What is Vanilla
Vanilla is a tropical vine of the species Planifolia Orchid which has an edible pod and a lifespan of 10 years and is a prolific climber. When found in the wild, the orchid will grow to the top of the tallest tree and when grown in a greenhouse, it needs strong support such as bamboo poles. The Vanilla Orchid has its origins in Mexico from a town called Veracruz. After its discovery by European explorers in the early 1500s, the vanilla bean was exported to the elite in Europe where they enjoyed this new exotic essence. But it wasn't until three hundred years later in 1836 when Morin discovered that a specialized bee, the Melipona bee, native to Mexico was needed to pollinate the flower. In 1841 a slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion Island discovered how to efficiently hand pollinate the Vanilla Orchid making the vanilla into a viable commercial crop away from its native Mexico. The discovery of hand pollination leads to the Vanilla Orchid being widely distributed to many tropical colonial locations around the world including the Mauritius and Bourbon Islands, Tahiti, Madagascar, Indonesia, and India.
Over the centuries there have been several varieties of vanilla that dominate the commercial market, these are Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla from Africa, known for their creamy, sweet, smooth and mellow flavor; Indonesian Vanilla, considered woody, astringent with phenolic flavors; Mexican Vanilla, known for its creamy, sweet, smooth and spicy flavors; Tahitian Vanilla beans with its flowery and fruity, anisic and smooth flavors; and more recent to the market, Indian Vanilla.
Tahitian Vanilla is the name for the French Polynesian Vanilla which genetic analysis suggests is a hybrid from Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Odorata. This Guatemala vanilla species was introduced to the French colony of Polynesia by the French Admiral François-Alphonse Hamelin transporting this vanilla on Spanish Manila Galleon trading ships—and now, we find this Tahitian Vanilla has found its way back to the Americas in Ecuador where we are once again creating new plantations for this amazing orchid.
Pioneering the commercialization of Tahitian Vanilla in Ecuador in 2003, the owners faced some initial technical challenges. Initially, the vanilla was grown in an outdoor environment—but this proved to be quite problematic and was short lived. While outdoor growing is a common method on farms, problems with growing the vanilla outdoors include smaller yields, general crop damage, damage from pests, and the inability to regulate the sun and control the correct levels of humidity. So, the outdoor growing method was scrapped and now the orchids are now grown in a series of greenhouses.
The flower of Vanilla Orchid blooms just once a year and the flower only lasts for one morning—from until about noon. When the flower is in bloom during this short time, it must be hand pollinated otherwise the opportunity for the orchid to produce its fruit is lost until the orchid blooms again the next year. In the Vanilla Orchids' native Mexican environment, the specialized Melipona bee would do the work of pollinating the flower. Hand pollination requires a gentle touch which is why this process is traditionally done by the delicate hands of a woman. First, using a toothpick it is necessary to remove the lower lip of the flower, then carefully the pollen is introduced from the anther to the stigma by gently bringing the pollen from the anther in contact with the nectar found the stigma. In some instances, it might also be possible for certain hummingbirds to pollinate the flower as well—but for commercial production, hand pollination is always used. If the pollination was successful the flower will close but remain attached to the vine for a period of time. It will take from 9–12 months to produce the vanilla pods and another flower.
Everyone is very pleased to see that the investment of time and capital in this venture has paid off and that this Ecuadorian produced vanilla is being well received internationally. A new market for Ecuador has been created and exports of fine Tahitian Vanilla are being sent to exclusive chefs and gourmet markets in countries like France, Italy, and Germany—all well known for their high culinary standards. There is high demand for this vanilla around the world and soon will be expanding into other European countries, as well as expanding into Asian and Oceania. The diversity of climates in Ecuador and the adaptability of the Vanilla Orchid has made this experimental venture a big success. It has brought more jobs to the local community, opened up avenues for others to create vanilla plantations in Ecuador knowing they can successfully bring this product to the competitive and demanding international market.