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Think of all of the foods you eat that have vanilla in them. What about all of the perfumes and air fresheners that are scented with vanilla? Did you know that vanilla is actually a fleshy climbing vine from the orchid family, the largest family of flowering plants in the world? It can get up to 100 feet long. The vanilla fruit is the only edible fruit of the entire orchid family.

There are about 150 varieties of vanilla in the world, although there are only two types that are actually used in the food and perfumes that you use at home. The flowers that produce the vanilla fruit are large, have a yellow greenish color, and occur in groups of twenty or more. They only last one day before they die.

The Totonaca people of the Gulf Coast of Mexico were probably the first people to cultivate vanilla. They taught many other indigenous people how to grow vanilla during MesoAmerican times, and they continue to cultivate the fruit that they consider was given to them by the gods. In Peru, vanilla was first used as a flavoring by the Amerindians who cultivated it long before the Spanish explorers arrived.

Vanilla is the world's most labor-intensive agricultural crop, which is why it's so expensive at the grocery store. It will take up to three years after the vines are planted before the first flowers appear. The fruits, which resemble big green beans, must remain on the vine for nine months in order to completely develop their signature aroma. However, when the beans are harvested, they have neither flavor nor fragrance. They develop these distinctive properties during the preparation. When the beans are harvested, they are treated with hot water or heat and are then placed in the sun every day for weeks to months until they have shrunk to 20% of their original size. After this process is complete, the beans are sorted for size and quality. Then they will rest for a month or two to finish developing their full flavor and fragrance. By the time they are shipped around the world, their aroma is quite remarkable!

The United States is the world's largest consumer of vanilla, followed by Europe. About 1400 tons of dried vanilla is produced worldwide each year. Our worldwide interest in natural vanilla has grown considerably in the past several years, however, and the current annual demand is for 2200 tons of vanilla. Vanilla is not only used as a flavor in foods and beverages, but also in perfumes. It's also used in many industrial applications such as a flavoring for medicines and as a fragrance to conceal the strong smell of rubber tires, paint, and cleaning products. Because vanilla is so much in demand, and because it's so expensive, synthetics are often used instead of natural vanilla. In fact, 97% of vanilla used as a flavor and fragrance is synthetic.

Vanilla Flower


When vanilla is grown commercially, humans manually pollinate the flowers.

The vanilla vine is a kind of orchid.

Today, most vanilla is grown for commercial purposes.

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