Will you be doing holiday baking this season? If so, chances are your recipes will include vanilla, an often overlooked kitchen staple, with a name that can be synonymous with bland or uninteresting. But how vanilla gets to our pantry shelves is really quite a feat, in fact, it is anything but vanilla.
Pure vanilla extract is derived from the orchid Vanilla planifolia, a rambling, vigorous vine which grows on tree trunks, can reach 75′ and is native to Mexico and Central America. The plant’s fragrant, yellow to green flowers bloom for exactly one day and must be pollinated while in full bloom in order to produce a vanilla bean. Adding to the pollination complexity, in the wild, each flower has less than a 1% chance of being visited by the plant-specific pollinator, the stingless bee of the genus Melapona. Given these odds, commercial vanilla producers employ a hand pollination technique. Manual pollination was first attempted in the 1840’s by a clever twelve year old boy who worked in vanilla fields on the island of Réunion, east of Madagascar. Hundreds of years later, essentially the same labor-intensive process is still used at commercial plantations.
The flowers are self fertile – containing both male and female parts. The pollination process involves moving pollen from the flower’s anther to the stigma with a toothpick or finger. If successful, in 5-9 months the flower will produce a green bean-like fruit which will be picked and fermented before becoming the dark brown, prized vanilla pod. Once the pods are dried, they are steeped in an alcohol and water mixture to create the extract we bake with and enjoy as an aromatic in perfumes and household products. This video shows the pollination process – not a job for unsteady hands! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOAi2WeLsCs
A few more vanilla facts:
- The hand pollination process accounts for 40% of the production cost of vanilla, which is why vanilla is so pricey.
- The FDA has strict standards for vanilla production. A gallon of extract must contain more than 13 ounces of ground vanilla beans and have at least 35% alcohol.
- Since the vanilla plant is not a legume, the” beans” are not beans at all. They are actually pods.
- Spiders don’t like vanilla, so the pods can be used to keep these pests away.
- Vanillin is an essential compound in vanilla. Surprisingly, it is also found in potatoes.
- Artificial vanilla is created in a laboratory with by-products of the paper industry. That sure doesn’t sound tasty!
Wishing you a happy holiday season, filled with joy, laughter and new found respect for that humble bottle of vanilla!
Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener