Vanilla (Orchid Family)
Vanilla pompona (Orchidaceae)
Origin: Mexico and Central America
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens focuses on epiphytic plants and not any specific family; but, if there’s one family we are known for, it is the orchid family (Orchidaceae). The largest family of flowering plants in the world, and one of the most cultivated and hybridized, almost all orchids are grown for their physical beauty. The one group that has real utilitarian use throughout history is Vanilla. Three species make up the commercial vanilla industry; Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitensis. Vanilla pompona, whose use pre-dates the Aztec civilization, is blooming right now in the Tropical Conservatory. It grows overhead on the wooden trellis about mid-house. Look up, and keep an eye out for the pale yellow flowers and the beginnings of the delicious pods.
Mexico had a monopoly on growing vanilla for hundreds of years. A mountain bee, indigenous to the area of Mexico in which the orchid grew, was the only known pollinator of the plant. No matter how well plantations around the world could grow the vine, no one could get it to produce the precious “beans.” Vanilla beans are not beans at all, but the seed pod of an orchid. In fact, the black specks you see in high-quality vanilla are actually orchid seeds.
Then in 1841 Edmund Albius, a twelve-year-old french slave, discovered a way of hand-pollinating the flowers with a sliver of bamboo, which gave rise to a whole new plantation system around the world. Up to 90% of the world’s vanilla is now grown in Madagascar. Vanillin, the aromatic compound which can be synthesized using waste from the pulp and paper industry, is only one of 171 aromatic components found in the natural product. There really is no substitute for good vanilla.
Make sure to check in next week to learn about another of our permanent conservatory plants, and one that goes quite well with vanilla: chocolate!
Text by David Troxell