Vanilla, Vanilla planifolia, is actually an orchid—the only orchid that produces something used for food. Unlike other orchids, it is also a fast-growing vine. The plant originated in Central America and was used by the ancient Maya as an additive to cacao beverages, although really very little is known about how they used it or how they cured the pods.
The Maya wildcrafted their vanilla, which was pollinated by a special type of bee, the Melipona Bee. The Maya—past and present—use this stingless bee's honey medicinally. Keeping these bees and producing the honey is an ancient artisanal skill that is only practiced in southern Mexico and Guatemala.
Melipona bees are not present in any of the other vanilla growing areas, so vanilla is hand-pollinated in most of the places where it is grown. At the Vanillery of Kaua'i in Hawaii, all of their vanilla is hand-pollinated. Each flower only lasts several hours, so pollination has to be done every morning prior to the flower wilting. If the flowers aren't pollinated, they will die without producing a vanilla pod.
Whole vanilla beans fresh from the vine are green. Cured vanilla beans are dark brown or nearly black. Vanilla extract is a dark brown color due to the alcohol drawing the color out of the beans.
Vanilla is most commonly grown in Mexico, Madagascar, Réunion, the South Pacific, South America, Central America, and Hawaii.
There are 3 types of vanilla, from species of vanilla:
Mexican vanilla is from the same plant, Vanilla planifolia, as Bourbon vanilla. The difference being that Mexican vanilla is pollinated by the stingless Melipona bees.
The fruit from Vanilla planifolia that is grown outside of Mexico where the bees do not live, must be hand-pollinated.
No, bourbon vanilla is a species of vanilla from the Vanilla planifolia plant. The name comes from the island of Bourbon in the Caribbean where cultivation of vanilla by westerners was pioneered in the 18th century. It has nothing to do with bourbon, the alcoholic spirit. This is a common misconception.
Vanilla is very seasonal in how it grows, although the seasonality differs depending on the region. In Hawaii, the plants flower in spring from March through June. The flowers that are pollinated will produce a pod that will be ripe the following winter, so it takes about 9-10 months for a pod to ripen. Pods are harvested from January to May then put through the curing process, available for use starting in July. So, the total process from flower to availability is at least 14 months.
Vanilla beans are used to make vanilla extract when soaked in a clear, tasteless alcohol, like vodka for about two months.
Many people use the whole beans to make infusions. Vanilla powder and vanilla sugar are commonly used as flavorings for ice cream, coffee, and so much more.
Whole vanilla beans—beans that have been cured— will last at least a year. It is best to store them in a dark cabinet out of direct sunlight in an airtight glass jar. Do not refrigerate as they can develop mold because of the humidity in the environment.
Pure vanilla extract has an indefinite shelf life. We do recommend storing it out of direct sunlight.
Please refer to packaging for storage recommendations on other vanilla flavored products.
Vanilla itself is not known to be harmful to dogs, but vanilla extract can be due to the high alcohol content.
Vanilla extract can stain your clothes, but if you treat it quickly, you shouldn't have a problem removing the stain using your normal stain removal methods.