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Vanilla: a few words of history

Among more than 25 000 different sorts of orchids existing around the world, and coming originally from South and Central America, only one hundred varieties produce the edible fruits which we call vanilla pods.

They were discovered by western civilizations in the early 16th century, in the wake of the discovery of the New World achieved by Christopher Columbus and then by Hernan Cortes during the conquest of the Aztec Empire in the year 1518. The latter then brought the first vanilla pods and vanilla plants back to the Spanish royal court.

 

Actually, there are about 110 vanilla species in the world, among which three only are cultivated for their aromatic pods:
-    Vanilla planifolia
-    Vanilla pompona
-    Vanilla tahitensis

Concerning the species Vanilla planifolia, several morphotypes or cultivars exist (it is not really proper to use the term “variety” because, in order to do so, it is needed to file a Proprietary Variety Certificate, yet on the website Mohea.fr, we commonly use that term so that everyone be able to understand the differences between vanillas; the term “cultivar” is used mainly by professionals: producers, preparers and retailers):
-        “mansa” in Mexico
-   In the Indian Ocean, you can find the “Mexican” morphotypes ( also called “blue”), “classical”, the most widely cultivated, and the rare morphotypes “needle” and “big vanilla”.

Concerning Vanilla pompona, there are the following sub-species:
-      Vanilla pompona pompona in Mexico,
-      Vanilla pompona grandiflora in the area going from Venezuela to Brazil,
-      Vanilla pompona pittieri in the area going from Salvador to Costa Rica

Concerning Vanilla tahitensis, the cultivars existing are:
-    « tahiti »,
-     « haapape » (the 2 most cultivated),
-     « rea rea »,
-     « parahurahu »,
-     « potiti »,
-    « oviri »,
-    « puroini »,
-    « poura »,
-    « paraauti »,
-    « pupa »,
-    « ofe Ofe »,
-     etc…


Central America and Mexico thus became the chief vanilla production centers worldwide. Within two hundred and fifty years, numerous attempts to produce vanilla pods (outside Mexico and Central America) turned out to be vain. Yet, those failures had the positive effect to spread different species of vanilla (vanilla planifolia, vanilla fragans, vanilla pomposa or vanilla orodata) throughout the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, but as a decorative plant, since unfortunately, the much coveted pods were so difficult to produce.

 

The year 1841 represented a breakthrough in the production of vanilla pods, and consequently, the end of that period of successive failures, thanks to a twelve-year-old Creole kid who lived in the Bourbon Island (the former name of the French island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean). Indeed, the young Edmond created the method of artificial pollination which has been used in plantations since that time. The first commercialized vanilla pods were thus called after the name of the place: the Bourbon Island. Edmond wasn’t freed from slavery before 1848 [when slavery was abolished in French colonies] and he was given the name of Albius as a late compensation. 

 

 Some original vanillas (from Mexico) then grew naturally on the soil of the Reunion island and were carried from island to island across the Indian Ocean: from Reunion to Madagascar in 1871, Mauritius, Comoros and particularly Mayotte in 1891, the Seychelles in 1866, Ceylon in1912.

As for vanillas from Indonesia, they would come from plants which were taken from the Belgian city of Anvers in 1820.


The current Tahitian vanilla would thus be an exception, since the “marriages” (method of cross-breeding) between the original varieties of vanilla and those which became “acclimatized” since they were introduced in the numerous high islands composing the French Polynesia resulted in the creation of about fifteen cultivars characterized by aniseed aromas and subtle flavors.

One hybrid sort exists, in French Polynesia only, which is called vanilla tahitensis, the result of a mixing between vanilla planifolia and probably vanilla orodata. We don’t know whether the latter comes from Polynesia, in the wake of the importation of several species (Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla pompona or others), or from Mexico (the original place of both species Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla orodata).

 
Vanilla tahitensis (from Tahiti) is also present in the Cook Islands and in Papua New Guinea.


In the Pacific Ocean, you can also find Vanilla planifolia: Tonga, Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Australia and Hawaï. 


In Africa: Uganda, Tanzania and Congo (DRC), in China, Vanilla planifolia is cultivated.


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