The Mysterious Orchid
The word "vanilla" comes from the Spanish "vaina", which means "pod". Vanilla comes from the vanilla tree, a climbing plant of humid tropical climates belonging to the orchid family. Originally from Mexico, where it was "discovered", or to be more exact "imported" by the conquistadors. However, it had been used for thousands of years by the Totomaques.
The vanilla pods were brought back to Europe to try to grow it, but without success. For more than 100 years, all the vanilla sold in Europe came exclusively from Mexico.
However, the situation was changed at the turn of the 19th century thanks to a man who would have become rich if he had not been a slave on Reunion Island. It is thanks to his genius that his "owners" became rich, as well as all the vanilla plantation owners. Indeed, vanilla flowers are hermaphroditic in the wild, they need the melipona bee or a hummingbird to reproduce, these animals being endemic to Central America and unable to adapt to other regions. At the time, the colonists thought that the Aztecs had cast a spell on vanilla and that for this reason, vanillas no longer produced fruit.
It was not until 1841 that Edmond Albius discovered the process of fertilization of the vanilla, nicely called "the marriage" between the male and female organs.
Edmond was born as a slave in 1829 to a landowner in Sainte-Suzanne who took the child from his mother's arms to give him as a gift to his brother, Ferréol Beaumont Bellier, who was also a landowner in Sainte-Suzanne and had a passion for botany. Ferréol Beaumont Bellier made him his gardener and explained to him how to maintain his garden.
At the age of 12, Edmond managed to produce vanilla pods in his master's garden, to the great surprise of the latter. No one had ever succeeded in fertilizing vanilla before. The young slave then explained the simple and very reliable process of hand pollination of vanilla. The news made a lot of noise and the method was adopted by many planters. Reunion Island will start to produce vanilla and to export it. However, cs he was a slave and a child, his discovery gave rise to many controversies, and the paternity of his discovery was disputed even after his death. The writings of his master testify today that it was indeed this young slave who made the fortune of many planters.
Since his status as a slave did not allow him to be recognized and paid for his discovery, after his emancipation in 1848, he became like other former slaves, free but poor and uneducated. Since the former slaves finally had a civil status, young Edmond was given the patronymic of Albius, in reference to the white colour alba of the vanilla flower. He then became a cook for a garrison officer. As his discovery brought him nothing, he died in poverty in 1880 in Sainte-Suzanne.
Reunion Island very quickly became a region known for its vanilla. Reunion Island (at the time Bourbon) even gave its name to the famous Bourbon vanilla of international renown, presented at the time for strategic reasons as the best vanilla in the world, and turning its back on Aztec vanilla.
Vanillas consumed in the world
Almost all the vanillas marketed in the world are derived from the Mexican vanilla, classified under the genus VANILLA. It is a liana of the orchid family, the only known edible orchid.
There are several hundred species of the VANILLA genus, but only five are currently cultivated to produce the pods we consume, some of which are intensively marketed, while others, less well known, are mostly consumed locally in certain regions of Central and South America.
- VANILLA PLANIFOLIA : originating from Mexico and by far the most commercialized in Madagascar, Reunion Island, etc. (Bourbon vanilla etc.) (Bourbon vanilla etc...)
- VANILLA x TAHITENSIS, this hybrid developed in Tahiti to fight against the root melt in the Polynesian volcanic lands, was made, it is assumed, from vanilla planifolia and another non-commercial species, probably vanilla odorata which was present in the colonies as an ornamental plant.
- VANILLA X COSTARITENSIS, a cross between planifolia and Pompona, a giant vanilla developed in Costa Rica, also to resist the acidity of volcanic soils.
- VANILLA POMPONA, or Vanillon, with a larger and shorter pod, very rare here and only traded locally, wherever it grows wild, from Mexico to Brazil.
- VANILLA CHAMISSONIS commercially named CERRADO (or Kalunga), a vanilla related to the Pompona used by the Kalunga peoples in the Cerrado region of Brazil. This vanilla is the new darling in Bresilia and Rio de Janeiro.