Did you know that by law, in the United States, if a product is labelled “vanilla extract,” it must be derived from true vanilla? Whether or not manufacturers adhere to this is another topic, though. While most people love the flavor, others don’t. Either way, here are some exciting vanilla facts you probably didn’t know.

1. Vanillas Are Hand Pollinated

Vanillas mostly flower during the spring. Interestingly, unlike many flowering plants, vanilla plant flowers must each be hand-pollinated within 12 hours after they open. Over time, there have been reports that orchid bees can help with vanilla flower pollination, but evidence is always lacking. This makes hand pollination the only viable method to date.

2. A 12-Year-Old Slave Boy Discovered Vanillas Could Be Hand Pollinated

For many years, people could not grow vanilla as they didn’t know they could be hand-pollinated. In 1841, a 12-year-old enslaved boy called Edmond Albius discovered that the plant flowers could be manually pollinated. Over time, a French botanist, Jean Michel Claude Richard, tried to claim that he had discovered the technique but was called out.

3. Vanilla Can Cause Dermatitis

When the sap of vanilla orchids comes into contact with the skin, it can cause mild to severe dermatitis. Medical experts attribute this to the calcium oxalate crystals found in the orchids. Vanilla farmers mostly suffer from skin disease, so they must wear protective clothing.

4. It Is the Only Edible Fruit from the Orchid Family

Even though orchids are the largest family of flowering plants, vanilla is the only edible fruit. Over 150 species of vanilla are available, each with distinct color, flavor, and aroma.

5. Vanilla Extract Is Alcoholic

From research and past recorded incidences, vanilla extracts are alcoholic. In fact, taking an ounce of vanilla extract gives the same effect as drinking four shots of vodka.

6. Vanilla Is One of the Most Expensive Spices

If it were not for saffron, vanilla would have been the most expensive spice in the world. Various factors contribute to this. They include being labor-intensive, requiring specific weather conditions to thrive, and hand pollination. It takes nine months after pollination for vanilla beans to be ready for harvest.

7. Most of the Vanilla-Flavored Products Do Not Contain Vanilla

black glass bottle beside white ceramic plate with bread

Because of how expensive natural vanilla is, most of the products advertised as vanilla-flavored do not actually contain the spice. These range from vanilla-flavored vodka to pudding and wafers. Products that contain real vanilla are pretty costly.

8. There Are Artificial Vanilla Products

Since vanilla plant flowers require hand pollination, they are not very sustainable, especially for commercial purposes. As such, there are artificial vanilla products, most containing vanillin produced synthetically from lignin, a wood polymer. However, given that vanillin is only one of 171 aromatic components found in the real vanilla bean, products made from artificial vanilla lack in quality.

9. Vanilla Is a Byword for Blandness

Even though vanilla is one of the most complex flavor, it is somehow associated with blandness. When someone says “plain vanilla game,” they mean the mat is boring, straightforward, or easy to predict. Interestingly, vanilla was previously considered rare, luxurious, and exotic for centuries, as should probably be the case.

10. Harvesting Vanilla Pods Is As Labor-Intensive As Pollinating Them

The whole process from planting to harvesting of vanilla is labor-intensive. Dark green pods are considered immature when harvesting, so they are not picked. Those with pale yellow discoloration beginning from the distal end are also unsuitable for harvesting. Usually, each fruit ripens alone, necessitating the need for daily harvesting.

11. Madagascar Is Among The Highest Producers of Vanilla

As anticipated, vanilla production isn’t great worldwide. Less than 10,000 tons are produced annually, with Madagascar among the primary cultivators; the country contributes about 39% of the world’s vanilla. However, due to poor farming practices, drought, and cyclones that affect farming in the country, there are concerns that vanilla yield will plummet further. Indonesia is also a notable vanilla producer.

12. President Thomas Jefferson Was the First to Bring Vanilla to the White House

Known as the Founding Father and the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was a true statesman. Besides that, he was famous for his love for vanilla; he was the first president to bring it to the White House. Over time, other presidents, including President George Washington, Barrack Obama, and Joe Biden, followed suit.

13. Vanilla Originated in Mexico

Records show that vanilla first grew in the wild around the Gulf of Mexico, some parts of Eduardo, and the Caribbean. The Totonac people first domesticated the plant, which has been cultivated since at least 1185. There are also speculations that the Olmecs might have been the first to use it as spice.

14. The Word “Vanilla” Loosely Translates to “Little Pod” in Spanish

Vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, which translates to “little pod.” Historians believe it was first used in English in 1754, when Philip Miller, a famous botanist, first alluded to it in his Gardener’s Dictionary.

15. Vanilla Farmers “Mark” Their Products

Because of how labor-intensive vanilla is, its farmers sometimes “mark” their beans using toothpick-sized instruments to prevent theft. They make tattoo-like markings to identify the owners, protecting their labor investment.

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Last Update: December 20, 2023