.

Stage 1: The sweating process involves heating the pods in the sun and then wrapping them in blankets over night.

Stage 2: The slowing drying process allows the final aroma to develop.

Stage 3: The final curing process involves the production of vanillin (crystalline compound synthesized during curing) by the vanilla plant.

When the vanilla beans are properly cured the pods turn black. At this point the vanilla can be extracted from the beans.
*Pure vanilla extract contains more than just vanillin, other flavoring compounds are leached out of the bean and contribute to the final extract.


The orchidaceae is one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world. There are 700 genera in the family Orchidaceae and approximately 20,000 species. Of the 20,000 species, around 110 species come from the vanilla genus.


Levetin, Estelle, and Karen McMahon. Plants and Society. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2007. Print.

"Vanilla Beans / Pods from Vanilla Plantations Of Australia -Vanilla Beans Botany-100% Organically Grown Tahitian and Bourbon Vanilla Beans/Pods." Vanilla Beans/Pods from Vanilla Plantations Of Australia -About Vanilla Beans-100% Organically Grown Tahitian and Bourbon Vanilla Beans/Pods. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <>.